Christmas At The Inn – A Play In One Act

by richardhutton

91

Setting: two dining quarters in a small inn, separated by a grey curtain, which is heavy with dust; and drawn between the two rooms. The room on the left is the ‘Master’s Quarter’, reserved for high-paying guests; on the right is the dining area kept aside for servants, and for the lowlier guests at the inn.

The masters’ quarter is very fine, lit by a large fire and a three-branched silver candelabrum on the table: yet despite the light cast by these, the room still seems gloomy; and the areas not close to the fireplace are in heavy shadow. The masters’ room is quiet. The sound of the fire crackling away, and chairs when they scrape on the stone floor, are clearly audible. There is a coat-stand towards the back of the room, with an expensively tailored coat hanging on it. To the left hand-side of the Master’s quarter is a small, unlit corridor.

The servants’ area is very spartan, slightly smaller than the masters’ room, unheated; and it has only a candle for light – but it’s bright enough to see the faces of the people in the room by. It is a working room, with cupboards on the wall; and tankards, pots and pans hanging up. There is a door in the right hand side wall. The inn’s servant is sitting at the table, eating. The table itself is a plain wooden one; and has two benches for seats.

The Innkeeper and his wife are in the masters’ dining room. The Innkeeper’s wife is seated on a wooden chair, embroidering. Two guests – Lord Featherstone-Hough of Wensleydale, and his wife – are seated at the highly polished table in the middle of the masters’ dining quarter, eating – with silence between them. The Innkeeper is hovering about them noticeably. Both the Lord and the Innkeeper wear periwigs. Featherstone-Hough’s is voluminous and white; the Innkeeper’s is less ample and dark grey.

It is night-time. The Featherstone-Houghs are eating at the inn, while taking a break during the return journey to their home estate. Their coach is outside; ready and waiting for them to finish.

(Innkeeper) Lord Featherstone-Hough…
(Featherstone-Hough) [Glowers] Fan-shaw. Fan-shaw.
(Innkeeper) I see, I see. I do apologise, Lord Fanshaw.
(Featherstone-Hough) Yes; well.
(Innkeeper) Indeed I do, sir.
My wife must have written your name down quite incorrectly.
Will it be the full three-courses tonight, sir?
[Featherstone-Hough nods]
(Innkeeper) And coffee, and dessert? We have the most splendid…
(Featherstone-Hough) Yes, yes. Put it on my tab.
(Innkeeper) Yes, of course. Actually…
(Featherstone-Hough) Good man. You can add a tip to it.
(Innkeeper) Well, thank you, my lord, but…
(Featherstone-Hough) A respectable one.
(Innkeeper) A…pound?
(Featherstone-Hough) Two percent of the overall bill would be tolerable.
(Innkeeper) [Under breath] A pound it is then.
(Featherstone-Hough) What?
(Innkeeper) Nothing. Nothing – I will take no tip.
An honest ‘keeper’s wage is enough of a reward for me.
A privilege, even. A godsend. Ask no more, I say.
(Featherstone-Hough) It is at your discretion.
(Innkeeper) Well…
(Featherstone-Hough) Well what?
(Innkeeper) Truly sir, I am no more than a fellow that would make ends meet.
(Wife) And a tidy profit.
(Innkeeper) Be quiet.
(Featherstone-Hough) [Chewing, swallows] A scold was once made to wear a bridle.
(Innkeeper) I assure you, my lord, my wife has never once attempted to fasten any such thing on me.
She has certainly never succeeded. She knows her station.
The one we have is kept purely for the mice. It makes an excellent mousetrap. In fact…
(Featherstone-Hough) Mice?
(Innkeeper) We have no mice here, my lord. Certainly, none has ever been seen in this vicinity.
Whispered of, perhaps; but the bridle is merely an ornament, an antique, a family heirloom.

[The Innkeeper gathers empty crockery, and prepares further dishes]

(Featherstone-Hough) Marriage is just a simple question of respect.
(Innkeeper) My Lord Fanshaw, I do apologise.
(Featherstone-Hough) Yes; well.
(Innkeeper) Indeed I do, sir. I do indeed, sir. You must forgive my wife.
She’s not used to such distinguished, gracious company.
She doesn’t know how to behave herself accordingly.

