“The seeds by nature planted
Take a deep root in the soil, and though for a time
The trenchant share and tearing harrow may
Sweep all appearance of them from the surface,
Yet with the first warm rains of spring they’ll shoot,
And with their rankness smother the good grain.
Heaven grant, it mayn’t be so with him.”
The scene of this tale must now be changed to the little inn, which at that period, as at the present, was situated in the vicinity of Harley College. The site of the modern establishment is the same with that of the ancient; but everything of the latter that had been built by hands has gone to decay and been removed, and only the earth beneath and around it remains the same. The modern building, a house of two stories, after a lapse of twenty years, is yet unfinished. On this account, it has retained the appellation of the “New Inn,” though, like many who have frequented it, it has grown old ere its maturity. Its dingy whiteness, and its apparent superfluity of windows (many of them being closed with rough boards), give it somewhat of a dreary look, especially in a wet day.
The ancient inn was a house, of which the eaves approached within about seven feet of the ground; while the roof, sloping gradually upward, formed an angle at several times that height. It was a comfortable and pleasant abode to the weary traveller, both in summer and winter; for the frost never ventured within the sphere of its huge hearths; and it was protected from the heat of the sultry season by three large elms that swept the roof with their long branches, and seemed to create a breeze where there was not one. The device upon the sign, suspended from one of these trees, was a hand holding a long-necked bottle, and was much more appropriate than the present unmeaning representation of a black eagle. But it is necessary to speak rather more at length of the landlord than of the house over which he presided.
Hugh Crombie was one for whom most of the wise men, who considered the course of his early years, had predicted the gallows as an end before he should arrive at middle age. That these prophets of ill had been deceived was evident from the fact that the doomed man had now passed the fortieth year, and was in more prosperous circumstances than most of those who had wagged their tongues against him. Yet the failure of their forebodings was more remarkable than their fulfilment would have been.
He had been distinguished, almost from his earliest infancy, by those precocious accomplishments, which, because they consist in an imitation of the vices and follies of maturity, render a boy the favorite plaything of men. He seemed to have received from nature the convivial talents, which, whether natural or acquired, are a most dangerous possession; and, before his twelfth year, he was the welcome associate of all the idle and dissipated of his neighborhood, and especially of those who haunted the tavern of which he had now become the landlord. Under this course of education, Hugh Crombie grew to youth and manhood; and the lovers of good words could only say in his favor, that he was a greater enemy to himself than to any one else, and that, if he should reform, few would have a better chance of prosperity than he.
The former clause of this modicum of praise (if praise it may be termed) was indisputable; but it may be doubted, whether, under any circumstances where his success depended on his own exertions, Hugh would have made his way well through the world. He was one of those unfortunate persons, who, instead of being perfect in any single art or occupation, are superficial in many, and who are supposed to possess a larger share of talent than other men, because it consists of numerous scraps, instead of a single mass. He was partially acquainted with most of the manual arts that gave bread to others; but not one of them, nor all of them, would give bread to him. By some fatality, the only two of his multifarious accomplishments in which his excellence was generally conceded were both calculated to keep him poor rather than to make him rich. He was a musician and a poet. There are yet remaining in that portion of the country many ballads and songs — set to their own peculiar tunes — the authorship of which is attributed to him. In general, his productions were upon subjects of local and temporary interest, and would consequently require a bulk of explanatory notes to render them interesting or intelligible to the world at large. A considerable proportion of the remainder are Anacreontics; though, in their construction, Hugh Crombie imitated neither the Teian nor any other bard. These latter have generally a coarseness and sensuality intolerable to minds even of no very fastidious delicacy. But there are two or three simple little songs, into which a feeling and a natural pathos have found their way, that still retain their influence over the heart. These, after two or three centuries, may perhaps be precious to the collectors of our early poetry. At any rate, Hugh Crombie’s effusions, tavern-haunter and vagrant though he was, have gained a continuance of fame (confined, indeed, to a narrow section of the country), which many who called themselves poets then, and would have scorned such a brother, have failed to equal.
