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- Inns and Taverns of Old London - 5/42 -

half century later, that is in 1588, the inn was kept by one Thomas Wright, whose son came into a "good inheritance," was made clerk of the King's Stable, and a knight, and was "a very discreet and honest gentleman."

But Shakespeare's pen dispelled any atmosphere of respectability which lingered around the Boar's Head. From the time when he made it the meeting-place of the mad-cap Prince of Wales and his roistering followers, down to the day of Goldsmith's reverie under its roof, the inn has dwelt in the imagination at least as the rendezvous of hard drinkers and practical jokers. How could it be otherwise after the limning of such a scene as that described in Henry IV? That was sufficient to dedicate the inn to conviviality for ever.

How sharply the picture shapes itself as the hurrying dialogue is read! The key-note of merriment is struck by the Prince himself as he implores the aid of Poins to help him laugh at the excellent trick he has just played on the boastful but craven Falstaff, and the bustle and hilarity of the scene never flags for a moment. Even Francis, the drawer, whose vocabulary is limited to "Anon, anon, sir"--the fellow that had "fewer words than a parrot, and yet the son of a woman"--and the host himself, as perplexed as his servant when two customers call at once, contribute to the movement of the episode in its earlier stages. But the pace is, increased furiously when the burly Falstaff, scant of breath indeed, bustles hurriedly in proclaiming in one breath his scorn of cowards and his urgent need of a cup of sack. We all know the boastful story he told, how he and his three companions had been set upon and robbed by a hundred men, how he himself--as witness his sword "packed like a hand-saw"--had kept at bay and put to flight now two, anon four, and then seven, and finally eleven of his assailants. We all can see, too, the roguish twinkle in Prince Hal's eyes as the braggart knight embellishes his lying tale with every fresh sentence, and are as nonplussed as he when, the plot discovered, Falstaff finds a way to take credit for his cowardice. Who would not forgive so cajoling a vaunter?

It was later in this scene, be it remembered, that the portly knight was found fast asleep behind the arras, "snorting like a horse," and had his pockets searched to the discovery of that tavern bill--not paid we may be sure--which set forth an expenditure on the staff of life immensely disproportionate to that on drink, and elicited the famous ejaculation--"But one half-pennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!"

But Shakespeare had not finished with the Boar's Head. More coarse and less merry, but not less vivid, is that other scene wherein the shrill-tongued Doll Tearsheet and the peace-making Dame Quickly figure. And it is of a special and private room in the Boar's Head we think as we listen to Dame Quickly's tale of how the amorous Falstaff made love to her with his hand upon "a parcel-gilt goblet," and followed up the declaration with a kiss and a request for thirty shillings.

For Shakespeare's sake, then, the Boar's Head is elect into that small circle of inns which are immortal in the annals of literature. But, like Chaucer's Tabard, no stone of it is left. Boswell made a mistake, and so did Goldsmith after him, in thinking that the Boar's Head of the eighteenth century was the Boar's Head of Shakespeare's day. They both forgot the great Fire of London. That disastrous conflagration of 1666 swept away every vestige of the old inn. Upon its foundation, however, another Boar's Head arose, the sign of which, cut in stone and dated 1668, is among the treasures of the Guildhall Museum. This was the building in which Boswell's club met, and it was under its roof Goldsmith penned his famous reverie.

As was to be expected of that social soul, the character of Falstaff gave Goldsmith more consolation than the most studied efforts of wisdom: "I here behold," he continues, "an agreeable old fellow forgetting age, and showing me the way to be young at sixty-five. Sure I am well able to be as merry, though not so comical, as he. Is it not in my power to have, though not so much wit, at least as much vivacity?--Age, care, wisdom, reflection, begone--I give you to the winds! Let's have t'other bottle: Here's to the memory of Shakespeare, Falstaff, and all the merry men of Eastcheap!"

[Illustration: OLIVER GOLDSMITH.]

With such zest did Goldsmith enter into his night out at the Boar's Head that when the midnight hour arrived he discovered all his companions had stolen away, leaving him--still in high spirits with the landlord as his sole companion. Then the mood of reverie began to work. The very room helped to transport him back through the centuries; the oak floor, the gothic windows, the ponderous chimney-piece,--all were reminders of the past. But the prosaic landlord was an obstacle to the complete working of the spell. At last, however, a change came over mine host, or so it seemed to the dreaming chronicler. "He insensibly began to alter his appearance; his cravat seemed quilled into a ruff, and his breeches swelled out into a farlingale. I now fancied him changing sexes; and as my eyes began to close in slumber, I imagined my fat landlord actually converted into as fat a landlady. However, sleep made but few changes in my situation: the tavern, the apartment, and the table, continued as before: nothing suffered mutation but my host, who was fairly altered into a gentlewoman, whom I knew to be Dame Quickly, mistress of this tavern in the days of Sir John; and the liquor we were drinking seemed converted into sack and sugar."

