It is 1820. Mary Yellan, twenty three years old, was brought up on a farm in Cornwall. After her mother’s death, Mary goes to live with her only surviving relative, her mother’s sister, Patience Merlyn, in a coaching inn called Jamaica Inn. Patience’s husband, Joss Merlyn, is a local bully, stands almost seven feet tall and is a drunk. On arriving at the gloomy and threatening inn, Mary finds her aunt in a ghost-like state under the thumb of the vicious Joss, and soon realises that something unusual is afoot at the inn, which has no guests and is never open to the public…
There was a footfall outside the door, and with a sinking heart Mary realised that Joss Merlyn had come downstairs again, and had in all possibility listened to his wife’s conversation. Aunt Patience heard him too, for she turned pale, and began to work her mouth. He came into the room, and looked from one to the other.
‘So the hens are clacking already?’ he said, the smile and the laugh gone, his eyes narrow. ‘You’ll soon stop your tears if you can talk. I heard you, you blathering fool – gobble, gobble, gobble, like a turkey-hen. Do you think your precious niece believes a word you say? Why, you wouldn’t take in a child, far less a bunch of petticoats like her.’
He pulled a chair from the wall, and crashed it against the table. He sat down heavily, the chair creaking beneath him, and, reaching for the loaf, cut himself off a great hunk of bread, which he slabbed with dripping. He crammed it into his mouth, the grease running down his chin, and beckoned Mary to the table. ‘
Her aunt, who had not uttered since her husband entered the room, was frying bacon over the fire. No one spoke. Mary was aware of Joss Merlyn watching her across the table, and behind her she could hear her aunt fumbling with ineffectual fingers at the hot handle of the frying-pan. In a minute she had dropped it, uttering a little cry of distress. Mary rose from her place to help her, but Joss thundered at her to sit down.
‘One fool is bad enough, without making a couple of them,’ he shouted. ‘Keep your seat and let your aunt clear up the mess. It won’t be for the first time.’ He leant back in his chair, and began to pick his teeth with his nails. ‘What’ll you drink?’ he asked her. ‘Brandy, wine, or ale? You may starve here but you won’t go thirsty. We don’t get sore throats at Jamaica.’ And he laughed at her, and winked, and put out his tongue.
‘I’ll have a cup of tea if I may,’ said Mary. ‘I’m not used to drinking spirits, nor wine neither.’
‘Oh, you’re not? Well, it’s your loss, I’m glad to say. You can have your tea tonight, but, by God, you’ll want some brandy in a month or two.’
Suddenly he thumped the table with his fist, shaking the plates and cups, while one platter crashed to the floor and broke.
‘I tell you what it is, Mary Yellan,’ he shouted. ‘I’m master in this house, and I’ll have you know it. You’ll do as you’re told, and help in the house and serve my customers, and I’ll not lay a finger on you. But, by God, if you open your mouth and squark, I’ll break you until you eat out of my hand the same as your aunt yonder.’
Mary faced him across the table. She held her hands in her lap so that he should not see them tremble.
‘I understand you,’ she said. ‘I’m not curious by nature, and I’ve never gossiped in my life. It doesn’t matter to me what you do in the inn, or what company you keep. I’ll do my work about the house and you’ll have no cause to grumble. But if you hurt my Aunt Patience in any way, I tell you this – I’ll leave Jamaica Inn straight away, and I’ll find the magistrate, and bring him here, and have the law on you; and then try and break me if you like.’
‘Get up to bed, Patience,’ he said. ‘I’m tired of your death’s head at my supper-table. This girl and I understand one another.’
The woman rose at once and went to the door, with a last ineffectual glance of despair over her shoulder. They heard her patter up the stairs. Joss Merlyn and Mary were alone. He pushed the empty brandy-glass away from him and folded his arms on the table.
‘There’s been one weakness in my life, and I’ll tell you what it is,’ he said. ‘It’s drink. It’s a curse, and I know it. I can’t stop myself. One day it’ll be the end of me, and a good job too. There’s days go by and I don’t touch more than a drop, same as I’ve done tonight. And then I’ll feel the thirst come on me and I’ll soak. Soak for hours. It’s power, and glory, and women, and the Kingdom of God, all rolled into one. I’ve told you because I’m already a little drunk and I can’t hold my tongue. But I’m not drunk enough to lose my head. I’m not drunk enough to tell you why I live in this God-forgotten spot, and why I’m the landlord of Jamaica Inn.’
His voice was hoarse, and now he scarcely spoke above a whisper. The turf fire had sunk low in the hearth, and dark shadows stretched long fingers on the wall. The candles too had burnt down, and cast a monstrous shadow of Joss Merlyn on the ceiling. He smiled at her, and with a foolish drunken gesture he laid his finger against his nose…