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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter27)

2006-08-28 22:46

  Book One Chapter XXVII. Which Tells How and in What MAnner I Saw the Ghost

  Now, as I went, my mind was greatly exercised as to a feasible explanation of what I had just heard. That a man so old as the Ancient should "see things" I could readily believe, by reason of his years, for great age is often subject to such hallucinations, but with Simon, a man in the prime of his life, it was a different matter altogether. That he had been absolutely sincere in his story I had read in his dilating eye and the involuntary shiver that had passed over him while he spoke. Here indeed, though I scouted all idea of supernatural agency, there lay a mystery that piqued my curiosity not a little.

  Ghosts!——pshaw! What being, endowed with a reasoning mind, could allow himself to think, let alone believe in such folly? Ghosts ——fiddle-de-dee, Sir!

  Yet here, and all at once, like an enemy from the dark, old stories leaped at and seized me by the throat: old tales of spectres grim and bloody, of goblins, and haunted houses from whose dim desolation strange sounds would come; tales long since heard, and forgot——till now.

  Ghosts! Why, the road was full of them; they crowded upon my heels, they peered over my shoulders; I felt them brush my elbows, and heard them gibbering at me from the shadows.

  And the sun was setting already!

  Ghosts! And why not? "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy."

  Involuntarily I hastened my steps, but the sun had set ere I reached the Hollow. Yes, the sun had set, and the great basin below me was already brimful of shadows which, as I watched, seemed to assume shapes——vast, nebulous, and constantly changing ——down there amid the purple gloom of the trees. Indeed, it looked an unholy place in the half light, a pit framed for murders, and the safe hiding of tell-tale corpses, the very haunt of horrid goblins and spectres, grim and ghastly.

  So evilly did the place impress me that it needed an effort of will ere I could bring myself to descend the precipitous slope. Bats flitted to and fro across my path, now and then, emitting their sharp, needlelike note, while, from somewhere in the dimness beyond, an owl hooted.

  By the time I reached the cottage, it had fallen quite dark, here in the Hollow, though the light still lingered in the world above. So I took out my tinder-box, and one of the candles, which, after several failures, I succeeded in lighting, and, stepping into the cottage, began to look about me.

  The place was small, as I think I have before said, and comprised two rooms shut off from each other by a strong partition with a door midway. Lifting the candle, I glanced at the staple on which the builder of the cottage had choked out his life so many years ago, and, calling to mind the Ancient's fierce desire to outlast it, I even reached up my hand and gave it a shake. But, despite the rust of years, the iron felt as strong and rigid as ever, so that it seemed the old man's innocent wish must go unsatisfied after all. The second room appeared much the same size as the first, and like it in all respects, till, looking upwards, I noticed a square trap door in a corner, while underneath, against the wall, hung a rough ladder. This I proceeded to lift down, and mounting, cautiously lifted the trap. Holding the candle above my head to survey this chamber, or rather garret, the first object my eye encountered was a small tin pannikin, and beyond that a stone jar, or demijohn. Upon closer inspection I found this last to be nearly full of water quite sweet and fresh to the taste, which, of itself, was sufficient evidence that some one had been here very lately. I now observed a bundle of hay in one corner, which had clearly served for a bed, beside which were a cracked mug, a tin plate, a pair of shoes, and an object I took to be part of a flute or wind instrument of some kind. But what particularly excited my interest were the shoes, which had evidently seen long and hard service, for they were much worn, and had been roughly patched here and there. Very big they were, and somewhat clumsy, thick-soled, and square of toe, and with a pair of enormous silver buckles.

  These evidences led me to believe that whoever had been here before was likely to return, and, not doubting that this must be he who had played the part of ghost so well, I determined to be ready for him.

  So, leaving all things as I found them, I descended, and, having closed the trap, hung up the ladder as I had found it.

  In the first of the rooms there was a rough fireplace built into one corner, and as the air struck somewhat damp and chill, I went out and gathered a quantity of twigs and dry wood, and had soon built a cheerful, crackling fire. I now set about collecting armfuls of dry leaves, which I piled against the wall for a bed. By the time this was completed to my satisfaction, the moon was peeping above the treetops, filling the Hollow with far-flung shadows.

  I now lay down upon my leafy couch, and fell to watching the fire and listening to the small, soft song of the brook outside. In the opposite wall was a window, the glass of which was long since gone, through which I could see a square of sky, and the glittering belt of Orion. My eyes wandered from this to the glow of the fire many times, but gradually my head grew heavier and heavier, until, at length, the stars became confused with the winking sparks upon the hearth, and the last that I remember was that the crackle of the fire sounded strangely like the voice of the Ancient croaking:

  "A hijious thing, Peter, a hijious thing!"

  I must have slept for an hour, or nearer two (for the room was dark, save for a few glowing embers on the hearth, and the faint light of the stars at the window), when I suddenly sat bolt upright, with every tingling nerve straining as if to catch something which had, but that very moment, eluded me. I was yet wondering what this could be, when, from somewhere close outside the cottage, there rose a sudden cry——hideous and appalling——a long-drawn-out, bubbling scream (no other words can describe it), that died slowly down to a wail only to rise again higher and higher, till it seemed to pierce my very brain. Then all at once it was gone, and silence rushed in upon me——a silence fraught with fear and horror unimaginable.

  I lay rigid, the blood in my veins jumping with every throb of my heart till it seemed to shake me from head to foot. And then the cry began again, deep and hoarse at first, but rising, rising until the air thrilled with a scream such as no earthly lips could utter.

  Now the light at the window grew stronger and stronger, and, all at once, a feeble shaft of moonlight crept across the floor. I was watching this most welcome beam when it was again obscured by a something, indefinable at first, but which I gradually made out to be very like a human head peering in at me; but, if this was so, it seemed a head hideously misshapen——and there, sure enough, rising from the brow, was a long, pointed horn.

  As I lay motionless, staring at this thing, my hand, by some most fortunate chance, encountered the pistol in my pocket; and, from the very depths of my soul, I poured benedictions upon the honest head of Simon the Innkeeper, for its very contact seemed to restore my benumbed faculties. With a single bound I was upon my feet, and had the weapon levelled at the window.

  "Speak!" said I, "speak, or I'll shoot." There was a moment of tingling suspense, and then:

  "Oh, man, dinna do that!" said a voice.

  "Then come in and show yourself!"

  Herewith the head incontinently disappeared, there was the sound of a heavy step, and a tall figure loomed in the doorway.

  "Wait!" said I, as, fumbling about, I presently found tinder-box and candle, having lighted which I turned and beheld a man——an exceedingly tall man——clad in the full habit of a Scottish Highlander. By his side hung a long, straight, basket-hilted sword, beneath one arm he carried a bagpipe, while upon his head was——not a horn——but a Scot's bonnet with a long eagle's feather.

  "Oh, man," said he, eyeing me with a somewhat wry smile, "I'm juist thinkin' ye're no' afeared o' bogles, whateffer!"

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