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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter16)

2006-08-28 22:43

  Book One Chapter XVI. How I Heard the Steps of One Who Dogged Me in the Shadows

  And, in a little while, I rose, and buckled on my knapsack. The shadows were creeping on apace, but the sky was wonderfully clear, while, low down upon the horizon, I saw the full-orbed moon, very broad and big. It would be a brilliant night later, and this knowledge rejoiced me not a little. Before me stretched a succession of hills——that chain of hills which, I believe, is called the Weald, and over which the dim road dipped, and wound, with, on either hand, a rolling country, dark with wood, and coppice——full of mystery. The wind had quite fallen, but from the hedges, came sudden rustlings and soft, unaccountable noises. Once, something small and dark scuttered across the road before me, and once a bird, hidden near by, set up a loud complaint, while, from the deeps of a neighboring wood, came the mournful note of a night-jar.

  And, as I walked, I bethought me of poor Bill Nye, the Tinker. I could picture him tramping upon this very road, his jingling load upon his back, and the "loneliness" upon and around him. A small man, he would be, with a peaked face, little, round, twinkling eyes, grizzled hair, and a long, blue chin. How I came to know all this I cannot tell, only it seemed he must be so. On he went, his chin first upon one shoulder, and now upon the other, shooting furtive glances at hedges which were not hedges, and trees which were not trees. Somewhere there was a "thing" that looked like a big oak tree in the daytime——a hollow oak. On he went through the shadows, on and on. Presently he turned out of the road, and there, sure enough, was the oak itself. Kneeling down, he slipped off his burden and pushed it through a jagged hole at the root. Then he glanced round him, a long, stealthy look, down at the earth and up at the sky, and crept into the tree. In the dimness I could see him fumble for the thing he wanted, pause to thumb its edge, and, throwing up his chin, raise his hand——

  "Folly!" said I aloud, and stopped suddenly in my stride.

  The moon's rim was just topping the trees to my left, and its light, feeble though it was as yet, served to show that I had reached a place where four roads met.

  Now, casting my eyes about me, they were attracted by a great tree that grew near by, a tree of vast girth and bigness. And, as I looked, I saw that it was an oak-tree, near the root of which there was a jagged, black hole.

  How long I stood staring at this, I cannot say, but, all at once, the leaves of the tree were agitated as by a breath of wind, and rustled with a sound indescribably desolate, and from the dark mass rose the long-drawn, mournful cry of some night bird.

  Heedless of my direction, I hurried away, yet, ever when I had left it far behind, I glanced back more than once ere its towering branches were lost to my view.

  So I walked on through the shadows, past trees that were not trees, and hedges that were not hedges, but frightful phantoms, rather, lifting menacing arms above my head, and reaching after me with clutching fingers. Time and again, ashamed of such weakness, I cursed myself for an imaginative fool, but kept well in the middle of the road, and grasped my staff firmly, notwithstanding.

  I had gone, perhaps, some mile or so in this way, alternately rating and reasoning with myself, when I suddenly fancied I heard a step behind me, and swung round upon my heel, with ready stick; but the road stretched away empty as far as I could see. Having looked about me on all sides, I presently went on again, yet, immediately, it seemed that the steps began also, keeping time with my own, now slow, now fast, now slow again; but, whenever I turned, the road behind was apparently as empty and desolate as ever.

  I can conceive of few things more nerve-racking than the knowledge that we are being dogged by something which we can only guess at, and that all our actions are watched by eyes which we cannot see. Thus, with every step, I found the situation grow more intolerable, for though I kept a close watch behind me and upon the black gloom of the hedges, I could see nothing. At length, however, I came upon a gap in the hedge where was a gate, and beyond this, vaguely outlined against a glimmer of sky, I saw a dim figure.

  Hereupon, running forward, I set my hand upon the gate, and leaping over, found myself face to face with a man who carried a gun across his arm. If I was startled at this sudden encounter he was no less so, and thus we stood eyeing each other as well as we might in the half light.

  "Well," I demanded, at last, "what do you mean by following me like this?"

  "I aren't follered ye," retorted the man.

  "But I heard your steps behind me."

  "Not mine, master. I've sat and waited 'ere 'arf a hour, or more, for a poachin' cove——"

  "But some one was following me."

