The Stout Gentleman
by Washington Irving
A Stagecoach Romance
"I'll cross it though it
It was a rainy Sunday in the
gloomy month of November. I had been detained, in the course of a journey, by a
slight indisposition, from which I was recovering; but was still feverish, and
obliged to keep within doors all day, in an inn of a small town of Derby. A wet
Sunday in a country inn!—whoever has had the luck to experience one can alone
judge of my situation. The rain pattered against the casements; the bells tolled
for church with a melancholy sound. I went to the windows in quest of something
to amuse the eye; but it seemed as if I had been placed completely out of reach
of all amusement. The windows of my bedroom looked out among tiled roofs and
stacks of chimneys, while those of my sitting-room commanded a full view of the
stable-yard. I know of nothing more calculated to make a man sick of this world
than a stable-yard on a rainy day. The place was littered with wet straw that
had been kicked about by travellers and stable-boys. In one corner was a
stagnant pool of water, surrounding an island of muck; there were several
half-drowned fowls crowded together under a cart, among which was a miserable,
crest-fallen cock, drenched out of all life and spirit, his drooping tail matted,
as it were, into a single feather, along which the water trickled from his back;
near the cart was a half-dozing cow, chewing the cud, and standing patiently to
be rained on, with wreaths of vapor rising from her reeking hide; a wall-eyed
horse, tired of the loneliness of the stable, was poking his spectral head out
of a window, with the rain dripping on it from the eaves; an unhappy cur,
chained to a doghouse hard by, uttered something, every now and then, between a
bark and a yelp; a drab of a kitchen-wench tramped backward and forward through
the yard in patterns, looking as sulky as the weather itself; everything, in
short, was comfortless and forlorn, excepting a crew of hardened ducks,
assembled like boon companions round a puddle, and making a riotous noise over
I was lonely and listless, and
wanted amusement. My room soon became insupportable, I abandoned it, and sought
what is technically called the travellers' room. This is a public room set apart
at most inns for the accommodation of a class of wayfarers called travellers, or
riders; a kind of commercial knights-errant, who are incessantly scouring the
kingdom in gigs, on horseback, or by coach. They are the only successors that I
know of at the present day to the knights-errant of yore. They lead the same
kind of roving, adventurous life, only changing the lance for a driving-whip,
the buckler for a pattern-card, and the coat of mail for an upper Benjamin.
Instead of vindicating the charms of peerless beauty, they rove about, spreading
the fame and standing of some substantial tradesman, or manufacturer, and are
ready at any time to bargain in his name; it being the fashion nowadays to trade,
instead of fight, with one another. As the room of the hostel, in the good old
fighting-times, would be hung round at night with armor of wayworn warriors,
such as coats of mail, falchions, and yawning helmets, so the travellers' room
is garnished with the harnessing of their successors, with box-coats, whips of
all kinds, spurs, gaiters, and oil-cloth covered hats.
I was in hopes of finding some of
these worthies to talk with, but I was disappointed. There were, indeed, two or
three in the room; but I could make nothing of them. One was just finishing his
breakfast, quarrelling with his bread and butter, and huffing the waiter;
another buttoned on a pair of gaiters, with many execrations at Boots for not
having cleaned his shoes well; a third sat drumming on the table with his
fingers and looking at the rain as it streamed down the window-glass; they all
appeared infected by the weather, and disappeared, one after the other, without
exchanging a word.
I sauntered to the window, and
stood gazing at the people, picking their way to church, with petticoats hoisted
midleg high, and dripping umbrellas. The bell ceased to toll, and the streets
became silent. I then amused myself with watching the daughters of a tradesman
opposite; who, being confined to the house for fear of wetting their Sunday
finery, played off their charms at the front windows, to fascinate the chance
tenants of the inn. They at length were summoned away by a vigilant,
vinegar-faced mother, and I had nothing further from without to amuse me.
What was I to do to pass away the
long-lived day? I was sadly nervous and lonely; and everyting about an inn seems
calculated to make a dull day ten times duller. Old newpapers, smelling of beer
and tobacco-smoke, and which I had already read half a dozen times.
Good-for-nothing books, that were worse than rainy weather. I bored myself to
death with an old volume of the Lady's Magazine. I read all the
commonplace names of ambitious travellers scrawled on the panes of glass; the
eternal families of the Smiths, and the Browns, and the Jacksons, and the
Johnsons, and all the other sons; and I deciphered several scraps of fatiguing
inn-window poetry which I have met with in all parts of the world.
