The Castle Inn
Copyright 1898 by Longmans, Green and Co.
ABOUT a hundred and thirty years ago, when the third George, whom our Grandfathers knew in his blind dotage, was a young and sturdy bridegroom; when old Q., whom 1810 found peering from his balcony in Piccadilly, deaf, toothless, and a skeleton, was that gay and lively spark, the Earl of March; when bore and boorish were words of haut ton, unknown to the vulgar, and the price of a borough was 5,000l.; when gibbets still served for sign-posts, and railways were not and highwaymen were—to be more exact, in the early spring of the year 1767, a traveling chariot-and-four drew up about five in the evening before the inn at Wheatley Bridge, a short stage from Oxford on the Oxford road. A gig and a couple of post-chaises, attended by the customary group of stablemen, topers, and gossips already stood before the house, but these were quickly deserted in favour of the more important equipage. The drawers in their aprons trooped out, but the landlord, foreseeing a rich harvest, was first at the door of the carriage, and opened it with a bow such as is rarely seen in these days.
‘Will your lordship please to alight?’ he said.
‘No, rascal!’ cried one of those within. ‘Shut the door!’
‘You wish fresh horses, my lord?’ the obsequious host replied. ‘Of course. They shall be—‘
‘We wish nothing,’ was the brisk answer. ‘D’ye hear? Shut the door, and go to the devil!’
Puzzled, but obedient, the landlord fell back on the servants, who had descended from their seat in front and were beating their hands one on another, for the March evening was chill. ‘What is up, gentlemen?’ he said.
‘Nothing. But we will put something down, by your leave,’ they answered.
‘Won’t they do the same?’ He cocked his thumb in the direction of the carriage.
“No. You have such an infernal bad road, the dice roll,’ was the answer. ‘They will finish their game in quiet. That is all. Lord, how your folks stare! Have they never seen a lord before?’
‘Who is it?’ the landlord asked eagerly. ‘I thought I knew his Grace’s face.’
Before the servant could answer or satisfy his inquisitiveness, the door of the carriage was opened in haste, and the landlord sprang to offer his shoulder. A tall young man whose shaped riding-coat failed to hide that which his jeweled hands and small French hat would alone have betrayed—that he was dressed in the height of fashion—stepped down. ‘A room and a bottle of your best claret,’ he said. ‘And bring me ink and a pen.’
‘Immediately, my lord. This way, my lord. Your lordship will perhaps honour me by dining here?’
‘Lord, no! Do you think I want to be poisoned?’ was the frank answer. And looking about him with languid curiosity, the young peer, followed by a companion, lounged into the house.
The third traveler—for three there were—by
a gesture directed the servant to close the carriage door, and, keeping his
seat, gazed sleepily through the window.
The loitering crowd, standing at a respectful distance, returned his
glances with interest, until an empty post-chaise, approaching from the
‘Ay, and I ha’ been stopped too,’ the postboy answered as he dropped his reins.
‘No!’ in a tone of surprise. ‘Was it Black Jack?’
‘Not he. ‘Twas a woman!’
A murmur of astonishment greeted the answer. The postboy grinned, and sitting easily in his pad prepared to enjoy the situation. ‘Ay, a woman!’ he said. ‘And a rare pair of eyes to that. What do you think she wanted, lads?’
‘The stuff, of course.’
‘Not she. Wanted one of them I took’—and he jerked his elbow contemptuously in the direction whence he had come—‘to fight a duel for her. One of they! Said, was he Mr. Berkeley, and would he risk his life for a woman.’
The head ostler stared. ‘Lord! And who was it he was to fight?’ he asked at last.
‘She did not say. Her spark maybe, that has jilted her.’
‘And would they, Jimmie?’
‘They? Shoo! They were Methodists,’ the postboy answered contemptuously. ‘Scratch wigs and snuff-colour. If she had not been next door to a Bess of Bedlam and in a main tantrum, she would have seen that. But “Are you Mr. Berkeley?” she says, all on fire like. And “Will you fight for a woman?” And when they shrieked out, banged the door on them. But I tell you she was a pretty piece as you’d wish to see. If she had asked me, I would not have said no to her.’ And he grinned.