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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter10)

2006-08-28 22:52

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter X. I Am Suspected of the Black Art

  "Vibart!"

  The word had been uttered close behind me, and very softly, yet I started at this sudden mention of my name and stood for a moment with my hammer poised above the anvil ere I turned and faced the speaker. He was a tall man with a stubbly growth of grizzled hair about his lank jaws, and he was leaning in at that window of the smithy which gave upon a certain grassy back lane.

  "You spoke, I think!" said I.

  "I said, 'Vibart'!"

  "Well?"

  "Well?"

  "And why should you say 'Vibart'?"

  "And why should you start?" Beneath the broad, flapping hat his eyes glowed with a sudden intensity as he waited my answer.

  "It is familiar," said I.

  "Ha! familiar?" he repeated, and his features were suddenly contorted as with a strong convulsion, and his teeth gleamed between his pallid lips.

  My hammer was yet in my grasp, and, as I met this baleful look, my fingers tightened instinctively about the shaft.

  "Familiar?" said he again.

  "Yes," I nodded; "like your face, for it would almost seem that I have seen you somewhere before, and I seldom forget faces."

  "Nor do I!" said the man.

  Now, while we thus fronted each other, there came the sound of approaching footsteps, and John Pringle, the Carrier, appeared, followed by the pessimistic Job.

  "Marnin', Peter!——them 'orseshoes," began John, pausing just outside the smithy door, "you was to finish 'em 's arternoon; if so be as they bean't done, you bein' short'anded wi'out Jarge, why, I can wait." Now, during this speech, I was aware that both his and Job's eyes had wandered from my bandaged thumb to my bare throat, and become fixed there.

  "Come in and sit down," said I, nodding to each, as I blew up the fire, "come in." For a moment they hesitated, then John stepped gingerly into the smithy, closely followed by Job, and, watching them beneath my brows as I stooped above the shaft of the bellows, I saw each of them furtively cross his fingers.

  "Why do you do that, John Pringle?" said I.

  "Do what, Peter?"

  "Cross your fingers."

  "Why, ye see, Peter," said John, glancing in turn at the floor, the rafters, the fire, and the anvil, but never at me, "ye see, it be just a kind o' way o' mine."

  "But why does Job do the same?"

  "An' why do 'ee look at a man so sharp an' sudden-like?" retorted Job sullenly; "dang me! if it aren't enough to send cold shivers up a chap's spine——I never see such a pair o' eyes afore——no——nor don't want to again."

  "Nonsense!" said I; "my eyes can't hurt you."

  "An' 'ow am I to know that, 'ow am I to be sure o' that; an' you wi' your throat all torn wi' devil's claws an' demon's clutches ——it bean't nat'ral——Old Amos says so, an' I sez so."

  "Pure folly!" said I, plucking the iron from the fire, and beginning to beat and shape it with my hammer, but presently, remembering the strange man who had spoken my name, I looked up, and then I saw that he was gone. "Where is he?" said I involuntarily.

  "Where's who?" inquired John Pringle, glancing about uneasily.

  "The fellow who was talking to me as you came up?"

  "I didn't see no fellow!" said Job, looking at John and edging nearer the door.

  "Nor me neither!" chimed in John Pringle, looking at Job.

  "Why, he was leaning in at the window here, not a minute ago," said I, and, plunging the half-finished horseshoe back into the fire, I stepped out into the road, but the man was nowhere to be seen.

  "Very strange!" said I.

  "What might 'e 'ave been like, now?" inquired John.

  "He was tall and thin, and wore a big flapping hat."

  John Pringle coughed, scratched his chin, and coughed again.

  "What is it, John?" I inquired.

  "Why, then, you couldn't 'appen to notice——'im wearin' 'is 'at ——you couldn't 'appen to notice if 'e 'ad ever a pair o' 'orns, Peter?"

  "Horns!" I exclaimed.

  "Or a——tail, Peter?"

  "Or even a——'oof, now?" suggested Job.

  "Come," said I, looking from one to the other, "what might you be driving at?"

  "Why, ye see, Peter," answered John, coughing again, and scratching his chin harder than ever, "ye see, Peter, it aren't nat'ral for a 'uman bein' to go a-vanishin' away like this 'ere ——if 'twere a man as you was a-talkin' to——"

  "Which I doubts!" muttered Job.

  "If 'twere a man, Peter, then I axes you——where is that man?"

  Before I could answer this pointed question, old Joel Amos hobbled up, who paused on the threshold to address some one over his shoulder.

  "Come on, James, 'ere 'e be——come for'ard, James, like a man."

  Thus adjured, another individual appeared: a somewhat flaccid-looking individual, with colorless hair and eyes, one who seemed to exhale an air of apology, as it were, from the hobnailed boot upon the floor to the grimy forefinger that touched the strawlike hair in salutation.

  "Marnin', Peter!" said Old Amos, "this yere is Dutton."

  "How do you do?" said I, acknowledging the introduction, "and what can I do for Mr. Dutton?" The latter, instead of replying, took out a vivid belcher handkerchief, and apologetically mopped his face.

  "Speak up, James Dutton," said Old Amos.

  "Lord!" exclaimed Dutton, "Lord! I du be that 'ot!——you speak for I, Amos, du."

  "Well," began Old Amos, not ill-pleased, "this 'ere Dutton wants to ax 'ee a question, 'e du, Peter."

