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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter4)

2006-08-28 22:40

  Book One Chapter IV. I Meet with a Great Misfortune

  That day I passed through several villages, stopping only to eat and drink; thus evening was falling as, having left fair Sevenoaks behind, I came to the brow of a certain hill, a long and very steep descent which (I think) is called the River Hill. And here, rising stark against the evening sky, was a gibbet, and standing beneath it a man, a short, square man in a somewhat shabby coat of a bottle-green, and with a wide-brimmed beaver hat sloped down over his eyes, who stood with his feet well apart, sucking the knob of a stick he carried, while he stared up at that which dangled by a stout chain from the cross-beam of the gibbet,——something black and shrivelled and horrible that had once been human.

  As I came up, the man drew the stick from his mouth and touched the brim of his hat with it in salutation.

  "An object lesson, sir," said he, and nodded towards the loathsome mass above.

  "A very hideous one!" said I, pausing, "and I think a very useless one."

  "He was as fine a fellow as ever thrust toe into stirrup," the man went on, pointing upwards with his stick, "though you'd never think so to look at him now!"

  "It's a horrible sight!" said I.

  "It is," nodded the man, "it's a sight to turn a man's stomach, that it is!"

  "You knew him perhaps?" said I.

  "Knew him," repeated the man, staring at me over his shoulder, "knew him——ah——that is, I knew of him."

  "A highwayman?"

  "Nick Scrope his name was," answered the man with a nod, "hung at Maidstone assizes last year, and a very good end he made of it too; and here he be——hung up in chains all nat'ral and reg'lar, as a warning to all and sundry."

  "The more shame to England," said I; "to my thinking it is a scandal that our highways should be rendered odious by such horrors, and as wicked as it is useless."

  "'Od rot me!" cried the fellow, slapping a cloud of dust from his coat with his stick, "hark to that now."

  "What?" said I, "do you think for one moment that such a sight, horrible though it is, could possibly deter a man from robbery or murder whose mind is already made up to it by reason of circumstances or starvation?"

  "Well, but it's an old custom, as old as this here road."

  "True," said I, "and that of itself but proves my argument, for men have been hanged and gibbeted all these years, yet robbery and murder abide with us still, and are of daily occurrence."

  "Why, as to that, sir," said the man, falling into step beside me as I walked on down the hill, "I won't say yes and I won't say no, but what I do say is——as many a man might think twice afore running the chance of coming to that——look!" And he stopped to turn, and point back at the gibbet with his stick. "Nick can't last much longer, though I've know'd 'em hang a good time——but they made a botch of Nick——not enough tar; you can see where the sun catches him there!"

  Once more, though my whole being revolted at the sight, I must needs turn to look at the thing——the tall, black shaft of the gibbet, and the grisly horror that dangled beneath with its chains and iron bands; and from this, back again to my companion, to find him regarding me with a curiously twisted smile, and a long-barrelled pistol held within a foot of my head.

  "Well?" said I, staring.

  "Sir," said he, tapping his boot with his stick," I must trouble you for the shiner I see a-winking at me from your cravat, likewise your watch and any small change you may have."

  For a moment I hesitated, glancing from his grinning mouth swiftly over the deserted road, and back again.

  "Likewise," said the fellow, "I must ask you to be sharp about it." It was with singularly clumsy fingers that I drew the watch from my fob and the pin from my cravat, and passed them to him.

  "Now your pockets," he suggested, "turn 'em out."

  This command I reluctantly obeyed, bringing to light my ten guineas, which were as yet intact, and which he pocketed forthwith, and two pennies——which he bade me keep.

  "For," said he, "'t will buy you a draught of ale, sir, and there's good stuff to be had at 'The White Hart' yonder, and there's nothin' like a draught of good ale to comfort a man in any such small adversity like this here. As to that knapsack now," he pursued, eyeing it thoughtfully, "it looks heavy and might hold valleybels, but then, on the other hand, it might not, and those there straps takes time to unbuckle and——" He broke off suddenly, for from somewhere on the hill below us came the unmistakable sound of wheels. Hereupon the fellow very nimbly ran across the road, turned, nodded, and vanished among the trees and underbrush that clothed the steep slope down to the valley below.

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