[The Innkeeper’s wife puts her embroidery down, stands up and motions her husband into the corridor. The Featherstone-Houghs continue to eat in silence].

(Wife) He still hasn’t paid the bill his party racked up last year.
(Innkeeper) I know that!
(Wife) Well, are you going to ask him about it?
(Innkeeper) Of course, of course.
But there are means and ways – means and ways.
See, we need to attract a better class of visitor to this establishment.
Nothing works better than endorsements from the gentry.
You need money in order to make money…
(Wife) Well, that’s my point.
(Innkeeper) …horse dealers and bank clerks are all well and good;
But it’s the nobility who really pay by the pound –
And you need connections – a reputation and a standing – not riff-raff and refuse…
(Wife) Paying customers.
(Innkeeper) … muddying up the place embarrassing them to high heavens.
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. It’s quite simple really.
This will be the finest inn, on the finest road – in the finest country in the world.
The service will be magnificent: the porcelain exquisite;
The tea-pots of silver, the canteens likewise; bread-baskets gilt with lace;
Beer-tankards and flagons of pewter; a tea-urn decorated with gold.
People will be able to purchase an experience of gentility. That’s the ticket.
Who knows? With enough of a turnover I could buy a title;
One may even be forthcoming.
The gentry will surely wish to be guests in an established house –
The acquaintances of an equal would be fitting, perhaps even…
Well, at any rate, not visitors to a mere tradesman’s lowly hub.
It will mean having to turn some custom away, of course –
But you can’t climb the ranks without leaving the lower orders behind.

[The Inn’s bell rings noisily: the Innkeeper gives his wife a signal with a nod of his head; she then goes to answer the door – off stage – while the Innkeeper returns to the masters’ dining room. A few moments pass while the Innkeeper waits on Featherstone-Hough, rubbing has hands, partly with cold from standing in the corridor. The Innkeeper’s wife calls his name indistinguishably: the Innkeeper leans his head out of the dining room, into the corridor. He and his wife exchange words; though only the Innkeeper’s are audible].

(Innkeeper) What? No, no, no. No! There’s no room.
I’m sorry, but we can’t house everybody.
No. No. No. How much? Well, there’s the shed if you clear-out the firewood.
Fine. There’s space in the stable.
Look, it’s the best that I can do.
There’s a bucket. There’s a trough. There’s a floor.
Fine. I’ll fetch a blanket – just let me finish up here first.
And I want a deposit – up front.
[To Featherstone-Hough – shaking his head]
I do apologise for the interruption, my goodly lord.
A gypsy stable hand and his wife. [Tuts]
Is there anything you require, your graciousness?
(Featherstone-Hough) [Talking with mouth full, without looking at the Innkeeper, mumbles vaguely].
(Innkeeper) Brandy? Brandy – the very best [scurries and fetches it from a cupboard].
Fully French. Well, part Swiss, I think. Or Belgian.
[Featherstone-Hough – shakes head]
(Innkeeper) No? What then, your superbness?
Whisky? Rum? Surely not beer? Perhaps ale?
[Featherstone-Hough nonchalantly nods towards the Innkeeper’s breast-pocket]
(Innkeeper) My handkerchief?
[Hands it over to Featherstone-Hough, who empties his mouth into it, then hands it back without a word].
(Innkeeper) Thank you.

[The Innkeeper’s wife re-enters the room – the Innkeeper gives the handkerchief to her, and she puts it resignedly into a bin; before taking her seat and stitching again].

(Wife) They’re just putting their things in the stable. They’ll be through in a minute.

[Another guest staying at the inn passes through the room – his overcoat is wet and heavy – en route to the servants’ quarter. The man cheerily addresses Featherstone-Hough and his wife]

(Guest) How do you do, fella; misses?
(Featherstone-Hough) [Puts down his cutlery in disgust] Impudence!

[The guest leaves the curtain open and sits down noisily opposite the Inn’s servant: his voice carries from room to room].