  "I shall be glad to answer it, if I can," I returned.

  "You 'ear that?——well, ax your question, James Dutton," commanded the old man.

  "W'y, ye see, Amos," began Dutton, positively reeking apology, "I du be that on-common 'ot——you ax un."

  "W'y, then, Peter," began Amos, with great unction, "it's 'is pigs!"

  "Pigs?" I exclaimed, staring.

  "Ah! pigs, Peter," nodded Old Amos, "Dutton's pigs; 'is sow farrowed last week——at three in the marnin'——nine of 'em!"

  "Well?" said I, wondering more and more.

  "Well, Peter, they was a fine 'earty lot, an' all a-doin' well ——till last Monday."

  "Indeed!" said I.

  "Last Monday night, four on 'em sickened an' died!"

  "Most unfortunate!" said I.

  "An' the rest 'as never been the same since."

  "Probably ate something that disagreed with them," said I, picking up my hammer and laying it down again. Old Amos smiled and shook his head.

  "You know James Dutton's pigsty, don't ye, Peter?"

  "I really can't say that I do."

  "Yet you pass it every day on your way to the 'Oller——it lays just be'ind Simon's oast-'ouse, as James 'isself will tell 'ee."

  "So it du," interpolated Dutton, with an apologetic nod, "which, leastways, if it don't, can't be no'ow!" having delivered himself of which, he buried his face in the belcher handkerchief.

  "Now, one evenin', Peter," continued Old Amos, "one evenin' you leaned over the fence o' that theer pigsty an' stood a-lookin' at they pigs for, p'r'aps, ten minutes."

  "Did I?"

  "Ay, that ye did——James Dutton see ye, an' 'is wife, she see ye tu, and I see ye."

  "Then," said I, "probably I did. Well?"

  "Well," said the old man, looking round upon his hearers, and bringing out each word with the greatest unction, "that theer evenin' were last Monday evenin' as ever was——the very same hour as Dutton's pigs sickened an' died!" Hereupon John Pringle and Job rose simultaneously from where they had been sitting, and retreated precipitately to the door.

  "Lord!" exclaimed John.

  "I might ha' knowed it!" said Job, drawing a cross in the air with his finger.

  "An' so James Dutton wants to ax ye to tak' it off, Peter," said Old Amos.

  "To take what off?"

  "Why, the spell, for sure." Hereupon I gave free play to my amusement, and laughed, and laughed, while the others watched me with varying expressions.

  "And so you think that I bewitched Dutton's pigs, do you?" said I, at last, glancing from Old Amos to the perspiring Apology (who immediately began to mop at his face and neck again). "And why," I continued, seeing that nobody appeared willing to speak, "why should you think it of me?"

  "W'y, Peter, ye bean't like ordinary folk; your eyes goes through an' through a man. An' then, Peter, I mind as you come a-walkin' into Siss'n'urst one night from Lord knows wheer, all covered wi' dust, an' wi' a pack on your back."

  "You are wrong there, Amos," said I, "it was afternoon when I came, and the Ancient was with me."

  "Ah! an' wheer did 'e find ye, Peter?——come, speak up an' tell us."

  "In the Hollow," I answered.

  "Ay, 'e found 'ee in the very spot wheer the Wanderer o' the Roads 'ung 'isself, sixty an' six years ago."

  "There is nothing very strange in that!" said I.

  "What's more, you come into the village an' beat Black Jarge throwin' th' 'ammer, an' 'im the strongest man in all the South Country!"

  "I beat him because he did not do his best——so there is nothing strange in that either."

  "An' then, you lives all alone in that theer ghashly 'Oller——an' you fights, an' struggles wi' devils an' demons, all in the wind an' rain an' tearin' tempest——an' what's most of all——you comes back——alive; an' what's more yet, wi' devil-marks upon ye an' your throat all tore wi' claws. Old Gaffer be over proud o' findin' ye, but old Gaffer be dodderin'——dodderin' 'e be, an' fulish wi' years; 'e'd ha' done much better to ha' left ye alone ——I've heerd o' folk sellin' theirselves to the devil afore now, I've likewise heerd o' the 'Evil Eye' afore now——ah! an' knows one when I sees it."

  "Nonsense!" said I sternly, "nonsense! This talk of ghosts and devils is sheer folly. I am a man, like the rest of you, and could not wish you ill——even if I would come, let us all shake hands, and forget this folly!" and I extended my hand to Old Amos.

  He glanced from it to my face, and immediately, lowering his eyes, shook his head.

  "'Tis the Evil Eye'!" said he, and drew across upon the floor with his stick, "the 'Evil Eye'!"

  "Nonsense!" said I again; "my eye is no more evil than yours or Job's. I never wished any man harm yet, nor wronged one, and I hope I never may. As for Mr. Dutton's pigs, if he take better care of them, and keep them out of the damp, they will probably thrive better than ever——come, shake hands!"

  But, one by one, they edged their way to the door after Old Amos, until only John Pringle was left; he, for a moment, stood hesitating, then, suddenly reaching out, he seized my hand, and shook it twice.

  "I'll call for they 'orseshoes in the marnin', Peter," said he, and vanished.

  "Arter all," I heard him say, as he joined the others, "'tis summat to ha' shook 'ands wi' a chap as fights wi' demons!"

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