Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1717/Old Oak in an Old Inn

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From The Spectator.


When Mr. Charles Dickens and Mr. Wilkie Collins went on their "Lazy Tour" in their ironically-assumed character of "Two Idle Apprentices," they halted for a time at Lancaster, the half-way stage between London and Scotland, and they put up at the King's Arms. That comfortable, quaint old inn looks as if it might have sheltered the helter-skelterers from the north in many troublous times, and the ponderous sign suspended above its doorway might have suggested the Dragon in "Martin Chuzzlewit," had not that rampant animal creaked in its place in contemporary history long before the idle apprentices set forth upon their tour. The sojourn of the friends at the King's Arms led to the writing, by Mr. Dickens, of one of his most fantastic fictions. In the ghost of the hanged man in the story on "A Bridal Chamber," the ghost with a queer twitch of one nostril, as if it had been caught up by a hook, we recognize the first outline of the elaborated picture of Mr. Jaggers' office, in "Great Expectations;" while the rest of the tale is a variation of the "Madman's Story" in "Master Humphry's Clock." The tale supplied the King's Arms Inn with the only thing which it wanted for the thorough establishment of its claim to the interest of antiquity, a ghost of its own; and so authentic has that article of property become, that persons visiting the town have been gravely asked whether they "mind" the chance of seeing the old man who was hanged at Lancaster Castle!

What with its panelled entrance-hall, its solid oaken screen, with recesses like a pair of pulpits on either side, its fine old staircase, richly carved, almost black with age, as solid as the fortune of the prosperous merchant who owned the house in 1625, and the ghost contributed by Mr. Dickens, the King's Arms had an undeniable claim to be regarded as something uncommon among inns, but it was to become more uncommon still. The really grand and artistic staircase, and the curious carved fittings of the old inn, appealed to the imagination of Mr. Dickens, and led him to inspire "his good friend Mr. Sly" — as an autograph inscription on the famous novelist's portrait which hangs over the staircase designates the landlord — with an ambition to collect ancient furniture, tapestry, china, and other objects suitable to the style and the antiquity of the house. The King's Arms has since then assumed a museum-like appearance, and the collection which has just been dispersed was well worth a visit, before the objects which composed it were removed from their accustomed places, and withdrawn from daily use, to the undignified confusion of a sale by auction in a dismantled billiard-room. For the old inn is to be pulled down, in the interest of street-widening, and a new hotel, with all the modern improvements, is to take its place. Visitors will hardly find themselves so comfortable among the marble and the gilding, and though one might not particularly miss the ghost of the hanged man, there are old associations which one will miss. A week ago the King's Arms was like the room in which Little Nell lies sleeping, in the beautiful illustration to one of the earliest chapters of "The Old Curiosity Shop" in the original edition; with its dim, panelled corridors, hung with old pictures and complicated brackets, and lined with ancient chairs, whose backs and legs are perfect marvels of carving; its spacious rooms, with beam-crossed ceilings and heavy oaken doors, whence any sort of people except those of to day, in any sort of costume except such clothes as we are wearing, might naturally be expected to issue, and descending the ancient staircase, lighted by fine chandeliers, disdainful of the vulgar gas that flaunts hard by, betake themselves to sedan chairs at the stair-foot, or to glass coaches at the old doorway, or even to sober steeds and pillions in the courtyard. In the background, seen from the wide hall, the ruddy light of the old kitchen sent warm reflections out upon the dark shining carved timber which is everywhere, in rail and door, and wainscoting and recess, lining the passages in which one could not easily find one's way, but did not mind, for a sense of friendly leisure and at-homeishness settled immediately upon one's spirits, and every step disclosed objects not the least like the ordinary furniture of an inn. For instance, one was led through a grove of suspended hams, irresistibly suggestive of Mark Tapley and Mrs. Lupin, to the inspection of a quantity of crown Derby ware, and a choice assortment of monsters in Chinese pottery. Miss Austen's Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris might have sipped their tea from the former, and Miss Ferrier's Lady Julia Douglas added the latter to the collection which cost her "adored Henry" so dear. The numbered hours of the old inn were ticked off by old clocks; one has been telling its unheeded tale for two hundred years, a sturdy timepiece this, of English manufacture; the other is one of the three which Benjamin Franklin made. The host's own sanctum, where he was regretfully writing addresses on catalogues of the sale, was not the least interesting spot in the old house, for there were "curios" in every nook of it. A case of strange insects from China hung on one wall, and on another a leathern drinking-bottle, shaped to fit the shoulder, with its strap, which is a relic from a battle-field in Lancashire. For that matter, most of the things in the house are relics from battle-fields; spoils of the strife of creeds, the strife of dynasties, the strife of fortune, and the silent, always victorious fight of time with human lives and the possessions of men. The ancient furniture, the pride of the collection, has been gathered from churches and castles and homesteads, which are dust, like the hands that wrought those rare designs with such patient skill and yet such careless freedom as our age of hurried accuracy and machine-made monotony knows not of; like the heads which rested beneath the stately roofs, rich with pious images and armorial bearings, of those amazing sleeping-places, the contemplation of which makes us understand the legacies in the wills of our remote forefathers, and the feuds which came of favoritism in the article of best beds. The cabinets, the sideboards, the ancient wardrobes, and the chairs — one is said to have belonged to King Henry VII., and subsequently to have formed a portion of the effects of Queen Katharine Parr — were all curious, and many of them were beautiful, but the beds and the chests were more interesting to a mere observer than any of the other objects.