(Guest) It’s bloody freezing out! It’s bloody freezing in!
What’s the eats? Bread? Ale? Ooh, not bad that.
The old gadger and ‘is missus next-door could do with a bit, by the looks of things.

[The guest laughs. The Innkeeper closes the curtain and grimaces].

(Innkeeper) The common herd [tuts] – no manners my good lord.
Little respect for their betters – for you – nevermind propriety.
(Innkeeper) [To his wife] I told you to send the meagre guests to the tradesman’s entrance.
Go and make sure the newcomers go that way.

[His wife puts her embroidery down, gets up and goes through the servants’ quarter off stage].

(Featherstone-Hough) A failure to defer to masters can have fatal consequences.
(Innkeeper) How so, my good lord?
(Featherstone-Hough) [Speaking with his mouth half-full]
Free and easy intercourse propagates the most dangerous and immoral opinions.
The designs the lower orders have, once voiced, give way to sedition.
I have seen it. I see something of it in your wife.
(Innkeeper) My wife? Yes, well, she persists, but she’s …
(Featherstone-Hough) The wife…[still chewing].
(Innkeeper) Yes, my decency; yes your gracious lord. I cannot apologise enough.
(Fanshaw) [points to his own wife with his knife-blade]
A marriage of forty-five years, and evermore.
(Innkeeper) An example – a sterling example.
Even for a lowly, trustworthy, commendable tradesman,
Whose own spouse is often quite the cause for pity.
(Featherstone-Hough) Pithy; quite.
(Innkeeper) Oh, don’t get me started. You know [Featherstone-Hough empties his mouth into a napkin]…oh.

[The Innkeeper’s wife re-enters the servants’ quarter through the door on the right-hand side, with a young couple – both are dressed poorly; the woman is mid-term, and unable to walk in complete comfort. The Inn’s servant is talking quietly to the voluble guest. The young couple take a seat near them: the man sits next to the guest, the woman – evidently very tired and discomforted – is helped to sit down next to the servant by the Innkeeper’s wife, who then fetches them food and drink, before returning to her own chair in the Masters’ room].

(Innkeeper) [To wife] No, no – go back around – the curtain must remain closed from now on.

[The Innkeeper’s wife ignores him and retakes her seat].

(Featherstone-Hough) It reminds me of France.
(Innkeeper) France? Oh no, no – none of that goes on here.
I keep a clean, respectable, upright…
(Featherstone-Hough) The indecorousness of the French woman is a sign of the times.
Uncouth and loutish. Fit for no gentleman on earth.
The restaurants are no different.
(Innkeeper) The license? The tawdriness? The ease?
(Featherstone-Hough) The seating arrangements.
Nobody chooses their neighbours; social precedence is considered irrelevant;
One is forced to take a seat next to the natives.
Those of a more genteel sensibility
Naturally prefer to dine in their own quarters, however confined.
(Innkeeper) Oh, yes. Of course. The only way to ensure a quiet meal.
(Featherstone-Hough) Conversation spoils good company.
Familiarity is the ruin of polite society.
The French converse freely with associates in the presence of strangers,
Without displaying any unease.
(Innkeeper) Disgraceful; truly atrocious.
(Featherstone-Hough) French shop-keepers would stare at you until their eyes were fit to rupture.
(Innkeeper) Oh, how horrid.
(Featherstone-Hough) It has arrived here.
The behaviour of the English plebeians has taken a notable turn for the worse.
It was mortifying when we arrived back in England.
Being looked upon in our carriage by all the idlers and common debris of society –
Staring and gaping at you like fish on a riverbank.
It’s what I said to the Parliamentarian we met in Dover – may he perish –
‘The obliging civility of the common people
Has been replaced with presumptions and insolence’.
I saw him writing it down.
(Innkeeper) Of course, of course. They’re all the same.
They visit us here all the time.
Government officials, health inspectors – all alike.
Always with the same attitude.

[Back in the servants’ quarter: all four people are sitting consciously close to each other for warmth].

