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Chapter 1

The Inn of the Two Witches: A Find


This tale, episode, experience--call it how you will--was related
in the fifties of the last century by a man who, by his own
confession, was sixty years old at the time. Sixty is not a bad
age--unless in perspective, when no doubt it is contemplated by the
majority of us with mixed feelings. It is a calm age; the game is
practically over by then; and standing aside one begins to remember
with a certain vividness what a fine fellow one used to be. I have
observed that, by an amiable attention of Providence, most people
at sixty begin to take a romantic view of themselves. Their very
failures exhale a charm of peculiar potency. And indeed the hopes
of the future are a fine company to live with, exquisite forms,
fascinating if you like, but--so to speak--naked, stripped for a
run. The robes of glamour are luckily the property of the
immovable past which, without them, would sit, a shivery sort of
thing, under the gathering shadows.

I suppose it was the romanticism of growing age which set our man
to relate his experience for his own satisfaction or for the wonder
of his posterity. It could not have been for his glory, because
the experience was simply that of an abominable fright--terror he
calls it. You would have guessed that the relation alluded to in
the very first lines was in writing.

This writing constitutes the Find declared in the sub-title. The
title itself is my own contrivance, (can't call it invention), and
has the merit of veracity. We will be concerned with an inn here.
As to the witches that's merely a conventional expression, and we
must take our man's word for it that it fits the case.

The Find was made in a box of books bought in London, in a street
which no longer exists, from a second-hand bookseller in the last
stage of decay. As to the books themselves they were at least
twentieth-hand, and on inspection turned out not worth the very
small sum of money I disbursed. It might have been some
premonition of that fact which made me say: "But I must have the
box too." The decayed bookseller assented by the careless, tragic
gesture of a man already doomed to extinction.

A litter of loose pages at the bottom of the box excited my
curiosity but faintly. The close, neat, regular handwriting was
not attractive at first sight. But in one place the statement that
in A.D. 1813 the writer was twenty-two years old caught my eye.
Two and twenty is an interesting age in which one is easily
reckless and easily frightened; the faculty of reflection being
weak and the power of imagination strong.

In another place the phrase: "At night we stood in again,"
arrested my languid attention, because it was a sea phrase. "Let's
see what it is all about," I thought, without excitement.

Oh! but it was a dull-faced MS., each line resembling every other
line in their close-set and regular order. It was like the drone
of a monotonous voice. A treatise on sugar-refining (the dreariest
subject I can think of) could have been given a more lively
appearance. "In A.D. 1813, I was twenty-two years old," he begins
earnestly and goes on with every appearance of calm, horrible
industry. Don't imagine, however, that there is anything archaic
in my find. Diabolic ingenuity in invention though as old as the
world is by no means a lost art. Look at the telephones for
shattering the little peace of mind given to us in this world, or
at the machine guns for letting with dispatch life out of our
bodies. Now-a-days any blear-eyed old witch if only strong enough
to turn an insignificant little handle could lay low a hundred
young men of twenty in the twinkling of an eye.

If this isn't progress! . . . Why immense! We have moved on, and
so you must expect to meet here a certain naiveness of contrivance
and simplicity of aim appertaining to the remote epoch. And of
course no motoring tourist can hope to find such an inn anywhere,
now. This one, the one of the title, was situated in Spain. That
much I discovered only from internal evidence, because a good many
pages of that relation were missing--perhaps not a great misfortune
after all. The writer seemed to have entered into a most elaborate
detail of the why and wherefore of his presence on that coast--
presumably the north coast of Spain. His experience has nothing to
do with the sea, though. As far as I can make it out, he was an
officer on board a sloop-of-war. There's nothing strange in that.
At all stages of the long Peninsular campaign many of our men-of-
war of the smaller kind were cruising off the north coast of Spain-
-as risky and disagreeable a station as can be well imagined.

It looks as though that ship of his had had some special service to
perform. A careful explanation of all the circumstances was to be
expected from our man, only, as I've said, some of his pages (good
tough paper too) were missing: gone in covers for jampots or in
wadding for the fowling-pieces of his irreverent posterity. But it
is to be seen clearly that communication with the shore and even
the sending of messengers inland was part of her service, either to
obtain intelligence from or to transmit orders or advice to
patriotic Spaniards, guerilleros or secret juntas of the province.
Something of the sort. All this can be only inferred from the
preserved scraps of his conscientious writing.