During the long winter evenings, when the farmers were idle round their hearths, Hugh was a courted guest; for none could while away the hours more skilfully than he. The winter, therefore, was his season of prosperity; in which respect he differed from the butterflies and useless insects, to which he otherwise bore a resemblance. During the cold months, a very desirable alteration for the better appeared in his outward man. His cheeks were plump and sanguine; his eyes bright and cheerful; and the tip of his nose glowed with a Bardolphian fire — a flame, indeed, which Hugh was so far a vestal as to supply with its necessary fuel at all seasons of the year. But, as the spring advanced, he assumed a lean and sallow look, wilting and fading in the sunshine that brought life and joy to every animal and vegetable except himself. His winter patrons eyed him with an austere regard; and some even practised upon him the modern and fashionable courtesy of the “cut direct.”
Yet, after all, there was good, or something that Nature intended to be so, in the poor outcast — some lovely flowers, the sweeter even for the weeds that choked them. An instance of this was his affection for an aged father, whose whole support was the broken reed — his son. Notwithstanding his own necessities, Hugh contrived to provide food and raiment for the old man: how, it would be difficult to say, and perhaps as well not to inquire. He also exhibited traits of sensitiveness to neglect and insult, and of gratitude for favors; both of which feelings a course of life like his is usually quick to eradicate.
At length the restraint — for such his father had ever been — upon Hugh Crombie’s conduct was removed by death; and then the wise men and the old began to shake their heads; and they who took pleasure in the follies, vices, and misfortunes of their fellow-creatures, looked for a speedy gratification. They were disappointed, however; for Hugh had apparently determined, that, whatever might be his catastrophe, he would meet it among strangers, rather than at home. Shortly after his father’s death, he disappeared altogether from the vicinity; and his name became, in the course of years, an unusual sound, where once the lack of other topics of interest had given it a considerable degree of notoriety. Sometimes, however, when the winter blast was loud round the lonely farm-house, its inmates remembered him who had so often chased away the gloom of such an hour, and, though with little expectation of its fulfilment, expressed a wish to behold him again.
Yet that wish, formed, perhaps, because it appeared so desperate, was finally destined to be gratified. One summer evening, about two years previous to the period of this tale, a man of sober and staid deportment, mounted upon a white horse, arrived at the Hand and Bottle, to which some civil or military meeting had chanced, that day, to draw most of the inhabitants of the vicinity. The stranger was well though plainly dressed, and anywhere but in a retired country town would have attracted no particular attention; but here, where a traveller was not of every-day occurrence, he was soon surrounded by a little crowd, who, when his eye was averted, seized the opportunity diligently to peruse his person. He was rather a thickset man, but with no superfluous flesh; his hair was of iron-gray; he had a few wrinkles; his face was so deeply sunburnt, that, excepting a half-smothered glow on the tip of his nose, a dusky yellow was the only apparent hue. As the people gazed, it was observed that the elderly men, and the men of substance, gat themselves silently to their steeds, and hied homeward with an unusual degree of haste; till at length the inn was deserted, except by a few wretched objects to whom it was a constant resort. These, instead of retreating, drew closer to the traveller, peeping anxiously into his face, and asking, ever and anon, a question, in order to discover the tone of his voice. At length, with one consent, and as if the recognition had at once burst upon them, they hailed their old boon-companion, Hugh Crombie, and, leading him into the inn, did him the honor to partake of a cup of welcome at his expense.
But, though Hugh readily acknowledged the not very reputable acquaintances who alone acknowledged him, they speedily discovered that he was an altered man. He partook with great moderation of the liquor for which he was to pay; he declined all their flattering entreaties for one of his old songs; and finally, being urged to engage in a game at all-fours, he calmly observed, almost in the words of an old clergyman on a like occasion, that his principles forbade a profane appeal to the decision by lot.