Such an opportunity of interviewing an acquaintance of Falstaff was not to be lost, and to the credit of Dame Quickly be it said that she was far more communicative than some moderns are under the questioning ordeal. But it was no wonder she was loquacious: had she not been ordered by Pluto to keep a record of every transaction at the Boar's Head, and in the discharge of that duty compiled three hundred tomes? Some may subscribe to the opinion that Dame Quickly was indiscreet as well as loquacious; certainly she did not spare the reputations of some who had dwelt under that ancient roof. The sum of the matter, however, was that since the execution of that hostess who was accused of witchcraft the Boar's Head "underwent several revolutions, according to the spirit of the times, or the disposition of the reigning monarch. It was this day a brothel, and the next a conventicle for enthusiasts. It was one year noted for harbouring Whigs, and the next infamous for a retreat to Tories. Some years ago it was in high vogue, but at present it seems declining."

One other son of genius was to add to the fame of the Boar's Head, the American Goldsmith, that is, the gentle Washington Irving. Of course Shakespeare was the moving spirit once more. While turning over the pages of Henry IV Irving was seized with a sudden inspiration: "I will make a pilgrimage to Eastcheap, and see if the old Boar's Head tavern still exists." But it was too late. The only relic of the ancient abode of Dame Quickly was the stone boar's head, built into walls reared where the inn once stood. Nothing daunted, however, Irving explored the neighbourhood, and was rewarded, as he thought, by running to earth Dame Quickly's "parcel-gilt goblet" in a tavern near by. He had one other "find." In the old graveyard of St. Michael's, which no longer exists, he discovered, so he avers, the tombstone of one Robert Preston who, like the Francis of "Anon, anon, sir," was a drawer at the Boar's Head, and quotes from that tombstone the following admonitory epitaph:

"Bacchus, to give the toping world surprise, Produced one sober son, and here he lies. Though rear'd among full hogsheads, he defied The charms of wine, and every one beside. O reader, if to justice thou'rt inclined, Keep honest Preston daily in thy mind. He drew good wine, took care to fill his pots, Had sundry virtues that excused his faults. You that on Bacchus have the like dependence, Pray copy Bob, in measure and attendance."

Small as was the reward of living's quest, a still more barren result would ensue on a modern pilgrimage to the Boar's Head. It was still a tavern in 1785, for a chronicler of that date described it as having on each side of the doorway "a vine branch, carved in wood, rising more than three feet from the ground, loaded with leaves and clusters; and on the top of each a little Falstaff, eight inches high, in the dress of his day." But Dame Quickly's forecast of declining fortune moved on to its fulfilment. In the last stages of its existence the building was divided into two, while the carved boar's head which Irving saw still remained as the one sign of its departed glories. Finally came the resolve to widen the approach to London Bridge from the city side, and the carrying out of that resolve involved the sweeping away of the Boar's Head. This was in 1831, and, as has been said, the only relic of the ancient tavern is that carved sign in the Guildhall Museum. But the curious in such matters may be interested to know that the statue of King William marks approximately the spot of ground where hover the immortal memories of Shakespeare, and Goldsmith, and Irving.

Within easy distance of Eastcheap, in Upper Thames Street, which skirts the river bank, there stood, in Shakespeare's day and much later, a tavern bearing the curious name of the Three Cranes in the Vintry. John Stow, that zealous topographer to whom the historians of London owe so large a debt, helps to explain the mystery. The vintry, he tells us, was that part of the Thames bank where "the merchants of Bordeaux craned their wines out of lighters and other vessels, and there landed and made sale of them." He also adds that the Three Cranes' lane was "so called not only of a sign of three cranes at a tavern door, but rather 'of three strong cranes of timber placed on the Vintry wharf by the Thames side, to crane up wines there." Earlier than the seventeenth century, however, it would seem that one crane had to suffice for the needs of "the merchants of Bordeaux," and then the tavern was known simply as the Crane. Two references, dated respectively 1552 and 1554, speak of the sign in the singular. Twenty years later, however, the one had become three.

Ben Jonson, whose knowledge of London inns and taverns was second, only to that of Pepys, evidently numbered the Three Cranes in the Vintry among his houses of call. Of two of his allusions to the house one is derogatory of the wit of its patrons, the other laudatory of the readiness of its service. "A pox o' these pretenders to wit!" runs the first passage. "Your Three Cranes, Mitre, and Mermaid men! Not a corn of true salt, not a grain of right mustard amongst them all." And here is the other side of the shield, credited to Iniquity in "The Devil is an Ass":--

"Nay, boy, I will bring thee to the bawds and roysters At Billingsgate, feasting with claret-wine and oysters; From thence shoot the Bridge, child, to the Cranes in the Vintry, And see there the gimblets how they make their entry."

Of course Pepys was acquainted with the house. He had, indeed, a savage memory of one meal under its roof. It was all owing to the marrying proclivities of his uncle Fenner. Bereft of his wife on the last day of August, that easy-going worthy, less than two months

Inns and Taverns of Old London - 5/42

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