In the room which was occupied by Mr. Dickens on his two visits to Lancaster, and which bears his name over its doorway, was one of these wonderful carved oak beds, so ponderous that one finds a world of speculation in the simple questions, — How was it ever put up? and how is it ever to be taken down? It is so imposing, with its grand pedestals standing beyond the footboard, and its heavy carved panels, that one feels rather timid about sleeping in it, and prepares to do so with a vague sense that one is taking a liberty with a long line of the illustrious ancestors of somebody. Tall carved chairs stand at either side of this monumental couch, all ready for the ghosts in ruff and farthingale, or in powder and patches, or for occupation by some of the creations of the head which rested under that imposing tester. Any of them would be welcome, except, perhaps, Mrs. Nickleby. Mysterious things in frames upon the walls attract one. On the whole, the Dickens room suggests a night-light, and reading in bed as long as one can keep one's eyes open, so as to leave no margin for fright, but in the daylight these mysterious things reveal themselves as the very pieces of needlework on which Mr. Ruskin expatiates, in his delightful, simply superlative style, in an early number of "Fors Clavigera." Here is, in "an old silken sampler of great grandame's work," much patient industry devoted to the career of Abraham, who is seen ruefully turning out Hagar and Ishmael, and hospitably entertaining the angels; while Sarah, arrayed in a very voluminous gown with a stomacher, looks, laughing at both performances, out of the aperture of a tent barely high enough for her to stand upright in. This is the "silken sampler" of which Mr. Ruskin says that it is "all wrought with such involution of ingenious needlework as may well rank, in the patience, the natural skill, and the innocent pleasure of it, with the truest work of Florentine engraving; in it the actual tradition of many of the forms of ancient art is manifoldly evident." Hard by is the "Culture of the Tulip," in silk and silver thread, a beautiful piece of work; of which the art-seer says that "the spirits of Ariadne and Penelope reign vivid in all the work," and that "the richness of pleasurable fancy is as great still in these silken labors as in the marble arches and golden roof of the Cathedral of Monreale." In the great saloon, where Mr. Sly tells, and the inscription over the door records, that the "crowned heads of Europe" have been severally entertained "since the peace," and whose latest illustrious guests were that much-meandering couple, the emperor and empress of the Brazils, hang several pieces of valuable tapestry, old Gobelins and old Florentine; and here some ancient chests again attract one to the most important portion of the collection. Worthy of the bedsteads, even of that from Rydal Mount, and that which once belonged to the Stanleys, and bears the deeply-carven device of the eagle and child, are these chests, so massive, so richly ornamented, so mysterious. Each of them might have been the identical one in which the bride of "Mistletoe Bough" memory so "long lay hid;" each one could easily hold her, and her trousseau too. Whose garments, and papers, and household gear have these laboriously- wrought "kists" contained — these kists, which look like the coffins of the dead-and-gone occupiers of the stately beds? The old pictures, many of them portraits — of course, there is a Mary Stuart and a Queen Elizabeth among them — aided the impression that the old inn was not an inn at all, but a venerable mansion, with all its old life stealthily stirring in it, and we impertinent intruders upon its grave dignity and solid grandeur. Everything in the house looked as immovable as it was ancient; the walls and door-frames bristled with brackets of old oak, which tell the tale of their derivation; here is a bishop's mitre, there a baron's escutcheon, a third has adorned a banqueting-room, a fourth has formed a portion of the decoration of a church organ, then comes a finely-carven face, or a delightful group of fruit or flowers. The art-objects have been brought together from innumerable different places, but they assort with one another, like the time-grown plenishing of an old house, the home of an old race. The antique mirrors might have reflected the faces that lay on the satin pillows under those heavy bed-roofs, sheltered by the curtains of cut velvet or of cunning needlework; and all the bride-gear and the weeds of generations, since long before "the Young Man" marched through China Lane — the narrow street unchanged to this day, in front of the old inn — on his way to Worcester, might be mouldering in the great cabinets and chests. It was a pleasant sight to see, before the dispersion of it all, and it was pleasant to leave it, still undisturbed. Not a stick — we should rather say beam — of the old furniture but is now in the hands of new owners, and a year hence, not a stone will be left standing of the famous old King's Arms Hotel at Lancaster.