On the next Sabbath Hugh Crombie made his appearance at public worship in the chapel of Harley College; and here his outward demeanor was unexceptionably serious and devout — a praise which, on that particular occasion, could be bestowed on few besides. From these favorable symptoms, the old established prejudices against him began to waver; and as he seemed not to need, and to have no intention to ask, the assistance of any one, he was soon generally acknowledged by the rich as well as by the poor. His account of his past life, and of his intentions for the future, was brief, but not unsatisfactory. He said that, since his departure, he had been a seafaring man, and that, having acquired sufficient property to render him easy in the decline of his days, he had returned to live and die in the town of his nativity.
There was one person, and the one whom Hugh was most interested to please, who seemed perfectly satisfied of the verity of his reformation. This was the landlady of the inn, whom, at his departure, he had left a gay, and, even at thirty-five, a rather pretty wife, and whom, on his return, he found a widow of fifty, fat, yellow, wrinkled, and a zealous member of the church. She, like others, had, at first, cast a cold eye on the wanderer; but it shortly became evident to close observers, that a change was at work in the pious matron’s sentiments respecting her old acquaintance. She was now careful to give him his morning dram from her own peculiar bottle, to fill his pipe from her private box of Virginia, and to mix for him the sleeping-cup in which her late husband had delighted. Of all these courtesies Hugh Crombie did partake with a wise and cautious moderation, that, while it proved them to be welcome, expressed his fear of trespassing on her kindness. For the sake of brevity, it shall suffice to say, that, about six weeks after Hugh’s return, a writing appeared on one of the elm-trees in front of the tavern (where, as the place of greatest resort, such notices were usually displayed) setting forth that marriage was intended between Hugh Crombie and the Widow Sarah Hutchins. And the ceremony, which made Hugh a landholder, a householder, and a substantial man, in due time took place.
As a landlord, his general conduct was very praiseworthy. He was moderate in his charges, and attentive to his guests; he allowed no gross and evident disorders in his house, and practised none himself; he was kind and charitable to such as needed food and lodging, and had not wherewithal to pay — for with these his experience had doubtless given him a fellow-feeling. He was also sufficiently attentive to his wife; though it must be acknowledged that the religious zeal which had had a considerable influence in gaining her affections grew, by no moderate degrees, less fervent. It was whispered, too, that the new landlord could, when time, place, and company were to his mind, upraise a song as merrily, and drink a glass as jollily, as in the days of yore. These were the weightiest charges that could now be brought against him; and wise men thought, that, whatever might have been the evil of his past life, he had returned with a desire (which years of vice, if they do not sometimes produce, do not always destroy) of being honest, if opportunity should offer; and Hugh had certainly a fair one.
On the afternoon previous to the events related in the last chapter, the personage whose introduction to the reader has occupied so large a space was seated under one of the elms in front of his dwelling. The bench which now sustained him, and on which were carved the names of many former occupants, was Hugh Crombie’s favorite lounging-place, unless when his attentions were required by his guests. No demand had that day been made upon the hospitality of the Hand and Bottle; and the landlord was just then murmuring at the unfrequency of employment. The slenderness of his profits, indeed, were no part of his concern; for the Widow Hutchins’s chief income was drawn from her farm, nor was Hugh ever miserly inclined. But his education and habits had made him delight in the atmosphere of the inn, and in the society of those who frequented it; and of this species of enjoyment his present situation certainly did not afford an overplus.
Yet had Hugh Crombie an enviable appearance of indolence and ease, as he sat under the old tree, polluting the sweet air with his pipe, and taking occasional draughts from a brown jug that stood near at hand. The basis of the potation contained in this vessel was harsh old cider, from the widow’s own orchard; but its coldness and acidity were rendered innocuous by a due proportion of yet older brandy. The result of this mixture was extremely felicitous, pleasant to the taste, and producing a tingling sensation on the coats of the stomach, uncommonly delectable to so old a toper as Hugh.
The landlord cast his eye, ever and anon, along the road that led down the valley in the direction of the village: and at last, when the sun was wearing west-ward, he discovered the approach of a horseman. He immediately replenished his pipe, took a long draught from the brown jug, summoned the ragged youth who officiated in most of the subordinate departments of the inn, and who was now to act as hostler, and then prepared himself for confabulation with his guest.