  "Well, it weren't I. A keeper I be, a-lookin' for a poachin' cove just about your size, and it's precious lucky for you as you are a-wearin' that there bell-crowned 'at!"

  "Why so?"

  "Because, if you 'adn't 'appened to be a-wearin' that there bell-crowner, and I 'adn't 'appened to be of a argifyin' and inquirin' turn o' mind, I should ha' filled you full o' buckshot."

  "Oh?" said I.

  "Yes," said he, nodding, while I experienced a series of cold chills up my spine, "not a blessed doubt of it. Poachers," he went on, "don't wear bell-crowned 'ats as a rule——I never seed one as did; and so, while I was a-watchin' of you be'ind this 'ere 'edge, I argies the matter in my mind. 'Robert,' I says to meself, 'Robert,' I sez, 'did you ever 'appen to see a poachin' cove in a bell-crowner afore? No, you never did,' sez I. 'But, on the other 'and, this 'ere cove is the very spit o' the poachin' cove as I'm a-lookin' for. True!' sez I to meself, 'but this 'ere cove is a-wearin' of a bell-crowner 'at, but the poachin' cove never wore a bell-crowner——nor never will.' Still, I must say I come very near pullin' trigger on ye——just to make sure. So ye see it were precious lucky for you as you was a-wearin' o' that there——"

  "It certainly was," said I, turning away.

  "——that there bell-crowner, and likewise as I'm a man of a nat'ral gift for argiment, and of a inquirin'——"

  "Without doubt," said I, vaulting over the gate into the road once more.

  "——turn o' mind, because if I 'adn't 'a' been, and you 'adn't 'a' wore that there bell-crowner——"

  "The consequences are unpleasantly obvious!" said I, over my shoulder, as I walked on down the road.

  "——I should ha' shot ye——like a dog!" he shouted, hanging over the gate to do so.

  And, when I had gone on some distance, I took off that which the man had called a "bell-crowner," and bestowed upon it a touch, and looked at it as I had never done before; and there was gratitude in look and touch, for tonight it had, indeed, stood my friend.

  Slowly, slowly the moon, at whose advent the starry host "paled their ineffectual fires," mounted into a cloudless heaven, higher and higher, in queenly majesty, until the dark world was filled with her glory, and the road before me became transformed into a silver track splashed here and there with the inky shadow of hedge and trees, and leading away into a land of "Faerie."

  Indeed, to my mind, there is nothing more delightful than to walk upon a country road, beneath a midsummer moon, when there is no sound to break the stillness, save, perhaps, the murmur of wind in trees, or the throbbing melody of some hidden brook. At such times the world of every day——the world of Things Material, the hard, hard world of Common-sense——seems to vanish quite, and we walk within the fair haven of our dreams, where Imagination meets, and kisses us upon the brow. And, at his touch, the Impossible straightway becomes the Possible; the Abstract becomes the Concrete; our fondest hopes are realized; our most cherished visions take form, and stand before us; surely, at such an hour, the gods come down to walk with us awhile.

  From this ecstasy I was suddenly aroused by hearing once more the sound of a footstep upon the road behind me. So distinct and unmistakable was it that I turned sharp about, and, though the road seemed as deserted as ever, I walked back, looking into every patch of shadow, and even thrust into the denser parts of the hedges with my staff; but still I found no one. And yet I knew that I was being followed persistently, step by step, but by whom, and for what reason?

  A little farther on, upon one side of the way, was a small wood or coppice, and now I made towards this, keeping well in the shadow of the hedge. The trees were somewhat scattered, but the underbrush was very dense, and amongst this I hid myself where I could watch the road, and waited. Minute after minute elapsed, and, losing patience, I was about to give up all hope of thus discovering my unknown pursuer, when a stick snapped sharply near by, and, glancing round, I thought I saw a head vanish behind the bole of an adjacent tree; wherefore I made quickly towards that tree, but ere I reached it, a man stepped out. A tall, loose-limbed fellow he was, clad in rough clothes (that somehow had about them a vague suggestion of ships and the sea), and with a moth-eaten, fur cap crushed down upon his head. His face gleamed pale, and his eyes were deep-sunken, and very bright; also, I noticed that one hand was hidden in the pocket of his coat. But most of all, I was struck by the extreme pallor of his face, and the burning brilliancy of his eyes.

  And, with the glance that showed me all this, I recognized the Outside Passenger.

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