(Servant) ‘S alright – draw near. Warmer that way. [To the original guest]
You’re itching – do you have fleas, man?
(Guest) Probably – if the horses have them.
(Young man) [Polite but weary] You sell horses?
(Guest) No, no: I sell the manure.
Costs nothing to produce, does it? But farmers pay for it by the barrel!
Terrific stuff – and a painless living.
(Young Man) It beats scratches and blisters, that’s for sure.
(Guest) Absolutely. As good as gold. And everyone needs to eat.
And none by the Lords and Ladies smell any better than I do, friend.

[The Innkeeper leans his head into the room and motions to the servant; who puts his own cutlery down, comes through and clears Featherstone-Hough’s table – taking the crockery to a small stand at the side of the room, and setting the dessert bowls – but remains in the room standing next to the fire. Featherstone-Hough has a spoon poised near his mouth but refuses to eat until the servant leaves. Eventually he puts his cutlery down forcefully].

(Featherstone-Hough) The servant.
(Innkeeper) Yes my lord. An excellent vassal.
(Featherstone-Hough) [Aggressively] It is degrading to be expected to eat in the presence of the lower orders.
(Innkeeper) [To the servant] Why are you standing there?
(Servant) It’s cold out there – my hands…
(Featherstone-Hough) Can’t afford to heat the servants’ quarters?
(Innkeeper) Nonsense – it’s perfectly well heated.
A veritable mountain of logs; a roaring fire.
(Servant) Not in the least…
(Innkeeper) Be quiet!

[The Servant goes to draw the curtain – the Innkeeper intervenes, and shoves the servant through, who knocks into the table spilling the guest’s ale on the floor. The Innkeeper’s wife gives her husband a look].

(Innkeeper) What? I pay the man enough.
(Wife) In food and lodging.
(Innkeeper) Precisely.
(Wife) It’s mid-winter and you make him sleep in the stable, and the dysentery…
(Innkeeper) [Coughs very loudly].
(Featherstone-Hough) Every inn should invest in a dumb-waiter.
(Innkeeper) Don’t be so sure.
(Featherstone-Hough) Yes; a dumb-waiter –
A small lift that hauls comestibles up and down from the basement.
Purchase one. The quietness is delightful – one forgets its existence;
As opposed to a mute servant and their silent insistence.
(Innkeeper) We have no basement here, my good lord.
We are but a small tavern – the ceilings are low, the walls are thin,
The plastering – if you’ll notice….
(Featherstone-Hough) Very well. Give me wine. The red.
(Innkeeper) Of course.

[The Innkeeper calls the servant back in; who leaves the curtain open. The guest’s voice is heard through the aperture: ‘the arse on it’ – the Innkeeper coughs again and closes the curtain. After serving the Featherstone-Houghs, the servant retakes his position standing next to the fire].

(Featherstone-Hough) The servant.
(Innkeeper) What? Oh, yes, of course. [Points to servant] You – out.
[Motions to wife] You – clear the table.
(Wife) Get bent.
(Innkeeper) What?
(Wife) Get…

[The Innkeeper splutters, and ushers his wife along with the servant, from the master’s room into the servants’ quarter – but realises he will have to clear the table himself and draws his wife back in].

(Innkeeper) Go and sit down and be quiet until I tell you. Get the coffee.
(Wife) And supposing…
(Innkeeper) [Marches her forcefully over to her chair by the arm] Silence. Not a word.

[His wife sits down and takes up her embroidery again. The servant has re-taken his seat at the table in the poor quarters. The Innkeeper goes back into the servants’ quarter, and addresses the servant].

(Innkeeper) Coffee, now.

[The servant gets back up and serves the Featherstone-Houghs; when he’s finished the Innkeeper bustles him back out again].