“He comes from the sea-coast,” said Hugh to himself, as the traveller emerged into open view on the level road. “He is two days in advance of the post, with its news of a fortnight old. Pray Heaven he prove communicative!” Then, as the stranger drew nigher, “One would judge that his dark face had seen as hot a sun as mine. He has felt the burning breeze of the Indies, East and West, I warrant him. Ah, I see we shall send away the evening merrily! Not a penny shall come out of his purse — that is, if his tongue runs glibly. Just the man I was praying for — Now may the Devil take me if he is!” interrupted Hugh, in accents of alarm, and starting from his seat. He composed his countenance, however, with the power that long habit and necessity had given him over his emotions, and again settled himself quietly on the bench.
The traveller, coming on at a moderate pace, alighted, and gave his horse to the ragged hostler. He then advanced towards the door near which Hugh was seated, whose agitation was manifested by no perceptible sign, except by the shorter and more frequent puffs with which he plied his pipe. Their eyes did not meet till just as the stranger was about to enter, when he started apparently with a surprise and alarm similar to those of Hugh Crombie. He recovered himself, however, sufficiently to return the nod of recognition with which he was favored, and immediately entered the house, the landlord following.
“This way, if you please, sir,” said Hugh. “You will find this apartment cool and retired.”
He ushered his guest into a small room the windows of which were darkened by the creeping plants that clustered round them. Entering, and closing the door, the two gazed at each other a little space without speaking. The traveller first broke silence.
“Then this is your living self, Hugh Crombie?” he said. The landlord extended his hand as a practical reply to the question. The stranger took it, though with no especial appearance of cordiality.
“Ay, this seems to be flesh and blood,” he said, in the tone of one who would willingly have found it otherwise. “And how happens this, friend Hugh? I little thought to meet you again in this life. When I last heard from you, your prayers were said, and you were bound for a better world.”
“There would have been small danger of your meeting me there,” observed the landlord, dryly.
“It is an unquestionable truth, Hugh,” replied the traveller. “For which reason I regret that your voyage was delayed.”
“Nay, that is a hard word to bestow on your old comrade,” said Hugh Crombie. “The world is wide enough for both of us; and why should you wish me out of it?”
“Wide as it is,” rejoined the stranger, “we have stumbled against each other — to the pleasure of neither of us, if I may judge from your countenance. Methinks I am not a welcome guest at Hugh Crombie’s inn.”
“Your welcome must depend on the cause of your coming, and the length of your stay,” replied the landlord.
“And what if I come to settle down among these quiet hills where I was born?” inquired the other. “What if I, too, am weary of the life we have led — or afraid, perhaps, that it will come to too speedy an end? Shall I have your good word, Hugh, to set me up in an honest way of life? Or will you make me a partner in your trade, since you know my qualifications? A pretty pair of publicans should we be; and the quart pot would have little rest between us.”
“It may be as well to replenish it now,” observed Hugh, stepping to the door of the room, and giving orders accordingly. “A meeting between old friends should never be dry. But for the partnership, it is a matter in which you must excuse me. Heaven knows I find it hard enough to be honest, with no tempter but the Devil and my own thoughts; and, if I have you also to contend with, there is little hope of me.”
“Nay, that is true. Your good resolutions were always like cobwebs, and your evil habits like five-inch cables,” replied the traveller. “I am to understand, then, that you refuse my offer?”
“Not only that; but, if you have chosen this valley as your place of rest, Dame Crombie and I must look through the world for another. But hush! here comes the wine.”
The hostler, in the performance of another part of his duty, now appeared, bearing a measure of the liquor that Hugh had ordered. The wine of that period, owing to the comparative lowness of the duties, was of more moderate price than in the mother-country, and of purer and better quality than at the present day.
“The stuff is well chosen, Hugh,” observed the guest, after a draught large enough to authorize an opinion. “You have most of the requisites for your present station; and I should be sorry to draw you from it. I trust there will be no need.”
“Yet you have a purpose in your journey hither,” observed his comrade.