The day continued lowering and
gloomy; the slovenly, ragged, spongy cloud drifted heavily along; there was no
variety even in the rain: it was one dull, continued, monotonous patter—patter—patter,
excepting that now and then I was enlivened by the idea of a brisk shower, from
the rattling of the drops on a passing umbrella.
It was quite refreshing (if
I may be allowed a hackneyed phrase of the day) when, in the course of the
morning, a horn blew, and a stage-coach whirled through the street, with outside
passengers stuck all over it, cowering under cotton umbrellas, and seethed
together, and reeking with the steams of wet box-coats and upper Benjamins.
The sound brought out from their
lurking-places a crew of vagabond boys, and vagabond dogs, and the
carroty-headed hostler, and the nondescript animal ycleped Boots, and all the
other vagabond race that infest the purlieus of an inn; but the bustle was
transient; the coach again whirled on its way; and boy and dog, and hostler and
Boots, all slunk back again to their holes; the street again became silent, and
the rain continued to rain on. In fact, there was no hope of its clearing up;
the barometer pointed to rainy weather; mine hostess's tortoise-shell cat sat by
the fire washing her face, and rubbing her paws over her ears; and, on referring
to the Almanac, I found a direful prediction stretching from the top of the page
to the bottom through the whole month, "Expect—much—rain—about—this—time!"
I was dreadfully hipped. The hours
seemed as if they would never creep by. The very ticking of the clock became
irksome. At length the stillness of the house was interrupted by the ringing of
a bell. Shortly after I heard the voice of a waiter at the bar: "The stout
gentleman in No. 13 wants his breakfast. Tea and bread and butter, with ham and
eggs; the eggs not to be too much done."
In such a situation as mine, every
incident is of importance. Here was a subject of speculation presented to my
mind, and ample exercise for my imagination. I am prone to paint pictures to
myself, and on this occasion I had some materials to work upon. Had the guest
upstairs been mentioned as Mr. Smith, or Mr Brown, or Mr. Jackson, or Mr Johnson,
or merely as "The gentle man in No. 13," it would have been a perfect
blank to me. I should have thought nothing of it; but "The stout
gentleman!"—the very name had something in it of the picturesque. It at
once gave me the size; it embodied the personage to my mind's eye, and my fancy
did the rest.
He was stout, or, as some term it,
lusty; in all probability, therefore, he was advanced in life, some people
expanding as they grow old. By his breakfasting rather late, and in his own room,
he must be a man accustomed to live at his ease, and above the necessity of
early rising; no doubt, a round, rosy, lusty old gentleman.
There was another violent ringing.
The stout gentleman was impatient for his breakfast. He was evidently a man of
importance; "well to do in the world"; accustomed to be promptly
waited upon; of a keen appetite, and a little cross when hungry; "Perhaps,"
thought I, "he may be some London Alderman; or who knows but he may be a
Member of Paliament?"
The breakfast was sent up, and
there was a short interval of silence; he was, doubtless, making the tea.
Presently there was a violent ringing; and before it could be answered, another
ringing still more violent. "Bless me! what a choleric old gentleman!"
The waiter came down again in a huff. The butter was rancid, the eggs were
overdone, the ham was too salty; the stout gentleman was evidently nice in his
eating; one of those who eat and growl, and keep the waiter on the trot, and
live in a state militant with the household.
The hostess got into a fume. I
should observe that she was a brisk, coquettish woman; a little of a shrew, and
something of a slammerkin, but very pretty withal; with a nincompoop for a
husband, as shrews are apt to have. She rated the servants roundly for their
negligence in sending up so bad a breakfast, but said not a word against the
stout gentleman; by which I clearly perceived that he must be a man of
consequence, entitled to make a noise and to give trouble at a country inn.
Other eggs, and ham, and bread and butter were sent up. They appeared to be more
graciously received; at least there was no further complaint.
I had not made many turns about
the travellers' room, when there was another ringing. Shortly afterward there
was a stir and an inquest about the house. The stout gentleman wanted the Times
or the Chronicle newspaper. I set him down, therefore, for a Whig; or,
rather, from his being so absolute and lordly where he had a chance, I suspected
him of being a Radical. Hunt, I had heard, was a large man; "Who knows,"
thought I, "but it is Hunt himself!"
My curiosity began to be awakened.
