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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1658

At twilight on a wild, windy day in March, 1775, a small group of men sits in the bar parlor of the Maypole Inn, an ancient hostelry situated in Chigwell parish on the borders of Epping Forest. Two guests in particular engage the attention of John Willet, the proprietor. One...

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At twilight on a wild, windy day in March, 1775, a small group of men sits in the bar parlor of the Maypole Inn, an ancient hostelry situated in Chigwell parish on the borders of Epping Forest. Two guests in particular engage the attention of John Willet, the proprietor. One is a well-dressed young gentleman who seems preoccupied. The other, a traveler, sits huddled in an old riding coat, his hat pulled forward to hide his face from the landlord’s curious gaze. After the young gentleman, Edward Chester, leaves the inn, Joe Willet, the landlord’s son, informs the others that Edward, whose horse went lame, intends to walk the twelve miles to London despite the stormy weather because he is hoping to see Emma Haredale at a masquerade she is attending in town.

The name Haredale seems to interest the stranger, and he listens intently when Solomon Daisy, the parish clerk, tells the story of a murder that shocked the neighborhood twenty-two years before to the day. Mr. Reuben Haredale, Emma’s father, was at that time owner of The Warren, a great house near the village. One morning, he was found murdered in his bedroom. His steward, a man named Rudge, and a gardener were missing. Several months later, Rudge’s body, identified by the clothing he was wearing, was recovered from a pond on the estate. There was no trace of the gardener, and the mystery remains unsolved. Since her father’s violent death, Emma lives at The Warren with Mr. Geoffrey Haredale, her bachelor uncle.

The stranger calls abruptly for his horse and gallops away, almost colliding with a chaise driven by Gabriel Varden, the Clerkenwell locksmith. By the light of a lantern, Varden sees the traveler’s scarred, scowling face. On his way back to London that same night, Varden finds Edward lying wounded on the highway. About the fallen man capers the grotesque figure of Barnaby Rudge, son of the Rudge who was Reuben’s steward. The boy was born half-witted on the day the murder was discovered. Helpless, loved, and pitied, he lives on a shabby street nearby with his mother and his tame, talking raven, Grip. Aided by Barnaby, Varden takes the wounded man to the Rudge house and puts him to bed.

The next morning, Varden tells the story of his night’s adventures to Dolly, his daughter, and Simon Tappertit, his apprentice. Dolly, who knows of Emma’s affection for Edward, is deeply concerned. When Varden goes to the Rudge house to inquire about Edward, he finds him greatly improved. While he is talking with Mrs. Rudge, whose face clearly reveals the troubles and sorrows of her life, a soft knocking sounds at the closed shutter. When she opens the door, Varden sees over her shoulder the livid face and fierce eyes of the horseman he encountered the night before. The man flees, leaving the locksmith convinced that he is the highwayman who attacked Edward. Mrs. Rudge, visibly upset by the man’s appearance on her doorstep, begs Varden to say nothing about the strange visitor.

John Chester, Edward’s father, is a vain, selfish man with great ambitions for his son. Shortly after his son’s mysterious attack, he and Geoffrey meet by appointment in a private room at the Maypole. Although the two families were enemies for years, John knows that they at last have a common interest in their opposition to a match between Emma and Edward. John confesses frankly that he wishes his son to marry a Protestant heiress, not the niece of a Catholic country squire. Geoffrey, resenting John’s superior airs, promises that he will do his best to change his niece’s feelings toward Edward. The meeting of the two men causes great interest among the villagers gathered in the bar parlor of the inn.

The mysterious stranger comes again to Mrs. Rudge’s house. When permitted to enter, he demands food and money. Frightened by the threats of the sinister blackmailer, she and her son move secretly to a remote country village.

Geoffrey, true to his promise, refuses Edward admittance to The Warren. When the young man confronts his father to demand an explanation for the agreement between him and Geoffrey, John sneers at his son for his sentimental folly and advises him not to let his heart rule his head. Edward, refusing to obey his father’s commands, asks Dolly to carry a letter to Emma, who entrusts Dolly with a return note. Hugh, the brutish hosteler at the Maypole, takes the letter from Dolly by force and gives it to John, who is using every means to keep the lovers apart. Before long, he involves Mrs. Varden, Simon, and John Willet in his schemes.