“Yes; and you would fain be informed of it,” replied the traveller. He arose, and walked once or twice across the room; then, seeming to have taken his resolution, he paused, and fixed his eye steadfastly on Hugh Crombie. “I could wish, my old acquaintance,” he said, “that your lot had been cast anywhere rather than here. Yet, if you choose it, you may do me a good office, and one that shall meet with a good reward. Can I trust you?”
“My secrecy, you can,” answered the host, “but nothing further. I know the nature of your plans, and whither they would lead me, too well to engage in them. To say the truth, since it concerns not me, I have little desire to hear your secret.”
“And I as little to tell it, I do assure you,” rejoined the guest. “I have always loved to manage my affairs myself, and to keep them to myself. It is a good rule; but it must sometimes be broken. And now, Hugh, how is it that you have become possessed of this comfortable dwelling and of these pleasant fields?”
“By my marriage with the Widow Sarah Hutchins,” replied Hugh Crombie, staring at a question which seemed to have little reference to the present topic of conversation.
“It is a most excellent method of becoming a man of substance,” continued the traveller; “attended with little trouble, and honest withal.”
“Why, as to the trouble,” said the landlord, “it follows such a bargain, instead of going before it. And for honesty — I do not recollect that I have gained a penny more honestly these twenty years.”
“I can swear to that,” observed his comrade. “Well, mine host, I entirely approve of your doings, and, moreover, have resolved to prosper after the same fashion myself.”
“If that be the commodity you seek,” replied Hugh Crombie, “you will find none here to your mind. We have widows in plenty, it is true; but most of them have children, and few have houses and lands. But now to be serious, — and there has been something serious in your eye all this while — what is your purpose in coming hither? You are not safe here. Your name has had a wider spread than mine, and, if discovered, it will go hard with you.”
“But who would know me now?” asked the guest.
“Few, few indeed!” replied the landlord, gazing at the dark features of his companion, where hardship, peril, and dissipation had each left their traces. “No, you are not like the slender boy of fifteen, who stood on the hill by moonlight to take a last look at his father’s cottage. There were tears in your eyes then; and, as often as I remember them, I repent that I did not turn you back, instead of leading you on.”
“Tears, were there? Well, there have been few enough since,” said his comrade, pressing his eyelids firmly together, as if even then tempted to give way to the weakness that he scorned. “And, for turning me back, Hugh, it was beyond your power. I had taken my resolution, and you did but show me the way to execute it.”
“You have not inquired after those you left behind,” observed Hugh Crombie.
“No — no; nor will I have aught of them,” exclaimed the traveller, starting from his seat, and pacing rapidly across the room. “My father, I know, is dead, and I have forgiven him. My mother — what could I hear of her but misery? I will hear nothing.”
“You must have passed the cottage as you rode hitherward,” said Hugh. “How could you forbear to enter?”
“I did not see it,” he replied. “I closed my eyes, and turned away my head.”
“Oh, if I had had a mother, a loving mother! if there had been one being in the world that loved me, or cared for me, I should not have become an utter castaway,” exclaimed Hugh Crombie.
The landlord’s pathos, like all pathos that flows from the winecup, was sufficiently ridiculous; and his companion, who had already overcome his own brief feelings of sorrow and remorse, now laughed aloud.
“Come, come, mine host of the Hand and Bottle,” he cried in his usual hard, sarcastic tone; “be a man as much as in you lies. You had always a foolish trick of repentance; but, as I remember, it was commonly of a morning, before you had swallowed your first dram. And now, Hugh, fill the quart pot again, and we will to business.”
When the landlord had complied with the wishes of his guest, the latter resumed in a lower tone than that of his ordinary conversation — “There is a young lady lately become a resident hereabouts. Perhaps you can guess her name; for you have a quick apprehension in these matters.”
“A young lady?” repeated Hugh Crombie. “And what is your concern with her? Do you mean Ellen Langton, daughter of the old merchant Langton, whom you have some cause to remember?”