(Featherstone-Hough) [Speech slightly slurred] Worse, even worse on the continent.
Throughout our stay in France,
We’d been obliged to drink our wine and break our bread
In the same room as postilions, labourers and tradesmen.
They almost strove to drink out of the same glass at times;
Not content with drinking from the same bottle.
(Innkeeper) Oh my word, how horrid. My lord, I mean. Appalling.
(Featherstone-Hough) Time was, a person knew their place;
Time was, those who did not would merit the sword.
(Innkeeper) Lamentably no more. What has happened to the era of good manners?
You know, just the other day…
(Featherstone-Hough) At one inn, there was a Dutch footman –
(Innkeeper) Oh the Dutch! Don’t even get me started…
(Featherstone-Hough) … he refused to sit with his fellow servants,
Or remove his hat in our presence.
He would go into the servants’ quarter, cut himself a slice of bread,
And return to the parlour to eat it, speaking to his master and the ladies as equals.
Of course, the other servants were laughing all the while
At the thought of their masters dining with a servant.
(Innkeeper) Rightly so. Rightly so. Or wrongly so. Wrongly so.
The thought of a gentleman dining with a subordinate present. Outlandish.
(Featherstone-Hough) The French kindness to inferiors is spreading. It has arrived here.
It is a threat to civilization, no less – to good Christian society.
The French ease and familiarity;
Their easy going attitude towards mixing with lesser breeds.
Revolution is in the air.
(Innkeeper) Never fear, never fear. This is England.
(Featherstone-Hough) [Inebriation showing] The lowest and dullest of mankind outnumber us.
The French common have begun to get ideas above their station. Ideas spread.
Half-bred, half-educated. A herd, pushing at the gate.
So many persons there have raised themselves by their own exertions…
(Innkeeper) Contemptible. The Lord orders the estate, and all that.
(Featherstone-Hough) …indeed, so much so that everyone thinks himself entitled to rise.
Very few are contented to remain in the rank to which they were born.
(Innkeeper) Oh, I know, it’s like…
(Featherstone-Hough) It’s like breeding a horse.
If you maintain good stock, you produce a superior animal.
If you mix the mediocre elements with higher ones, however,
You get an inferior creature with pauce haunches and gimbly legs.
Unfit to win any race; unfit to pull a coach.
Unfit for any purpose, in fact. Useless.
(Innkeeper) Oh, yes. True breeding is…
(Featherstone-Hough) A matter of birth.

[The clatter of tankards being slammed onto the table and raucous laughter from the servants’ quarter peals forth].

(Innkeeper) Oh for God’s sake; what now? Excuse me.

[The Innkeeper goes into the servants’ quarter drawing the curtain behind him. He sees the ale spilled on the floor].

(Innkeeper) [Barking] Look at this mess!
[To the servant] You’re paying for this! This is coming out of your wages!
No, stay in your seat!
[To the three guests] You, you, and you: you sit in your places;
Don’t move an inch until I say so!
[To the servant] Clear this mess up!
It’s what you’re paid for, isn’t it?
In fact, no. Go to the stable – I’ll sort it out myself –
Where’s my wife?
[To the Guest] You as well – beat it. This is the second night in a row this has happened.
[To the young couple, morosely] You stay where you are: finish your food,
Then I’ll have my wife take you to your beds.

[The servant and the Guest get up, and exit via the door to the right; the young couple remain seated while the Innkeeper wipes the table down and dabs the floor. Meanwhile, Featherstone-Hough and his wife put down their cutlery quietly and leave without paying their bill; slinking calmly out through the corridor to the left, in a deft and practiced motion – Featherstone-Hough’s wife unhappily, but impassively, following her husband’s lead. The Innkeeper’s wife remains seated, silently, on the Innkeeper’s instruction; embroidering obstinately as they slope past. The Innkeeper returns].

