THE SEVEN POOR TRAVELLERS
THE SEVEN POOR TRAVELLERS
CHAPTER I--IN THE OLD CITY OF ROCHESTER
Strictly speaking there were only six Poor Travellers; but being a
Traveller myself though an idle one and being withal as poor as I
hope to be I brought the number up to seven. This word of
explanation is due at once for what says the inscription over the
quaint old door?
RICHARD WATTS Esq.
by his Will dated 22 Aug. 1579
founded this Charity
for Six poor Travellers
who not being ROGUES or PROCTORS
May receive gratis for one Night
and Fourpence each.
It was in the ancient little city of Rochester in Kent of all the
good days in the year upon a Christmas-eve that I stood reading
this inscription over the quaint old door in question. I had been
wandering about the neighbouring Cathedral and had seen the tomb of
Richard Watts with the effigy of worthy Master Richard starting out
of it like a ship's figure-head; and I had felt that I could do no
less as I gave the Verger his fee than inquire the way to Watts's
Charity. The way being very short and very plain I had come
prosperously to the inscription and the quaint old door.
"Now" said I to myself as I looked at the knocker "I know I am
not a Proctor; I wonder whether I am a Rogue!"
Upon the whole though Conscience reproduced two or three pretty
faces which might have had smaller attraction for a moral Goliath
than they had had for me who am but a Tom Thumb in that way I came
to the conclusion that I was not a Rogue. So beginning to regard
the establishment as in some sort my property bequeathed to me and
divers co-legatees share and share alike by the Worshipful Master
Richard Watts I stepped backward into the road to survey my
I found it to be a clean white house of a staid and venerable air
with the quaint old door already three times mentioned (an arched
door) choice little long low lattice-windows and a roof of three
gables. The silent High Street of Rochester is full of gables with
old beams and timbers carved into strange faces. It is oddly
garnished with a queer old clock that projects over the pavement out
of a grave red-brick building as if Time carried on business there
and hung out his sign. Sooth to say he did an active stroke of
work in Rochester in the old days of the Romans and the Saxons
and the Normans; and down to the times of King John when the rugged
castle--I will not undertake to say how many hundreds of years old
then--was abandoned to the centuries of weather which have so
defaced the dark apertures in its walls that the ruin looks as if
the rooks and daws had pecked its eyes out.
I was very well pleased both with my property and its situation.
While I was yet surveying it with growing content I espied at one
of the upper lattices which stood open a decent body of a
wholesome matronly appearance whose eyes I caught inquiringly
addressed to mine. They said so plainly "Do you wish to see the
house?" that I answered aloud "Yes if you please." And within a
minute the old door opened and I bent my head and went down two
steps into the entry.
"This" said the matronly presence ushering me into a low room on
the right "is where the Travellers sit by the fire and cook what
bits of suppers they buy with their fourpences."
"O! Then they have no Entertainment?" said I. For the inscription
over the outer door was still running in my head and I was mentally
repeating in a kind of tune "Lodging entertainment and fourpence
"They have a fire provided for 'em" returned the matron--a mighty
civil person not as I could make out overpaid; "and these cooking
utensils. And this what's painted on a board is the rules for their
behaviour. They have their fourpences when they get their tickets
from the steward over the way--for I don't admit 'em myself they
must get their tickets first--and sometimes one buys a rasher of
bacon and another a herring and another a pound of potatoes or
what not. Sometimes two or three of 'em will club their fourpences
together and make a supper that way. But not much of anything is
to be got for fourpence at present when provisions is so dear."
"True indeed" I remarked. I had been looking about the room
admiring its snug fireside at the upper end its glimpse of the
street through the low mullioned window and its beams overhead.
"It is very comfortable" said I.
"Ill-conwenient" observed the matronly presence.
I liked to hear her say so; for it showed a commendable anxiety to
execute in no niggardly spirit the intentions of Master Richard
Watts. But the room was really so well adapted to its purpose that
I protested quite enthusiastically against her disparagement.
"Nay ma'am" said I "I am sure it is warm in winter and cool in
summer. It has a look of homely welcome and soothing rest. It has
a remarkably cosey fireside the very blink of which gleaming out
into the street upon a winter night is enough to warm all
Rochester's heart. And as to the convenience of the six Poor
"I don't mean them" returned the presence. "I speak of its being
an ill-conwenience to myself and my daughter having no other room
to sit in of a night."
This was true enough but there was another quaint room of
corresponding dimensions on the opposite side of the entry: so I
stepped across to it through the open doors of both rooms and
asked what this chamber was for.
"This" returned the presence "is the Board Room. Where the
gentlemen meet when they come here."
Let me see. I had counted from the street six upper windows besides
these on the ground-story. Making a perplexed calculation in my
mind I rejoined "Then the six Poor Travellers sleep upstairs?"
