Some Inns by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

The other evening we went with Titania to a ramshackle country hotel which calls itself The Mansion House, looking forward to a fine robust meal. It was a transparent, sunny, cool evening, and when we saw on the bill of fare half broiled chicken, we innocently supposed that the word half was an adjective modifying the compound noun, broiled-chicken. Instead, to our sorrow and disappointment, it proved to be an adverb modifying broiled (we hope we parse the matter correctly). At any rate, the wretched fowl was blue and pallid, a little smoked on the exterior, raw and sinewy within, and an affront to the whole profession of innkeeping. Whereupon, in the days that followed, looking back at our fine mood of expectancy as we entered that hostelry, and its pitiable collapse when the miserable travesty of victuals was laid before us, we fell to thinking about some of the inns we had known of old time where we had feasted not without good heart.

To speak merely by sudden memory, for instance, there was the fine old hotel in Burlington, Vermont–is it called the Van Ness House?–where we remember a line of cane-bottomed chairs on a long shady veranda, where one could look out and see the town simmering in that waft of hot and dazzling sunshine that pours across Lake Champlain in the late afternoon: and The Black Lion, Lavenham, Suffolk; where (unless we confuse it with a pub in Bury St. Edmunds where we had lunch), there was, in the hallway, a very fine old engraving called “Pirates Decoying a Merchantman,” in which one pirate, dressed in woman’s clothes, stood up above the bulwarks waving for assistance, while the cutlassed ruffians crouched below ready to do their bloody work when the other ship came near enough. Nor have we forgotten The Saracen’s Head, at Ware, whence we went exploring down the little river Lea on Izaak Walton’s trail; nor The Swan at Bibury in Gloucestershire, hard by that clear green water the Colne; nor another Swan at Tetsworth in Oxfordshire, which one reaches after bicycling over the beechy slope of the Chilterns, and where, in the narrow taproom, occurred the fabled encounter between a Texas Rhodes Scholar logged with port wine and seven Oxfordshire yokels who made merry over his power of carrying the red blood of the grape.

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Our friend C.F.B., while we were meditating these golden matters, wrote to us that he is going on a walking or bicycling trip in England next summer, and asks for suggestions. We advise him to get a copy of Muirhead’s “England” (the best general guidebook we have seen) and look up his favourite authors in the index. That will refer him to the places associated with them, and he can have rare sport in hunting them out. There is no way of pilgrimage so pleasant as to follow the spoor of a well-loved writer. Referring to our black note-book, in which we keep memoranda of a modest pilgrimage we once made to places mentioned by two of our heroes, viz., Boswell and R.L.S., we think that if we were in C.F.B.’s shoes, one of the regions we would be most anxious to revisit would be Dove Dale, in Derbyshire. This exquisite little valley is reached from Ashbourne, where we commend the Green Man Inn (visited more than once by Doctor Johnson and Boswell). This neighbourhood also has memories of George Eliot, and of Izaak Walton, who used to go fishing in the little river Dove; his fishing house is still there. Unfortunately, when we were in those parts we did not have sense enough to see the Manyfold, a curious stream (a tributary of the Dove) which by its habit of running underground caused Johnson and Boswell to argue about miracles.

Muirhead’s book will give C.F.B. sound counsel about the inns of that district, which are many and good. The whole region of the Derbyshire Peak is rarely visited by the foreign tourist. Of it, Doctor Johnson, with his sturdy prejudice, said: “He who has seen Dove Dale has no need to visit the Highlands.” The metropolis of this moorland is Buxton: unhappily we did not make a note of the inn we visited in that town; but we have a clear recollection of claret, candlelight, and reading “Weir of Hermiston” in bed; also a bathroom with hot water, not too common in the cheap hostelries we frequented.

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We can only wish for the good C.F.B. as happy an evening as we spent (with our eccentric friend Mifflin McGill) bicycling from the Newhaven Inn in a July twilight. The Newhaven Inn, which is only a vile kind of meagre roadhouse at a lonely fork in the way (where one arm of the signpost carries the romantic legend “To Haddon Hall”), lies between Ashbourne and Buxton. But it is marked on all the maps, so perhaps it has an honourable history. The sun was dying in red embers over the Derbyshire hills as we pedalled along. Life, liquor, and literature lay all before us; certes, we had no thought of ever writing a daily column! And finally, after our small lanterns were lit and cast their little fans of brightness along the flowing road, we ascended a rise and saw Buxton in the valley below, twinkling with lights–

And when even dies, the million-tinted,
And the night has come, and planets glinted
Lo, the valley hollow

Nor were all these ancient inns (to which our heart wistfully returns) on British soil. There was the Hotel de la Tour, in Montjoie, a quaint small town somewhere in that hilly region of the Ardennes along the border between Luxemburg and Belgium. Our memory is rather vague as to Montjoie, for we got there late one evening, after more than seventy up-and-down miles on a bicycle, hypnotic with weariness and the smell of pine trees and a great warm wind that had buffeted us all day. But we have a dim, comfortable remembrance of a large clean bedroom, unlighted, in which we duskily groped and found no less than three huge beds among which we had to choose; and we can see also a dining room brilliantly papered in scarlet, with good old prints on the walls and great wooden beams overhead. Two bottles of ice-cold beer linger in our thought: and there was some excellent work done on a large pancake, one of those durable fleshy German Pfannkuchen. For the odd part of it was (unless our memory is wholly amiss) Montjoie was then (1912) supposed to be part of Germany, and they pronounced it Mon-yowey. But the Reich must have felt that this was not permanent, for they had not Germanized either the name of the town or of the hostelry.