(Wife) Your lord and his lady have left.
(Innkeeper) Be quiet!
(Wife) He hasn’t paid his bill.
(Innkeeper) Nonsense. His Lordship would never behave like a common…he will have left the money.
(Wife) He hasn’t.
(Innkeeper) Of course he has! He’s the fifth Lord of Wensleydale!
They don’t just bloody… wait.
You mean he didn’t pay you while I…?
No – it must just have been his distaste for …
He must have left it for me, somewhere.
No [checks the table for a bill] – no member of the nobility could be so…
You’re right; he hasn’t paid.
Not even for today’s fare. He hasn’t paid!
(Wife) He hasn’t paid his bill.
(Innkeeper) He hasn’t paid his bill!
(Wife) Apparently not; no.
(Innkeeper) A thief! A thief!
Nothing but a swindling, low-down dirty rotten common crooked thief!
Nobility! Nobility! High and mighty!
Nothing but a common crook!
Sitting there, picking his teeth like a common ragabond!
(Wife) Vagabond.
(Innkeeper) Spitting his offal into my handkerchief – my napkins.
(Wife) My embroidering.
(Innkeeper) Who’s the real beggar? The real low-life? That’s what I ask.
That’s what I want to know! And the worst thing – the worst thing! –
They’ll be half-way to Yorkshire by now!
If he wasn’t – if he wasn’t…if he comes back…
Well, I’ll not accept his custom again.
He’ll be turned away at the door like the first-rate fiddling felon he is.
Him and all his friends!
(Wife) Indeed.
(Innkeeper) Oh, don’t you see if I won’t! Drifting moochers.
I’d rather have the stable-hands pay visit –
They may not be up to much, but at least they pay.
In fact, yes, bring them in – go and invite them in.
(Wife) I will in a few minutes. I’ll let them finish their…
(Innkeeper) No, no, do it now. Do it now. Go on. I’ll set the table myself.
They may be poor, but they’re the true nobility, oh yes.
Honest labourers – the salt of the earth.
I’ll set the table for them myself. I will. Yes, I’m not too proud to.
I’ll have no airs and graces in this place. Paying customers are paying customers.

[The Innkeeper’s wife goes into the servants’ quarter to fetch the young couple. The Innkeeper begins to set the table; he thinks briefly about setting the remaining wine out, but decides against it; corking the bottle instead and putting it back into the cupboard. His wife returns with the couple – both sit down slightly awkwardly on the plush chairs. The Innkeeper’s wife re-takes her own seat and begins embroidering with her eyes averted].

(Innkeeper) Come, come. Sit down, sit down.
Here, have a glass of…water; have something to eat.
This is the finest mutton we have.
Beats bread and ale, doesn’t it?
[Talking to to himself] The Fifth Lord of Wensleydale.
Nothing but a common tapster – silk stockings, lace garters, velvet cloak!
A villain’s costume. A heart like a halibut – a face like a cod!
You know, there’s no wonder they secretly use prostitutes to improve the…

[Featherstone-Hough re-appears from the corridor].

(Innkeeper) My lord – you’ve returned.

[The Innkeeper looks from the Lord to the young couple, and hustles the pair of them out of the master’s quarter immediately, tipping the woman off her chair].

(Innkeeper) Get out, go on, get out! How dare you take the lordship’s place?
Sloping in here without my knowledge!

[Both return to the servants’ quarter].

(Featherstone-Hough) [Off-handed] I left my coat; be a good man and fetch it will you?
(Innkeeper) [Bows politely] Yes of course; at once my lord.

[The Innkeeper nods to his wife, who sighs imperceptibly, and puts down her embroidery. She then goes to the coat-stand, and returns with Featherstone-Hough’s coat. She walks past Featherstone-Hough and hands it pointedly to the Innkeeper, who places it around the shoulders of Featherstone-Hough; who then begins to depart].

(Featherstone-Hough) [On the threshold of the door] Oh, the bill…
(Innkeeper) Oh, don’t trouble yourself, my Lord. I’ll put it on your tab.
Such an esteemed guest.
Such worthy company, your decency: worth its own weight in gold.
Will attract untold custom, your having graced us with your presence.
In fact, it would surely only further our prosperity all the more
If you were to visit us again in good time, regardless of cost.
(Featherstone-Hough) Yes, yes.
(Innkeeper) Bring your friends, your acquaintances.
I’ll have my wife set up a special waiting room for you.
We’ll set up tabs for all.

[Featherstone-Hough walks out of the room, and out of sight down the corridor].

(Innkeeper) [Calls] We’ll name it after you! [Quietly] ‘The Featherstone-Hough suite’.
(Fanshaw) [Calls back] Fan-shaw. Fan-shaw.
(Innkeeper) Yes, my Lord.

[Scene ends]

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