“I do remember him; but he is where he will speedily be forgotten,” answered the traveller. “And this girl — I know your eye has been upon her, Hugh — describe her to me.”
“Describe her!” exclaimed Hugh with much animation. “It is impossible in prose; but you shall have her very picture in a verse of one of my own songs.”
“Nay, mine host, I beseech you to spare me. This is no time for quavering,” said the guest. “However, I am proud of your approbation, my old friend; for this young lady do I intend to take to wife. What think you of the plan?”
Hugh Crombie gazed into his companion’s face for the space of a moment, in silence. There was nothing in its expression that looked like a jest. It still retained the same hard, cold look, that, except when Hugh had alluded to his home and family, it had worn through their whole conversation.
“On my word, comrade!” he at length replied, “my advice is, that you give over your application to the quart pot, and refresh your brain by a short nap. And yet your eye is cool and steady. What is the meaning of this?”
“Listen, and you shall know,” said the guest. “The old man, her father, is in his grave.”
“Not a bloody grave, I trust,” interrupted the landlord, starting, and looking fearfully into his comrade’s face.
“No, a watery one,” he replied calmly. “You see, Hugh, I am a better man than you took me for. The old man’s blood is not on my head, though my wrongs are on his. Now listen: he had no heir but this only daughter; and to her, and to the man she marries, all his wealth will belong. She shall marry me. Think you her father will rest easy in the ocean, Hugh Crombie, when I am his son-inlaw?”
“No, he will rise up to prevent it, if need be,” answered the landlord. “But the dead need not interpose to frustrate so wild a scheme.”
“I understand you,” said his comrade. “You are of opinion that the young lady’s consent may not be so soon won as asked. Fear not for that, mine host. I have a winning way with me, when opportunity serves; and it shall serve with Ellen Langton. I will have no rivals in my wooing.”
“Your intention, if I take it rightly, is to get this poor girl into your power, and then to force her into a marriage,” said Hugh Crombie.
“It is; and I think I possess the means of doing it,” replied his comrade. “But methinks, friend Hugh, my enterprise has not your good wishes.”
“No; and I pray you to give it over,” said Hugh Crombie, very earnestly. “The girl is young, lovely, and as good as she is fair. I cannot aid in her ruin. Nay, more: I must prevent it.”
“Prevent it!” exclaimed the traveller, with a darkening countenance. “Think twice before you stir in this matter, I advise you. Ruin, do you say? Does a girl call it ruin to be made an honest wedded wife? No, no, mine host! nor does a widow either, else have you much to answer for.”
“I gave the Widow Hutchins fair play, at least, which is more than poor Ellen is like to get,” observed the landlord. “My old comrade, will you not give up this scheme?”
“My old comrade, I will not give up this scheme,” returned the other, composedly. “Why, Hugh, what has come over you since we last met? Have we not done twenty worse deeds of a morning, and laughed over them at night?”
“He is right there,” said Hugh Crombie, in a meditative tone. “Of a certainty, my conscience has grown unreasonably tender within the last two years. This one small sin, if I were to aid in it, would add but a trifle to the sum of mine. But then the poor girl!”
His companion overheard him thus communing with himself, and having had much former experience of his infirmity of purpose, doubted not that he should bend him to his will. In fact, his arguments were so effectual, that Hugh at length, though reluctantly, promised his cooperation. It was necessary that their motions should be speedy; for on the second day thereafter, the arrival of the post would bring intelligence of the shipwreck by which Mr. Langton had perished.
“And after the deed is done,” said the landlord, “I beseech you never to cross my path again. There have been more wicked thoughts in my head within the last hour than for the whole two years that I have been an honest man.”
“What a saint art thou become, Hugh!” said his comrade. “But fear not that we shall meet again. When I leave this valley, it will be to enter it no more.”
“And there is little danger that any other who has known me will chance upon me here,” observed Hugh Crombie. “Our trade was unfavorable to length of days, and I suppose most of our old comrades have arrived at the end of theirs.”
“One whom you knew well is nearer to you than you think,” answered the traveller; “for I did not travel hitherward entirely alone.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09