I inquired of the waiter who was this stout gentleman that was making all this
stir; but I could get no information: nobody seemed to know his name. The
landlords of bustling inns seldom trouble their heads about the names or
occupations of their transient guests. The color of a coat, the shape or size of
the person, is enough to suggest a travelling name. It is either the tall
gentleman, or the short gentleman, or the gentleman in black, or the gentleman
in snuff-color; or, as in the present instance, the stout gentleman. A
designation of the kind once hit on, answers every purpose, and saves all
ceaseless rain! No such thing as putting a foot out of doors, and no occupation
nor amusement within. By and by I heard someone walking overhead. It was in the
stout gentleman's room. He evidently was a large man by the heaviness of his
tread; and an old man from his wearing such creaking soles. "He is
doubtless," I thought, "some rich old square-toes of regular habits,
and is now taking exercise after breakfast."
I now read all the advertisements
of coaches and hotels that were stuck about the mantlepiece. The Lady's
Magazine had become an abomination to me; it was as tedious as the day
itself. I wandered out, not knowing what to do, and ascended again to my room. I
had not been there a long time, when there was a squall from a neighboring
bedroom. A door opened and slammed violently; a chambermaid, that I had remarked
for having a ruddy, good-humored face, went downstairs in a violent flurry. The
stout gentleman had been rude to her!
This sent a whole host of my
deductions to the deuce in a moment. This unknown personage could not be an old
gentleman; for old gentlemen are not apt to be so obstreperous to chambermaids.
He could not be a young gentleman; for young gentlemen are not apt to inspire
such indignation. He must be a middle-aged man, and confounded ugly into the
bargain, or the girl would not have taken the matter in such terrible dudgeon. I
confess I was sorely puzzled.
In a few minutes I heard the voice
of my landlady. I caught a glance of her as she came tramping upstairs—her
face glowing, her cap flaring, her tongue wagging the whole way. "She'd
have no such doings in her house, she'd warrant. If gentlemen did spend money
freely, it was no rule. She'd have no servant-maids of hers treated in that way,
when they were about their work, that's what she wouldn't."
As I hate squabbles, particularly
with women, and above all with pretty women, I slunk back into my room, and
partly closed the door; but my curiosity was too much excited not to listen. The
landlady marched intrepidly to the enemy's citadel, and entered it with a storm:
the door closed after her. I heard her voice in high windy clamor for a moment
or two. Then it gradually subsided, like a gust of wind in a garret; then there
was a laugh; then I heard nothing more.
After a little while my landlady
came out with an odd smile on her face, adjusting her cap, which was a little on
one side. As she went downstairs, I heard the landlord ask her what was the
matter; she said, "Nothing at all, only the girl's a fool." I was more
than ever perplexed what to make of this unaccountable personage, who could put
a good-natured chambermaid in a passion, and send away a termagent landlady in
smiles. He could not be so old, nor cross, nor ugly either.
I had to go to work at his picture
again, and paint him entirely different. I now set him down for one of those
stout gentlemen that are frequently met with swaggering about the doors of
country inns. Moist, merry fellows, in Belcher handkerchiefs, whose bulk is a
little assisted by malt-liquors. Men who have seen the world, and been sworn at
Highgate; who are used to tavern life; up to all the tricks of tapsters, and
knowing in the ways of sinful publicans. Free-livers on a small scale; who are
prodigal within the compass of a guinea; who call all the waiters by name,
tousle the maids, gossip with the landlady at the bar, and prose over a pint of
port, or a glass of negus, after dinner.
The morning wore away in forming
these and similar surmises. As fast as I wove one system of belief, some
movement of the unknown would completely overturn it, and throw all my thoughts
again into confusion. Such are the solitary operations of a feverish mind. I
was, as I have said, extremely nervous; and the continual meditation in the
concerns of this invisible personage began to have its effect on me—I was
getting a fit of the fidgets.
Dinner-time came. I hoped the
stout gentleman might dine in the travellers' room, and that I might at length
get a view of his person; but no—he had dinner served in his own room. What
could be the meaning of this solitude and mystery? He could not be a radical;
there was something too aristocratical in thus keeping himself apart from the
rest of the world, and condemning himself to his own dull company throughout a
rainy day. And then, too, he lived too well for a discontented politician. He
seemed to expatiate on a variety of dishes, and to sit over his wine like a
jolly friend of good living. Indeed, my doubts on this head were soon at an end;
for he could not have finished his first bottle before I could faintly hear him
humming a tune; and on listening I found it to be "God Save the King."
'Twas plain, then he was no radical, but a faithful subject; one who grew loyal
over his bottle, and was ready to stand by king and constitution, when he could
stand by nothing else. But who could he be? My conjectures began to run wild.
