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bent, uneven roof and shapely stacks of chimneys, with the usual low archway in, or about, the centre, giving access to the stable-yard, and a grand old sign-board, supported by great brackets of scrolled iron-work, and further upheld by a post in the roadway (there is a curious old inn, the “Chequers," at Tunbridge, with its sign supported in a similar manner). The fine sign-board of the inn at Stilton bears the representation of a huge bell, and forms quite a feature in the building; the front of the latter has a delightful mellow, gray tone—a sort of bloom that only age can give, the priceless dower of centuries.
So charmed were we with this quaint and picturesque specimen of a past-time hostelry of the pre-coaching era, that we involuntarily pulled up to gaze upon it at our leisure, half afraid lest it should prove an illusion, and like a dream vanish into nothingness; but no, it was a happy reality, and not the delusion of a moment—it was “a something more than fiction.” Not often in these prosaic days does the driving tourist come upon a romance in stone like this, for romance was written large over all its time-toned walls—walls that since the hostelry was first raised, over three storied centuries ago, must have looked upon many strange sights and eventful doings. Then the highway to the North was in parts but little better than a track. The “gentlemen of the road” made travelling a doubtful delight, full of excitement, and more dangerous than tiger-hunting now is. Little wonder, therefore, that our medieval ancestors commended their souls to
“ THE BELL” AT STILTON
God before starting out on a journey ; even the early coaching bills took the precaution of stating that “the journey would be performed, God permitting.” The modern railway time-table compilers are not so particular!
Driving under the ancient archway, we entered the stable-yard of the “ Bell," and found that, in spite of the changed times and forsaken look of the place, we could put our horses up there, as well as obtain a meal for ourselves. Whereupon we ordered the best that the house could provide “for man and beast.” Having settled this necessary detail, we at once went outside and began work on a sketch of the ancient hostelry (an engraving which will be found with this chapter). So engrossed did we become with our pleasant task, that we forgot all about our meal, so the landlord had to come out to remind us about it. We excused ourselves by remarking that we could eat and drink any day, but not always had we the opportunity of sketching such a picturesque bit of building. The landlord simply smiled, and gazed at us inquiringly. What was passing in his mind I cannot say, but he remarked that our chops were getting cold. Possibly he wondered at any one preferring to stand outside in the roadway drawing an old inn, instead of sitting within it feasting. Moreover, he reminded us that he had some excellent ale. This was a sudden descent from the poetic to the practical, but the practical prevailed, for we had to confess to ourselves that we were hungry, and thirsty too; and as my wife pertinently remarked, “The chops won't wait, and the inn will; it has waited several hundreds of years where it is, and you can finish your sketch after lunch.” The argument was unanswerable, so we stepped within, and did ample justice to the repast that mine host had provided. I am inclined to think that the sketch did not suffer for the interruption, for a hungry man is apt to draw hastily, be he ever so enthusiastic about his work. Our repast finished and our drawing done, we sought out the landlord-a stout, jovial-looking personage ; may his shadow never grow less !—for a chat, in the hope of gleaning thereby some information or traditions about the old place, and were not wholly disappointed.
It appeared that mine host had been there thirtytwo years, and even in his recollection much of the stabling and a portion of the building in the rear also had gone to decay, and consequently was pulled down. He seemed proud of his ancient inn, but especially proud of the original sign-board, which, being of copper, for lightness, had not decayed, neither had it warped. “Now, I'll wager you cannot guess the height of it within a foot,” he exclaimed, looking up at the swinging board. We thought we could, it seemed an easy matter; so we guessed and failed! We conjectured five feet. “Ah!” exclaimed the landlord, “I knew you would guess wrong-everybody does. Why, it's six feet and two and threequarter inches high! I've been up on a ladder and measured it myself. It does look big when you're up close to it. There used to be lots of bets about it, I've heard, in the old coaching days, much to the profit of the drivers; for you see they knew the height and