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And let us add, in this affectionate summary, The Lion–(Hotel zum Loewen)–at Sigmaringen, that delicious little haunt on the upper Danube, where the castle sits on a stony jut overlooking the river. Algernon Blackwood, in one of his superb tales of fantasy (in the volume called “The Listener”) has told a fascinating gruesome story of the Danube, describing a sedgy, sandy, desolate region below the Hungarian border where malevolent inhuman forces were apparent and resented mortal intrusion. But we cannot testify to anything sinister in the bright water of the Danube in the flow of its lovely youth, above Sigmaringen. And if there were any evil influences, surely at Sigmaringen (the ancient home and origin of the Hohenzollerns, we believe) they would have shown themselves. In those exhilarating miles of valley, bicycled in company with a blithe vagabond who is now a professor at Cornell, we learned why the waltz was called “The Blue Danube.” So heavenly a tint of transparent blue-green we have never seen elsewhere, the hurrying current sliding under steep crags of gray and yellow stone, whitened upon sudden shallows into long terraces of broken water. There was a wayside chapel with painted frescoes and Latin inscriptions (why didn’t we make a note of them, we wonder?) and before it a cold gush sluicing from a lion’s mouth into a stone basin. A blue crockery mug stood on the rim, and the bowl was spotted with floating petals from pink and white rose-bushes. We can still see our companion, tilting a thirsty bearded face as he drank, outlined on such a backdrop of pure romantic beauty as only enriches irresponsible youth in its commerce with the world. The river bends sharply to the left under a prodigious cliff, where is some ancient castle or religious house. There he stands, excellent fellow, forever (in our memory) holding that blue mug against a Maxfield Parrish scene.

Just around that bend, if you are discreet, a bathe can be accomplished, and you will reach the Lion by supper time, vowing the Danube the loveliest of all streams.

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Of the Lion itself, now that we compress the gland of memory more closely, we have little to report save a general sensation of cheerful comfort. That in itself is favourable: the bad inns are always accurately tabled in mind. But stay–here is a picture that unexpectedly presents itself. On that evening (it was July 15, 1912) there was a glorious little girl, about ten years old, taking supper at the Lion with her parents. Through the yellow shine of the lamps she suddenly reappears to us, across the dining room–rather a more luxurious dining room than the two wayfarers were accustomed to visit. We can see her straight white frock, her plump brown legs in socks (not reaching the floor as she sat), her tawny golden hair with a red ribbon. The two dusty vagabonds watched her, and her important-looking adults, from afar. We have only the vaguest impression of her father: he was erect and handsome and not untouched with pride. (Heavens, were they some minor offshoot of the Hohenzollern tribe?) We can see the head waiter smirking near their table. Across nine years and thousands of miles they still radiate to us a faint sense of prosperity and breeding; and the child was like a princess in a fairy-tale. Ah, if only it had all been a fairy-tale. Could we but turn back the clock to that summer evening when the dim pine-alleys smelled so resinous on the Muehlberg, turn back the flow of that quick blue river, turn back history itself and rewrite it in chapters fit for the clear eyes of that child we saw.

Well, we are growing grievous: it is time to go out and have some cider. There are many other admirable inns we might soliloquize–The Seven Stars in Rotterdam (Molensteeg 19, “nabij het Postkantoor”); Gibson’s Hotel, Rutland Square, Edinburgh (“Well adapted for Marriages,” says its card); the Hotel Davenport, Stamford, Connecticut, where so many palpitating playwrights have sat nervously waiting for the opening performance; the Tannhaeuser Hotel in Heidelberg, notable for the affability of the chambermaids. Perhaps you will permit us to close by quoting a description of an old Irish tavern, from that queer book “The Life of John Buncle, Esq.” (1756). This inn bore the curious name The Conniving House:

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The Conniving-House (as the gentlemen of Trinity called it in my time, and long after) was a little public house, kept by Jack Macklean, about a quarter of a mile beyond Rings-end, on the top of the beach, within a few yards of the sea. Here we used to have the finest fish at all times; and in the season, green peas, and all the most excellent vegetables. The ale here was always extraordinary, and everything the best; which, with its delightful situation, rendered it a delightful place of a summer’s evening. Many a delightful evening have I passed in this pretty thatched house with the famous Larrey Grogan, who played on the bagpipes extreme well; dear Jack Lattin, matchless on the fiddle, and the most agreeable of companions; that ever charming young fellow, Jack Wall … and many other delightful fellows; who went in the days of their youth to the shades of eternity. When I think of them and their evening songs–We will go to Johnny Macklean’s–to try if his ale be good or no, etc., and that years and infirmities begin to oppress me–What is life!

There is a fine, easy, mellow manner of writing, worthy the subject. And we–we conclude with honest regret. Even to write down the names of all the inns where we have been happy would be the pleasantest possible way of spending an afternoon. But we advise you to be cautious in adopting our favourites as stopping places. Some of them are very humble.

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