My new friend shook her head. "They sleep" she answered "in two
little outer galleries at the back where their beds has always
been ever since the Charity was founded. It being so very ill-
conwenient to me as things is at present the gentlemen are going to
take off a bit of the back-yard and make a slip of a room for 'em
there to sit in before they go to bed."
"And then the six Poor Travellers" said I "will be entirely out of
"Entirely out of the house" assented the presence comfortably
smoothing her hands. "Which is considered much better for all
parties and much more conwenient."
I had been a little startled in the Cathedral by the emphasis with
which the effigy of Master Richard Watts was bursting out of his
tomb; but I began to think now that it might be expected to come
across the High Street some stormy night and make a disturbance
Howbeit I kept my thoughts to myself and accompanied the presence
to the little galleries at the back. I found them on a tiny scale
like the galleries in old inn-yards; and they were very clean.
While I was looking at them the matron gave me to understand that
the prescribed number of Poor Travellers were forthcoming every
night from year's end to year's end; and that the beds were always
occupied. My questions upon this and her replies brought us back
to the Board Room so essential to the dignity of "the gentlemen"
where she showed me the printed accounts of the Charity hanging up
by the window. From them I gathered that the greater part of the
property bequeathed by the Worshipful Master Richard Watts for the
maintenance of this foundation was at the period of his death mere
marsh-land; but that in course of time it had been reclaimed and
built upon and was very considerably increased in value. I found
too that about a thirtieth part of the annual revenue was now
expended on the purposes commemorated in the inscription over the
door; the rest being handsomely laid out in Chancery law expenses
collectorship receivership poundage and other appendages of
management highly complimentary to the importance of the six Poor
Travellers. In short I made the not entirely new discovery that it
may be said of an establishment like this in dear old England as
of the fat oyster in the American story that it takes a good many
men to swallow it whole.
"And pray ma'am" said I sensible that the blankness of my face
began to brighten as the thought occurred to me "could one see
"Well!" she returned dubiously "no!"
"Not to-night for instance!" said I.
"Well!" she returned more positively "no. Nobody ever asked to see
them and nobody ever did see them."
As I am not easily balked in a design when I am set upon it I urged
to the good lady that this was Christmas-eve; that Christmas comes
but once a year--which is unhappily too true for when it begins to
stay with us the whole year round we shall make this earth a very
different place; that I was possessed by the desire to treat the
Travellers to a supper and a temperate glass of hot Wassail; that
the voice of Fame had been heard in that land declaring my ability
to make hot Wassail; that if I were permitted to hold the feast I
should be found conformable to reason sobriety and good hours; in
a word that I could be merry and wise myself and had been even
known at a pinch to keep others so although I was decorated with no
badge or medal and was not a Brother Orator Apostle Saint or
Prophet of any denomination whatever. In the end I prevailed to my
great joy. It was settled that at nine o'clock that night a Turkey
and a piece of Roast Beef should smoke upon the board; and that I
faint and unworthy minister for once of Master Richard Watts should
preside as the Christmas-supper host of the six Poor Travellers.
I went back to my inn to give the necessary directions for the
Turkey and Roast Beef and during the remainder of the day could
settle to nothing for thinking of the Poor Travellers. When the
wind blew hard against the windows--it was a cold day with dark
gusts of sleet alternating with periods of wild brightness as if
the year were dying fitfully--I pictured them advancing towards
their resting-place along various cold roads and felt delighted to
think how little they foresaw the supper that awaited them. I
painted their portraits in my mind and indulged in little
heightening touches. I made them footsore; I made them weary; I
made them carry packs and bundles; I made them stop by finger-posts
and milestones leaning on their bent sticks and looking wistfully
at what was written there; I made them lose their way; and filled
their five wits with apprehensions of lying out all night and being
frozen to death. I took up my hat and went out climbed to the top
of the Old Castle and looked over the windy hills that slope down
to the Medway almost believing that I could descry some of my
Travellers in the distance. After it fell dark and the Cathedral
bell was heard in the invisible steeple--quite a bower of frosty
rime when I had last seen it--striking five six seven I became so
full of my Travellers that I could eat no dinner and felt
constrained to watch them still in the red coals of my fire. They
were all arrived by this time I thought had got their tickets and
were gone in.--There my pleasure was dashed by the reflection that
probably some Travellers had come too late and were shut out.
After the Cathedral bell had struck eight I could smell a delicious
savour of Turkey and Roast Beef rising to the window of my adjoining
bedroom which looked down into the inn-yard just where the lights
of the kitchen reddened a massive fragment of the Castle Wall. It
was high time to make the Wassail now; therefore I had up the
materials (which together with their proportions and combinations
I must decline to impart as the only secret of my own I was ever