Was he not some personage of distinction travelling incognito? "God knows!"
said I, at my wit's end; "it may be one of the royal family for aught I
know, for they are all stout gentleman!"
The weather continued rainy. The
mysterious unknown kept his room, and, as far as I could judge, his chair, for I
did not hear him move. In the meantime, as the day advanced, the travellers'
room began to be frequented. Some, who had just arrived, came in buttoned up in
box-coats; others came home who had been dispersed about the town; some took
their dinners, and some their tea. Had I been in a different mood, I should have
found entertainment in studying this peculiar class of men. There were two
especially who were regular wags of the road, and up to all the standing jokes
of travellers. They had a thousand sly things to say to the waiting-maid, whom
they called Louisa and Ethelinda, and a dozen other fine names, changing the
name every time, and chuckling amazingly at their own waggery. My mind, however,
had been completely engrossed by the stout gentleman. He had kept my fancy in
chase during a long day, and it was not now to be diverted from the scent.
The evening gradually wore away.
The travellers read the papers two or three times over. Some drew round the fire
and told long stories about their horses, about their adventures, their
overturns, and breaking-down. They discussed the credit of different merchants
and different inns; and the two wags told several choice anecdotes of pretty
chambermaids and kind landladies. All this passed as they were quietly taking
what they called their night-caps, that is to say, strong glasses of brandy and
water and sugar, or some other mixture of the kind; after which they one after
another rang for "Boots" and the chambermaid, and walked off to bed in
old shoes cut down into marvellously uncomfortable slippers.
There was now only one man left: a
short-legged, long-bodied, plethoric fellow, with a very large, sandy head. He
sat by himself, with a glass of port-wine negus, and a spoon; sipping and
stirring, and meditating and sipping, until nothing was left but the spoon. He
gradually fell asleep bolt upright in his chair, with the empty glass standing
before him; and the candle seemed to fall asleep, too, for the wick grew long,
and black, and cabbaged at the end, and dimmed the little light that remained in
the chamber. The gloom that now prevailed was contagious. Around hung the
shapeless, and almost spectral, box-coats of departed travellers, long since
buried in deep sleep. I only heard the ticking of the clock, with the deep-drawn
breathings of the sleeping topers, and the drippings of the rain,
drop—drop—drop, from the eaves of the house. The church bells chimed
midnight. All at once the stout gentleman began to walk overhead, pacing slowly
backward and forward. There was something extremely awful in all this,
especially to one in my state of nerves. These ghastly great-coats, these
gutteral breathings, and the creaking footsteps of this mysterious being. His
steps grew fainter and fainter, and at length died away. I could bear it no
longer. I was wound up to the desperation of a hero of romance."Be he who
or what he may," said I to myself, "I'll have a sight of him!" I
seized a chamber-candle, and hurried up to No. 13. The door stood ajar. I
hesitated—I entered: the room was deserted. There stood a large,
broad-bottomed elbow-chair at a table, on which was an empty tumbler, and a Times
newspaper, and the room smelt powerfully of Stilton cheese.
The mysterious stranger had
evidently but just retired. I turned off, sorely disappointed, to my room, which
had been changed to the front of the house. As I went along the corridor, I saw
a large pair of boots, with dirty, waxed tops, standing at the door of a
bedchamber. They doubtless belonged to the unknown: but it would not do to
disturb so redoubtable a personage in his den: he might discharge a pistol, or
something worse, at my head. I went to bed, therefore, and lay awake half the
night in a terribly nervous state; even when I fell asleep, I was still haunted
in my dreams by the idea of the stout gentleman and his wax-topped boots.
I slept rather late the next
morning, and was awakened by some stir and bustle in the house, which I could
not at first comprehend; until getting more awake, I found there was a
mail-coach starting from the door. Suddenly there was a cry from below,
"The gentleman has forgotten his umbrella! Look for the umbrella in No.
13!" I heard an immediate scampering of a chambermaid along the passage,
and a shrill reply as she ran, "Here it is! Here's the gentleman's umbrella!"
The mysterious stranger then was
on the point of setting off. This was the only chance I should ever have of
knowing him. I sprang out of bed, scrambled to the window, snatched aside the
curtains, and just caught a glimpse of the rear of a person getting in at the
coach-door. The skirts of a brown coat parted behind, and gave me a full view of
the broad disk of a pair of drab breeches. The door closed—"All right!"
was the word—the coach whirled off; and that was all I ever saw of the stout