Joe Willet becomes resentful when his father, trying to keep Joe from acting as a go-between for the lovers, begins to interfere with his son’s liberties. Meanwhile, Joe has troubles of his own. He apprenticed himself to the locksmith in order to be near Dolly, but Mrs. Varden favors Simon’s suit. Joe, annoyed by what he considers Dolly’s fickleness, trounces his rival and declares that he will go off to fight the rebels in America. Dolly weeps bitterly when she hears of his enlistment.

Five years later, John Willet again presides over his bar parlor on the tempestuous nineteenth of March, the anniversary of Reuben’s murder. Only Solomon is needed to make the gathering of cronies complete. When he appears, he tells the others that in the village churchyard he saw one of the men believed murdered years before. John Willet, disturbed by the clerk’s story, carries it that same night to Geoffrey, who asks that the report be kept from his niece.

On the way home, John Willet and the hosteler who accompanied him on his errand are stopped by three horsemen. The travelers are Lord George Gordon, leader of an anti-Catholic crusade; Gashford, his secretary, and John Grueby, a servant. They stay overnight at the Maypole.

Lord Gordon is a fanatic. Gashford, his sly, malevolent helper, is the true organizer of the No-Popery rioters, a rabble of the disaffected and lawless from the London slums. Geoffrey gains Gashford’s enmity when he publicly reveals his past. John, on the other hand, now a baronet, takes an interest in the Gordon cause. Among Gashford’s followers are Simon, Hugh from the Maypole, and Dennis, the public hangman.

By chance, Barnaby and his mother journey to London on the day the Gordon riots begin. Separated from her by a yelling, roaming horde, Barnaby finds himself pushed along in a mob led by Hugh and Simon. Catholic churches, public buildings, and the homes of prominent Papists are sacked and burned. Later, Barnaby is among those arrested and thrown into Newgate prison.

Gashford, wishing to be revenged on Geoffrey, sends part of the mob to destroy The Warren. On the way, the rioters, led by Simon, Dennis, and Hugh, plunder the Maypole and leave the landlord bound and gagged. Geoffrey is not at home; he went to London in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of Barnaby and his mother. Fearing the destination of the mob headed toward Chigwell and alarmed for the safety of his niece and Dolly, her companion, he rides home as fast as he can. Solomon joins him on the way. Upon their arrival at the Maypole, they release John Willet and hear his account of a strange face, which peered through the window a short time before. Geoffrey and Solomon ride on to The Warren, a heap of smoking ruins. While they stir among the ashes, they spy a man lurking in the old watchtower. Geoffrey throws himself upon the skulking figure. His prisoner was Barnaby, the double murderer.

Geoffrey has Barnaby locked in Newgate. A few hours later, rioters fire the prison and release the inmates. The mob is led by Hugh, who learned of Barnaby’s imprisonment from a one-armed stranger. The same armless man saves Varden from injury after the locksmith refused to open the door of the prison. Simon and Dennis, meanwhile, take Emma and Dolly to a wretched cottage in a London suburb.

In an attempt to take refuge from the mob, Geoffrey goes to the home of a vintner, but rioters attack the house. Escaping through a secret passage, they encounter Edward, just returned from abroad. With him is Joe Willet, who lost an arm in the American war. Edward and Joe succeed in taking Haredale and the vintner to a place of safety.

Betrayed by Dennis, Barnaby, his father, and Hugh are captured and sentenced to death. Having learned where the young women are being held, Edward and Joe lead a party to rescue them. The riots in the city were quelled, and Gashford, hoping to save himself, betrays Lord Gordon. Dennis is also under arrest. Simon, wounded and with his legs crushed, is discovered in the house where Emma and Dolly were held. Mrs. Rudge vainly tries to get her husband to repent before he and Dennis die on the scaffold. Hugh, who is John’s natural son, meets the same end. After much effort, Varden is able to secure the release of innocent, feebleminded Barnaby.

Geoffrey withdraws all objections to a match between Edward and Emma. He plans to leave England, but before his departure, he revisits the ruins of The Warren. There he meets John and kills his old enemy in a duel. He flees abroad that same night and dies several years later in a religious institution. Gashford survives Lord Gordon and dies at last by his own hand.

These grim matters are of little concern to Dolly, mistress of the Maypole, or to Joe Willett, the beaming landlord; nor do they disturb the simple happiness of Barnaby, who lives many years on Maypole Farm, in company with his mother and Grip, his talking raven.

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