Next we come upon the panegyric of a very fine sailor, a member of
the ship's company, having the rating of the captain's coxswain.
He was known on board as Cuba Tom; not because he was Cuban
however; he was indeed the best type of a genuine British tar of
that time, and a man-of-war's man for years. He came by the name
on account of some wonderful adventures he had in that island in
his young days, adventures which were the favourite subject of the
yarns he was in the habit of spinning to his shipmates of an
evening on the forecastle head. He was intelligent, very strong,
and of proved courage. Incidentally we are told, so exact is our
narrator, that Tom had the finest pigtail for thickness and length
of any man in the Navy. This appendage, much cared for and
sheathed tightly in a porpoise skin, hung half way down his broad
back to the great admiration of all beholders and to the great envy
of some.

Our young officer dwells on the manly qualities of Cuba Tom with
something like affection. This sort of relation between officer
and man was not then very rare. A youngster on joining the service
was put under the charge of a trustworthy seaman, who slung his
first hammock for him and often later on became a sort of humble
friend to the junior officer. The narrator on joining the sloop
had found this man on board after some years of separation. There
is something touching in the warm pleasure he remembers and records
at this meeting with the professional mentor of his boyhood.

We discover then that, no Spaniard being forthcoming for the
service, this worthy seaman with the unique pigtail and a very high
character for courage and steadiness had been selected as messenger
for one of these missions inland which have been mentioned. His
preparations were not elaborate. One gloomy autumn morning the
sloop ran close to a shallow cove where a landing could be made on
that iron-bound shore. A boat was lowered, and pulled in with Tom
Corbin (Cuba Tom) perched in the bow, and our young man (Mr. Edgar
Byrne was his name on this earth which knows him no more) sitting
in the stern sheets.

A few inhabitants of a hamlet, whose grey stone houses could be
seen a hundred yards or so up a deep ravine, had come down to the
shore and watched the approach of the boat. The two Englishmen
leaped ashore. Either from dullness or astonishment the peasants
gave no greeting, and only fell back in silence.

Mr. Byrne had made up his mind to see Tom Corbin started fairly on
his way. He looked round at the heavy surprised faces.

"There isn't much to get out of them," he said. "Let us walk up to
the village. There will be a wine shop for sure where we may find
somebody more promising to talk to and get some information from."

"Aye, aye, sir," said Tom falling into step behind his officer. "A
bit of palaver as to courses and distances can do no harm; I
crossed the broadest part of Cuba by the help of my tongue tho'
knowing far less Spanish than I do now. As they say themselves it
was 'four words and no more' with me, that time when I got left
behind on shore by the Blanche, frigate."

He made light of what was before him, which was but a day's journey
into the mountains. It is true that there was a full day's journey
before striking the mountain path, but that was nothing for a man
who had crossed the island of Cuba on his two legs, and with no
more than four words of the language to begin with.

The officer and the man were walking now on a thick sodden bed of
dead leaves, which the peasants thereabouts accumulate in the
streets of their villages to rot during the winter for field
manure. Turning his head Mr. Byrne perceived that the whole male
population of the hamlet was following them on the noiseless
springy carpet. Women stared from the doors of the houses and the
children had apparently gone into hiding. The village knew the
ship by sight, afar off, but no stranger had landed on that spot
perhaps for a hundred years or more. The cocked hat of Mr. Byrne,
the bushy whiskers and the enormous pigtail of the sailor, filled
them with mute wonder. They pressed behind the two Englishmen
staring like those islanders discovered by Captain Cook in the
South Seas.

It was then that Byrne had his first glimpse of the little cloaked
man in a yellow hat. Faded and dingy as it was, this covering for
his head made him noticeable.

The entrance to the wine shop was like a rough hole in a wall of
flints. The owner was the only person who was not in the street,
for he came out from the darkness at the back where the inflated
forms of wine skins hung on nails could be vaguely distinguished.
He was a tall, one-eyed Asturian with scrubby, hollow cheeks; a
grave expression of countenance contrasted enigmatically with the
roaming restlessness of his solitary eye. On learning that the
matter in hand was the sending on his way of that English mariner
toward a certain Gonzales in the mountains, he closed his good eye
for a moment as if in meditation. Then opened it, very lively
again.

