I took my seat in the railway train for the station nearest Olney—that of Wolverton. And the night fell ere we had gone over half the way.
I had now had some little experience of railway travelling in England, and a not inadequate idea of the kind of quiet, comfortable-looking people whom I might expect to meet in a second-class carriage. But my fellow-passengers this evening were of a different stamp. They were chiefly, almost exclusively indeed, of the male sex—vulgar, noisy, ruffian-like fellows, full of coarse oaths and dogged asseverations, and singularly redolent of gin; and I was quite glad enough, when the train stopped at the Wolverton station, that I was to get rid of them. At the station, however, they came out en masse. All the other carriages disgorged similar cargoes; and I found myself in the middle of a crowd that represented very unfairly the people of England. It was now nine o’clock. I had intended passing the night in the inn at Wolverton, and then walking on in the morning to Olney, a distance of nine miles; but when I came to the inn, I found it all ablaze with light, and all astir with commotion. Candles glanced in every window; and a thorough Babel of sound—singing, quarrelling, bell-ringing, thumping, stamping, and the clatter of mugs and glasses—issued from every apartment. I turned away from the door, and met, under the lee of a fence which screened him from observation, a rural policeman. “What is all this about?” I asked. “Do you not know?” was the reply. “No; I am quite a stranger here.” “Ah, there are many strangers here. But do you not know?” “I have no idea whatever,” I reiterated; “I am on my way to Olney, and had intended spending the night here, but would prefer walking on, to passing it in such a house as that.” “Oh, beg pardon; I thought you had been one of themselves: Bendigo of Nottingham has challenged Caunt of London to fight for the championship. The battle comes on tomorrow, somewhere hereabouts; and we have got all the blackguards in England, south and north, let loose upon us. If you walk on to Newport Pagnell just four miles—you will no doubt get a bed; but the way is lonely, and there have been already several robberies since nightfall.” “I shall take my chance of that,” I said. “Ah,—well—your best way, then, is to walk straight forwards, at a smart pace, keeping the middle of the highway, and stopping for no one.” I thanked the friendly policeman, and took the road. It was a calm pleasant night; the moon in her first quarter, was setting dim and lightless in the west; and an incipient frost, in the form of a thin film of blue vapour, rested in the lower hollows.
The way was quite lonely enough; nor were the few straggling travellers whom I met of a kind suited to render its solitariness more cheerful. About half-way on, where the road runs between tall hedges, two fellows started out towards me, one from each side of the way. “Is this the road,” asked one, “to Newport Pagnell?” “Quite a stranger here,” I replied, without slackening my pace; “don’t belong to the kingdom even.” “No!” said the same fellow, increasing his speed, as if to overtake me; “to what kingdom, then?” “Scotland,” I said, turning suddenly round, somewhat afraid of being taken from behind by a bludgeon. The two fellows sheered off in double quick time, the one who had already addressed me, muttering, “More like an Irishman, I think;” and I saw no more of them. I had luckily a brace of loaded pistols about me, and had at the moment a trigger under each fore-finger; and though the ruffians—for such I doubt not they were—could scarcely have been cognizant of the fact, they seemed to have made at least a shrewd approximation towards it. In the autumn of 1842, during the great depression of trade, when the entire country seemed in a state of disorganization, and the law in some of the mining districts failed to protect the lieges, I was engaged in following out a course of geologic exploration in our Lothian Coal Field; and, unwilling to suspend my labours, had got the pistols, to do for myself, if necessary, what the authorities at the time could not do for me. But I had fortunately found no use for them, though I had visited many a lonely hollow and little-frequented water-course—exactly the sort of place in which, a century ago, one would have been apt to raise footpads as one now starts hares; and in crossing the Borders, I had half resolved to leave them behind me. They gave confidence, however, in unknown neighbourhoods, or when travelling alone in the night-time; and so I had brought them with me into England, to support, if necessary, the majesty of the law and the rights of the liege subject, and certainly did not regret this evening that I had.
I entered Newport Pagnell a little after ten o’clock, and found all its inns exactly such scenes of riot and uproar as the inn at Wolverton. There was the same display of glancing lights in the windows, and the same wild hubbub of sound. On I went. A decent mechanic, with a white apron before him, whom I found in the street, assured me there was no chance of getting a bed in Newport Pagnell, but that I might possibly get one at Skirvington, a village on the Olney road, about three miles further on. And so, leaving Newport Pagnell behind me, I set out for Skirvington. It was now wearing late, and I met no more travellers: the little bit of a moon had been down the hill for more than an hour, the fog rime had thickened, and the trees by the wayside loomed through the clouds like giants in dominos. In passing through Skirvington, I had to stoop down and look between me and the sky for sign posts. There were no lights in houses, save here and there in an upper casement; and all was quiet as in a churchyard. By dint of sky-gazing, I discovered an inn, and rapped hard at the door. It was opened by the landlord sans coat and waiscoat. There was no bed to be had there, he said; the beds were all occupied by travellers who could get no accommodation in Newport Pagnell; but there was another inn in the place further on, though it wasn’t unlikely, as it didn’t much business, the family had gone to bed. This was small comfort. I had, however, made up my mind that if I failed in finding entertainment at inn the second, I should address myself to hay-rick the first; but better fortune awaited me. I sighted my way to the other sign-post of the village: the lights within had gone up stairs to the attics; but as I tapped and tapped, one of them came trippingly down; it stood pondering behind the door for half a second, as if in deliberation, and then bolt and bar were withdrawn, and a very pretty young Englishwoman stood in the door-way. “Could I get accommodation there for a night—supper and bed?” There was a hesitating glance at my person, followed by a very welcome “yes;” and thus closed the adventures of the evening. On the following morning I walked on to Olney. It was with some little degree of solicitude that, in a quiet corner by the way, remote from cottages, I tried my pistols to ascertain what sort of a defence I would have made had the worst come to the worst in the encounter of the previous evening. Pop, pop!—they went off beautifully, and sent their bullets through an inch board; and so in all probability I should have succeeded in astonishing the “fancy-men.”