- Title: The Toll-Gate
- Author: Georgette Heyer
- Genre: Romance
- Format: Paperback
- Source: Own
- Reviewed by: Olga
- Rating: 4 out of 5
Description: Captain John Staple, recently retired from the Dragoon Guards, left home for an adventure. When he came to a toll-gate untended except for a ten-year-old boy, he knew adventure had found him. Pretending to be an ordinary man, John thinks this will be a relatively tame job until he meets Nell Stornaway. Beautiful and competent, she is the granddaughter of the village squire and has taken on many of her grandfather’s responsibilities in his old age and illness. The two are destined for each other, but before true love’s course can run smoothly, there will be a hasty wedding, several deaths, a mystery solved, and justice served.
Review: This novel is not exactly a romance. It’s a mix of a love story and a mystery. The protagonist John Staple is a former army captain, big and amiable but extremely astute. During the Napoleonic wars, he was a dauntless officer, earning himself the nickname of Crazy Jack for his risky but invariably victorious escapades. Now retired from the army, he is chafing under the boredom of peaceful life. His mother wants him to get married and settle down (what else?). Their dialog is a perfect slice of John’s character, as well as a fair reflection of the author’s subtle humor.
She boxed his ears. “Odious boy! The fact of the matter is that it is a thousand pities we are not living in archaic times. What you would have liked, my son, is to have rescued some female from a dragon, or an ogre.”
“Famous good sport to have had a turn-up with a dragon,” he agreed. “As long as you didn’t find yourself with the girl left on your hands afterwards, which I’ve a strong notion those fellows did.”
“Such girls,” his mother reminded him, “were always very beautiful.”
“To be sure they were. Dead bores too, depend upon it! In fact, I shouldn’t be at all surprised if the dragons were very glad to get rid of ’em,” said John.
Restless and searching for a way to alleviate his tedium, John rides cross-country to his friend’s estate, but gets lost in a storm. He ends up spending the night at a tollgate house on a seldom used road. The gate man is unaccountably missing, and only his eleven-year-old son Ben minds the gate in his father’s absence, but the boy is scared out of his wits. Sensing a mystery and a diversion, John also feels sorry for the boy. He contemplates staying in the toll house for a while, playing the role of a toll master, and investigating the situation.
Then Nell, a young granddaughter of the local squire, rides through the gate, and John’s decision crystallizes. He can’t leave now, not when he perceives a vague danger hovering over Nell’s pretty head. Smitten with Nell, our valiant captain can’t resist the lure to play the hero.
The imbroglio escalates from this point on, including a villain, a Bow Street Runner, a missing treasure, and a noble highwayman. Although the action is building up slowly, John keeps his head through all the snafu and tumult, and in the end he slays Nell’s dragon for her. As you can guess, he doesn’t mind being left with her on his hands afterwards, not one bit.
The story is enjoyable, if not earth-shattering, but the characterizations are fantastic, as is often the case with Heyer’s novels. The language and the multiple dialogs are so delicious, so saucy, I savored every word.
Many characters, including the boy Ben, talk in atrocious cant, sometimes almost indecipherable to modern readers, but they all speak differently. Every character has his or her own unmistakable mannerisms of speech, recognizable and distinct. Heyer is definitely an incomparable Master of English.
Her vocabulary of old English words is tremendous, and her more interesting lines of dialog contain some rather uncomplimentary or derogatory terms that sent me, chuckling, to a dictionary more than once. Here is a selection of some choicest verbal tidbits found in this book:
Jobbernoll – an idiot
Hobbledehoy – an oaf
Slumguzzle – to trick
Bamboozle – to trick, to deceive (I’ve read this one before but I still like it.)
Humdudgeon – a grumpy person or a grumpy complaint
Blubberheaded – a stupid, inept person; blockhead
Hempseed – all the Google search results are about cannabis seeds. In Heyer’s usage, I think it means a fool.
Gapeseed – someone gaping stupidly
Goshswoggled – astonished (I guessed, no pertinent results in Google search.)
Fribble – a frivolous fool
Don’t you want to smile just reading this list?
Refreshing and recommended.