"Possibly, possibly. It could be done."

A friendly murmur arose in the group in the doorway at the name of
Gonzales, the local leader against the French. Inquiring as to the
safety of the road Byrne was glad to learn that no troops of that
nation had been seen in the neighbourhood for months. Not the
smallest little detachment of these impious polizones. While
giving these answers the owner of the wine-shop busied himself in
drawing into an earthenware jug some wine which he set before the
heretic English, pocketing with grave abstraction the small piece
of money the officer threw upon the table in recognition of the
unwritten law that none may enter a wine-shop without buying drink.
His eye was in constant motion as if it were trying to do the work
of the two; but when Byrne made inquiries as to the possibility of
hiring a mule, it became immovably fixed in the direction of the
door which was closely besieged by the curious. In front of them,
just within the threshold, the little man in the large cloak and
yellow hat had taken his stand. He was a diminutive person, a mere
homunculus, Byrne describes him, in a ridiculously mysterious, yet
assertive attitude, a corner of his cloak thrown cavalierly over
his left shoulder, muffling his chin and mouth; while the broad-
brimmed yellow hat hung on a corner of his square little head. He
stood there taking snuff, repeatedly.

"A mule," repeated the wine-seller, his eyes fixed on that quaint
and snuffy figure. . . "No, senor officer! Decidedly no mule is to
be got in this poor place."

The coxswain, who stood by with the true sailor's air of unconcern
in strange surroundings, struck in quietly -

"If your honour will believe me Shank's pony's the best for this
job. I would have to leave the beast somewhere, anyhow, since the
captain has told me that half my way will be along paths fit only
for goats."

The diminutive man made a step forward, and speaking through the
folds of the cloak which seemed to muffle a sarcastic intention -

"Si, senor. They are too honest in this village to have a single
mule amongst them for your worship's service. To that I can bear
testimony. In these times it's only rogues or very clever men who
can manage to have mules or any other four-footed beasts and the
wherewithal to keep them. But what this valiant mariner wants is a
guide; and here, senor, behold my brother-in-law, Bernardino, wine-
seller, and alcade of this most Christian and hospitable village,
who will find you one."

This, Mr. Byrne says in his relation, was the only thing to do. A
youth in a ragged coat and goat-skin breeches was produced after
some more talk. The English officer stood treat to the whole
village, and while the peasants drank he and Cuba Tom took their
departure accompanied by the guide. The diminutive man in the
cloak had disappeared.

Byrne went along with the coxswain out of the village. He wanted
to see him fairly on his way; and he would have gone a greater
distance, if the seaman had not suggested respectfully the
advisability of return so as not to keep the ship a moment longer
than necessary so close in with the shore on such an unpromising
looking morning. A wild gloomy sky hung over their heads when they
took leave of each other, and their surroundings of rank bushes and
stony fields were dreary.

"In four days' time," were Byrne's last words, "the ship will stand
in and send a boat on shore if the weather permits. If not you'll
have to make it out on shore the best you can till we come along to
take you off."

"Right you are, sir," answered Tom, and strode on. Byrne watched
him step out on a narrow path. In a thick pea-jacket with a pair
of pistols in his belt, a cutlass by his side, and a stout cudgel
in his hand, he looked a sturdy figure and well able to take care
of himself. He turned round for a moment to wave his hand, giving
to Byrne one more view of his honest bronzed face with bushy
whiskers. The lad in goatskin breeches looking, Byrne says, like a
faun or a young satyr leaping ahead, stopped to wait for him, and
then went off at a bound. Both disappeared.

Byrne turned back. The hamlet was hidden in a fold of the ground,
and the spot seemed the most lonely corner of the earth and as if
accursed in its uninhabited desolate barrenness. Before he had
walked many yards, there appeared very suddenly from behind a bush
the muffled up diminutive Spaniard. Naturally Byrne stopped short.

