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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter18)

2006-08-28 22:44

  Book One Chapter XVIII. The Hedge-Tavern

  Twigs whipped my face, thorns and brambles dragged at my clothes, hidden obstacles lay in wait for my feet, for the wood grew denser as I advanced, but I pushed on, heedless alike of these and of what direction I took. But, as luck would have it, I presently blundered upon a path which, in a short time, brought me out very suddenly into what appeared to be a small tavern yard, for on either hand was a row of tumble-down stables and barns, while before me was a low, rambling structure which I judged was the tavern itself. I was yet standing looking about me when a man issued from the stables upon my right, bearing a hammer in one hand and a lanthorn in the other.

  "Hallo!" said he, staring at me.

  "Hallo!" said I, staring at him.

  "You don't chance to 'ave a axle-bolt about you, I suppose?"

  "No," said I.

  "Humph!" he grunted, and, lowering his lanthorn, began searching among the cobblestones.

  "Is this it?" I inquired, picking up a rusty screw-bolt at my feet.

  "Ah!" said he, taking it from me with a nod, "know'd I dropped it 'ere some'eres. Ye see," he went on, "couldn't get another round 'ere to-night, and that cussed axle's got to be in place to-morra."

  "Yes?" said I.

  "Ah!" nodded the man; "chaise come in 'ere 'arf-an-hour ago wi' two gentlemen and a lady, in the Lord's own 'urry too. 'Mend this axle, me man,' says one on 'em——a top-sawyer be the looks on 'im——'mend this axle, and quick about it.' 'Can't be done, my lord,' says I. 'W'y not?' says 'e, showin' 'is teeth savage-like. 'Because it can't,' says I, 'not no'ow, me lord,' says I. Well, after cussin' 'isself well-nigh black in the face, 'e orders me to have it ready fust thing to-morra, and if you 'adn't found that there bolt for me it wouldn't have been ready fust thing to-morra, which would ha' been mighty bad for me, for this 'ere gentleman's a fire-and-fury out-and-outer, and no error."

  "Can I have a bed here, do you think?" I inquired.

  "Ah," said he, "I think you can."

  "For how much, do you suppose?"

  "To you——sixpence."

  "Why, that seems reasonable," said I.

  "It are," nodded the man, "and a fine feather bed too! But then, Lord, one good turn deserves another——"

  "Meaning?"

  "This 'ere bolt."

  "Are you the landlord, then?"

  "I be; and if you feel inclined for a mug o' good ale say the word."

  "Most willingly," said I, "but what of the axle?"

  "Plenty o' time for th' axle," nodded the landlord, and setting down his hammer upon a bench hard by, he led the way into the tap. The ale was very strong and good; indeed this lovely county of Kent is justly famous for such. Finding myself very hungry, the landlord forthwith produced a mighty round of beef, upon which we both fell to, and ate with a will. Which done, I pulled out my negro-head pipe, and the landlord fetching himself another, we sat awhile smoking. And presently, learning I was from London, he began plying me with all manner of questions concerning the great city, of which it seemed he could not hear enough, and I, to describe its wonders as well as I might. At length, bethinking him of his axle, he rose with a sigh. Upon my requesting to be shown my room, he lighted a candle, and led the way up a somewhat rickety stair, along a narrow passage, and throwing open a door at the end, I found myself in a fair-sized chamber with a decent white bed, which he introduced to my notice by the one word, feathers." Hereupon he pinched off the snuff of the candle with an expression of ponderous thought.

  "And so the Tower o' London ain't a tower?" he inquired at last.

  "No," I answered; "it is composed of several towers surrounded by very strong, battlemented walls."

  "Ah——to——be——sure," said he, "ah, to be sure! And me 'ave allus thought on it like it was a great big tower standin' in the midst o' the city, as 'igh as a mountain. Humph——not a tower——ha! disapp'inted I be. Humph! Good night, master. Disapp'inted I be——yes." And having nodded his head ponderously several times, he turned and went ponderously along the passage and down the stair.

  At the end of my chamber was a long, low casement, and, drawn thither by the beauty of the night, I flung open the lattice and leaned out. I looked down upon a narrow, deeply-rutted lane, one of those winding, inconsequent byways which it seems out of all possibility can ever lead the traveler anywhere, and I was idly wondering what fool had troubled to build a tavern in such a remote, out-of-the-way spot, when my ears were saluted by the sound of voices. Now, immediately beneath my window there was a heavy porch, low and squat, from which jutted a beam with a broken sign-board, and it was from beneath this porch that the voices proceeded, the one loud and hectoring, the other gruff and sullen. I was about to turn away when a man stepped out into the moonlight. His face was hidden in the shadow of his hat-brim, but from his general air and appearance I judged him to be one of the gentlemen whose chaise had broken down. As I watched him he walked slowly round the angle of the house and disappeared. In a little while, I drew in my head from the casement, and, having removed my dusty boots, together with my knapsack and coat, blew out the candle, and composed myself to sleep.

  Now it seemed to me that I was back upon the road, standing once more beside the great oak-tree. And, as I watched, a small, hunched figure crept from the jagged opening in the trunk, a figure with a jingling pack upon its back, at sight of which I turned and ran, filled with an indescribable terror. But, as I went, the Tinker's pack jingled loud behind me, and when I glanced back, I saw that he ran with head dangling in most hideous fashion, and that his right hand grasped a razor. On I sped faster and faster, but with the Tinker ever at my heels, until I had reached this tavern; the door crashed to, behind me, only just in time, and I knew, as I lay there, that he was standing outside, in the moonlight, staring up at my casement with his horrible, dead face.

  Here I very mercifully awoke, and lay, for a while, blinking in the ghostly radiance of the moon, which was flooding in at the window directly upon me. Now whether it was owing to the vividness of my dream, I know not, but as I lay, there leapt up within me a sudden conviction that somebody was indeed standing outside in the lane, staring up at my window. So firmly was I convinced of this that, moved by a sudden impulse, I rose, and, cautiously approaching the window, peered out. And there, sure enough, his feet planted wide apart, his hands behind his back, stood a man staring up at my window. His head was thrown back so that I could see his face distinctly a fleshy face with small, close-set eyes and thick lips, behind which I caught the gleam of big, white teeth. This was no tinker, but as I looked, I recognized him as the slenderer of the two "Corinthians" with whom I had fallen out at "The Chequers." Hereupon I got me back to bed, drowsily wondering what should bring the fellow hanging about a dilapidated hedge-tavern at such an hour. But gradually my thoughts grew less coherent, my eyes closed, and in another moment I should have been asleep, when I suddenly came to my elbow, broad awake and listening, for I had heard two sounds, the soft creak of a window opened cautiously near by, and a stealthy footstep outside my door.

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