JAMAICA INN Jamaica Inn stands today, hospitable and kindly, a temperance house on the twenty-mile road between Bodmin and Launceston. In the following story of adventure I have pictured it as it might have been over a hundred and twenty years ago; and although existing place names figure in the pages, the characters and events described are entirely imaginary. Bodinnick-by-Fowey.
It was a cold grey day in late November.
The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o'clock in the afternoon the pallour of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.
It would be dark by four.
The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach.
The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark blue stain like a splodge of ink. The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it travelled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.
The driver, muffled in a greatcoat to his ears, bent almost double in his seat, in a faint endeavour to gain shelter from his own shoulders, while the dispirited horses plodded sullenly to his command, too broken by the wind and the rain to feel the whip that now and again cracked above their heads, while it swung between the numb fingers of the driver.
The wheels of the coach creaked and groaned as they sank onto the ruts on the road, and sometimes they flung up the soft spattered mud against the windows, where it mingled with the constant driving rain, and whatever view there might have been of the countryside was hopelessly obscured.
The few passengers huddled together for warmth, exclaiming in unison when the coach sank into a heavier rut than usual, and one old fellow, who had kept up a constant complaint ever since he had joined the coach at Truro, rose from his seat in a fury, and, fumbling with the window sash, let the window down with a crash, bringing a shower of rain in upon himself and his fellow passengers.
He thrust his head out and shouted up to the driver, cursing him in a high petulant voice for a rogue and a murderer; that they would all be dead before they reached Bodmin if he persisted in driving at breakneck speed; they had no breath left in their bodies as it was, and he for one would never travel by coach again.
Whether the driver heard him or not was uncertain; it seemed more likely that the stream of reproaches was carried away in the wind, for the old fellow, after waiting a moment, put up the window again, having thoroughly chilled the interior of the coach, and, settling himself once more in his corner, wrapped his blanket about his knees and muttered in his beard.
His nearest neighbour, a jovial red-faced woman in a blue cloak, sighed heavily in sympathy, and, with a wink to anyone who might be looking and a jerk of her head towards the old man, she remarked for at least the twentieth time that it was the dirtiest night she ever remembered, and she had known some; that it was proper old weather and no mistaking it for summer this time; and, burrowing into the depths of a large basket, she brought out a great hunk of cake and plunged into it with strong white teeth.
Mary Yellan sat in the opposite corner, where the trickle of rain oozed through the crack in the roof.
Sometimes a cold drip of moisture fell upon her shoulder, which she brushed away with impatient fingers.
She sat with her chin cupped in her hands, her eyes fixed on the window splashed with mud and rain, hoping with a sort of desperate interest that some ray of light would break the heavy blanket of sky, and but a momentary trace of that lost blue heaven that had mantled Helford yesterday shine for an instant as a forerunner of fortune.
Already, though barely forty miles by road from what had been her home for three-and-twenty years, the hope within her heart had tired, and that rather gallant courage which was so large a part of her, and had stood her in such stead during the long agony of her mother's illness and death, was now shaken by this first fall of rain and the nagging wind.
The country was alien to her, which was a defeat in itself.
As she peered through the misty window of the coach she looked out upon a different world from the one she had known only a day's journey back.
How remote now and hidden perhaps for ever were the shining waters of Helford, the green hills and the sloping valleys, the white cluster of cottages at the water's edge.
It was a gentle rain that fell at Helford, a rain that pattered in the many trees and lost itself in the lush grass, formed into brooks and rivulets that emptied into the broad river, sank into the grateful soil which gave back flowers in payment.
This was a lashing, pitiless rain that stung the windows of the coach, and it soaked into a hard and barren soil.
No trees here, save one or two that stretched bare branches to the four winds, bent and twisted from centuries of storm, and so blackened were they by time and tempest that, even if spring did breathe on such a place, no buds would dare to come to leaf for fear that the late frost should kill them.
It was a scrubby land, without hedgerow or meadow; a country of stones, black heather, and stunted broom.
There would never be a gentle season here, thought Mary; either grim winter as it was today, or else the dry and parching heat of midsummer, with never a valley to give shade or shelter, but grass that turned yellow-brown before May was passed.
The country had gone grey with the weather. Even the people on the road and in the villages changed in harmony with their background.
At Helston, where she had taken the first coach, she had trodden familiar ground.
So many childish memories clung about Helston.
The weekly drive to market with her father in the vanished days, and, when he was taken from them, the fortitude with which her mother held his place, driving backwards and forwards, winter and summer, as he had done, with her hens and her eggs and her butter at the back of the cart, while Mary sat at her side, clutching a basket as big as herself, her small chin resting on the handle.
Folk were friendly in Helston; the name of Yellan was known and respected in the town, for the widow had had a hard fight against life when her husband died, and there were not many women who would have lived alone as she did with one child and a farm to tend, with never a thought of taking another man.
There was a farmer at Manaccan who would have asked her had he dared, and another up the river at Gweek, but they could tell from her eyes she would have neither of them, but belonged in body and mind to the man who had gone.
It was the hard work of the farm that told upon her in the end, for she would not spare herself, and, though she had driven and flogged her energy for the seventeen years of her widowhood, she could not stand up to the strain when the last test came, and her heart went from her.
Little by little her stock had decreased, and with times being bad — so she was told in Helston — and prices fallen to nothing, there was no money anywhere.
Upcountry it was the same. There would be starvation in the farms before long.
Then a sickness attacked the ground and killed the livestock in the villages round Helford.
There was no name to it, and no cure could be discovered.
It was a sickness that came over everything and destroyed, much as a late frost will out of season, coming with the new moon and then departing, leaving no trace of its passage save the little trail of dead things in its path.
It was an anxious, weary time for Mary Yellan and her mother.
One by one they saw the chickens and the ducklings they had reared sicken and die, and the young calf fell in the meadow where he stood.
The most pitiful was the old mare who had served them twenty years, and upon whose broad and sturdy back Mary had first straddled her young legs.
She died in the stall one morning, her faithful head in Mary's lap; and when a pit was dug for her under the apple tree in the orchard, and she was buried, and they knew she would no longer carry them to Helston market day, Mary's mother turned to her and said,
"There's something of me gone in the grave with poor Nell, Mary.
I don't know whether it's my faith or what it is, but my heart feels tired and I can't go on any more."
She went into the house and sat down in the kitchen, pale as a sheet, and ten years her age.
Listless, she shrugged her shoulders when Mary said she would fetch the doctor.
"It's too late, child," she said, "seventeen years too late." And she began to cry softly, who had never cried before.
Mary fetched the old doctor who lived at Mawgan and who had brought her into the world, and as he drove her back in his trap he shook his head at her.
"I tell you what it is, Mary," he said; "your mother has spared neither her mind nor her body since your father died, and she has broken down at last.
I don't like it. It's come at a bad time."
They drove along the twisting lane to the farmhouse at the top of the village.