The other made a mysterious gesture with a tiny hand peeping from
under his cloak. His hat hung very much at the side of his head.
"Senor," he said without any preliminaries. "Caution! It is a
positive fact that one-eyed Bernardino, my brother-in-law, has at
this moment a mule in his stable. And why he who is not clever has
a mule there? Because he is a rogue; a man without conscience.
Because I had to give up the macho to him to secure for myself a
roof to sleep under and a mouthful of olla to keep my soul in this
insignificant body of mine. Yet, senor, it contains a heart many
times bigger than the mean thing which beats in the breast of that
brute connection of mine of which I am ashamed, though I opposed
that marriage with all my power. Well, the misguided woman
suffered enough. She had her purgatory on this earth--God rest her
soul."

Byrne says he was so astonished by the sudden appearance of that
sprite-like being, and by the sardonic bitterness of the speech,
that he was unable to disentangle the significant fact from what
seemed but a piece of family history fired out at him without rhyme
or reason. Not at first. He was confounded and at the same time
he was impressed by the rapid forcible delivery, quite different
from the frothy excited loquacity of an Italian. So he stared
while the homunculus letting his cloak fall about him, aspired an
immense quantity of snuff out of the hollow of his palm.

"A mule," exclaimed Byrne seizing at last the real aspect of the
discourse. "You say he has got a mule? That's queer! Why did he
refuse to let me have it?"

The diminutive Spaniard muffled himself up again with great
dignity.

"Quien sabe," he said coldly, with a shrug of his draped shoulders.
"He is a great politico in everything he does. But one thing your
worship may be certain of--that his intentions are always rascally.
This husband of my defunta sister ought to have been married a long
time ago to the widow with the wooden legs." {1}

"I see. But remember that; whatever your motives, your worship
countenanced him in this lie."

The bright unhappy eyes on each side of a predatory nose confronted
Byrne without wincing, while with that testiness which lurks so
often at the bottom of Spanish dignity -

"No doubt the senor officer would not lose an ounce of blood if I
were stuck under the fifth rib," he retorted. "But what of this
poor sinner here?" Then changing his tone. "Senor, by the
necessities of the times I live here in exile, a Castilian and an
old Christian, existing miserably in the midst of these brute
Asturians, and dependent on the worst of them all, who has less
conscience and scruples than a wolf. And being a man of
intelligence I govern myself accordingly. Yet I can hardly contain
my scorn. You have heard the way I spoke. A caballero of parts
like your worship might have guessed that there was a cat in
there."

"What cat?" said Byrne uneasily. "Oh, I see. Something
suspicious. No, senor. I guessed nothing. My nation are not good
guessers at that sort of thing; and, therefore, I ask you plainly
whether that wine-seller has spoken the truth in other
particulars?"

"There are certainly no Frenchmen anywhere about," said the little
man with a return to his indifferent manner.

"Or robbers--ladrones?"

"Ladrones en grande--no! Assuredly not," was the answer in a cold
philosophical tone. "What is there left for them to do after the
French? And nobody travels in these times. But who can say!
Opportunity makes the robber. Still that mariner of yours has a
fierce aspect, and with the son of a cat rats will have no play.
But there is a saying, too, that where honey is there will soon be
flies."

This oracular discourse exasperated Byrne. "In the name of God,"
he cried, "tell me plainly if you think my man is reasonably safe
on his journey."

The homunculus, undergoing one of his rapid changes, seized the
officer's arm. The grip of his little hand was astonishing.

"Senor! Bernardino had taken notice of him. What more do you
want? And listen--men have disappeared on this road--on a certain
portion of this road, when Bernardino kept a meson, an inn, and I,
his brother-in-law, had coaches and mules for hire. Now there are
no travellers, no coaches. The French have ruined me. Bernardino
has retired here for reasons of his own after my sister died. They
were three to torment the life out of her, he and Erminia and
Lucilla, two aunts of his--all affiliated to the devil. And now he
has robbed me of my last mule. You are an armed man. Demand the
macho from him, with a pistol to his head, senor--it is not his, I
tell you--and ride after your man who is so precious to you. And
then you shall both be safe, for no two travellers have been ever
known to disappear together in those days. As to the beast, I, its
owner, I confide it to your honour."

