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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter26)

2006-08-28 22:45

  Book One Chapter XXVI. Wherein I Learn More Concerning the GHost of the Ruined Hut

  And after the Ancient and Simon and I had, very creditably, emptied the jug between us, I rose to depart.

  "Peter," said the Ancient, "wheer be goin'?"

  "Home!" said I.

  "And wheer be that?"

  "The cottage in the Hollow," said I.

  "What——th' 'aunted cottage?" he cried, staring.

  "Yes," I nodded; "from what I saw of it, I think, with a little repairing, it might suit me very well."

  "But the ghost?" cried the old man; "have ye forgot the ghost?"

  "Why, I never heard of a ghost really harming any one yet," I answered.

  "Peter," said Simon, quietly, "I wouldn't be too sure o' that. I wouldn't go a-nigh the place, myself; once is enough for me."

  "Simon," said I, "what do you mean by 'once'?"

  Now when I asked him this, Simon breathed hard, and shuffled uneasily in his chair.

  "I mean, Peter, as I've heerd un," he replied slowly.

  "Heard him!" I repeated incredulously; "you? Are you sure?"

  "Sure as death, Peter. I've heerd un a-shriekin' and a-groanin' to 'isself, same as Gaffer 'as, and lots of others. Why, Lord bless 'ee! theer be scarce a man in these parts but 'as 'eerd um one time or another."

  "Ay——I've 'eerd un, and seen un tu!" croaked the Ancient excitedly. "A gert, tall think 'e be, wi' a 'orn on 'is 'ead, and likewise a tail; some might ha' thought 't was the Wanderin' Man o' the Roads as I found 'angin' on t' stapil——some on 'em du, but I knowed better——I knowed 't were Old Nick 'isself, all flame, and brimstone, an' wi' a babby under 'is arm!"

  "A baby?" I repeated.

  "A babby as ever was," nodded the Ancient.

  "And you say you have heard it too, Simon?" said I.

  "Ay," nodded the Innkeeper; "I went down into th' 'Oller one evenin'——'bout six months ago, wi' Black Jarge, for we 'ad a mind to knock th' owd place to pieces, and get rid o' the ghost that way. Well, Jarge ups wi' 'is 'ammer, and down comes the rotten old door wi' a crash. Jarge 'ad strung up 'is 'ammer for another blow when, all at once, theer comes a scream." Here Simon shivered involuntarily, and glanced uneasily over his shoulder, and round the room.

  "A scream?" said I.

  "Ah!" nodded Simon, "but 'twere worse nor that." Here he paused again, and looking closer at him, I was surprised to see that his broad, strong hands were shaking, and that his brow glistened with moisture.

  "What was it like?" I inquired, struck by this apparent weakness in one so hardy and full of health.

  "'Twere a scream wi' a bubble in it," he answered, speaking with an effort, "'twere like somebody shriekin' out wi' 'is throat choked up wi' blood. Jarge and me didn't wait for no more; we run. And as we run, it follered, groanin' arter us till we was out upon the road, and then it shrieked at us from the bushes. Ecod! it do make me cold to talk of it, even now. Jarge left 'is best sledge be'ind 'im, and I my crowbar, and we never went back for them, nor never shall, no." Here Simon paused to mop the grizzled hair at his temples. "I tell 'ee, Peter, that place aren't fit for no man at night. If so be you'm lookin' for a bed, my chap, theer's one you can 'are at 'The Bull,' ready and willin'."

  "An' gratus!" added the Ancient, tapping his snuffbox.

  "Thank you," said I, "both of you, for the offer, but I have a strange fancy to hear, and, if possible, see this ghost for myself."

  "Don't 'ee du it," admonished the Ancient, "so dark an' lonesome as it be, don't 'ee du it, Peter."

  "Why, Ancient," said I, "it isn't that I doubt your word, but my mind is set on the adventure. So, if Simon will let me have threepenny worth of candles, and some bread and meat——no matter what——I'll be off, for I should like to get there before dusk."

  Nodding gloomily, Simon rose and went out, whereupon the Ancient leaned over and laid a yellow, clawlike hand upon my arm.

  "Peter," said he, "Peter, I've took to you amazin"; just a few inches taller——say a couple——an' you'd be the very spit o' what I were at your age——the very spit."

  "Thank you, Ancient!" said I, laying my hand on his.

  "Now, Peter, 'twould be a hijious thing——a very hijious thing if, when I come a-gatherin' watercress in the marnin', I should find you a-danglin' on t' stapil, cold and stiff——like t' other, or lyin' a corp wi' your throat cut; 'twould be a hijious——hijious thing, Peter, but oh! 'twould mak' a fine story in the tellin'."

  In a little while Simon returned with the candles, a tinder-box, and a parcel of bread and meat, for which be gloomily but persistently refused payment. Last of all he produced a small, brass-bound pistol, which he insisted on my taking.

  "Not as it'll be much use again' a ghost," said he, with a gloomy shake of the head, "but a pistol's a comfortable thing to 'ave in a lonely place——'specially if that place be very dark." Which last, if something illogical, may be none the less true.

  So, having shaken each by the hand, I bade them good night, and set off along the darkening road.

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