They were staring hard at each other, and Byrne nearly burst into a
laugh at the ingenuity and transparency of the little man's plot to
regain possession of his mule. But he had no difficulty to keep a
straight face because he felt deep within himself a strange
inclination to do that very extraordinary thing. He did not laugh,
but his lip quivered; at which the diminutive Spaniard, detaching
his black glittering eyes from Byrne's face, turned his back on him
brusquely with a gesture and a fling of the cloak which somehow
expressed contempt, bitterness, and discouragement all at once. He
turned away and stood still, his hat aslant, muffled up to the
ears. But he was not offended to the point of refusing the silver
duro which Byrne offered him with a non-committal speech as if
nothing extraordinary had passed between them.

"I must make haste on board now," said Byrne, then.

"Vaya usted con Dios," muttered the gnome. And this interview
ended with a sarcastic low sweep of the hat which was replaced at
the same perilous angle as before.

Directly the boat had been hoisted the ship's sails were filled on
the off-shore tack, and Byrne imparted the whole story to his
captain, who was but a very few years older than himself. There
was some amused indignation at it--but while they laughed they
looked gravely at each other. A Spanish dwarf trying to beguile an
officer of his majesty's navy into stealing a mule for him--that
was too funny, too ridiculous, too incredible. Those were the
exclamations of the captain. He couldn't get over the
grotesqueness of it.

"Incredible. That's just it," murmured Byrne at last in a
significant tone.

They exchanged a long stare. "It's as clear as daylight," affirmed
the captain impatiently, because in his heart he was not certain.
And Tom the best seaman in the ship for one, the good-humouredly
deferential friend of his boyhood for the other, was becoming
endowed with a compelling fascination, like a symbolic figure of
loyalty appealing to their feelings and their conscience, so that
they could not detach their thoughts from his safety. Several
times they went up on deck, only to look at the coast, as if it
could tell them something of his fate. It stretched away,
lengthening in the distance, mute, naked, and savage, veiled now
and then by the slanting cold shafts of rain. The westerly swell
rolled its interminable angry lines of foam and big dark clouds
flew over the ship in a sinister procession.

"I wish to goodness you had done what your little friend in the
yellow hat wanted you to do," said the commander of the sloop late
in the afternoon with visible exasperation.

"Do you, sir?" answered Byrne, bitter with positive anguish. "I
wonder what you would have said afterwards? Why! I might have
been kicked out of the service for looting a mule from a nation in
alliance with His Majesty. Or I might have been battered to a pulp
with flails and pitch-forks--a pretty tale to get abroad about one
of your officers--while trying to steal a mule. Or chased
ignominiously to the boat--for you would not have expected me to
shoot down unoffending people for the sake of a mangy mule. . . And
yet," he added in a low voice, "I almost wish myself I had done
it."

Before dark those two young men had worked themselves up into a
highly complex psychological state of scornful scepticism and
alarmed credulity. It tormented them exceedingly; and the thought
that it would have to last for six days at least, and possibly be
prolonged further for an indefinite time, was not to be borne. The
ship was therefore put on the inshore tack at dark. All through
the gusty dark night she went towards the land to look for her man,
at times lying over in the heavy puffs, at others rolling idle in
the swell, nearly stationary, as if she too had a mind of her own
to swing perplexed between cool reason and warm impulse.

Then just at daybreak a boat put off from her and went on tossed by
the seas towards the shallow cove where, with considerable
difficulty, an officer in a thick coat and a round hat managed to
land on a strip of shingle.

"It was my wish," writes Mr. Byrne, "a wish of which my captain
approved, to land secretly if possible. I did not want to be seen
either by my aggrieved friend in the yellow hat, whose motives were
not clear, or by the one-eyed wine-seller, who may or may not have
been affiliated to the devil, or indeed by any other dweller in
that primitive village. But unfortunately the cove was the only
possible landing place for miles; and from the steepness of the
ravine I couldn't make a circuit to avoid the houses."

"Fortunately," he goes on, "all the people were yet in their beds.
It was barely daylight when I found myself walking on the thick
layer of sodden leaves filling the only street. No soul was
stirring abroad, no dog barked. The silence was profound, and I
had concluded with some wonder that apparently no dogs were kept in
the hamlet, when I heard a low snarl, and from a noisome alley
between two hovels emerged a vile cur with its tail between its
legs. He slunk off silently showing me his teeth as he ran before
me, and he disappeared so suddenly that he might have been the
unclean incarnation of the Evil One. There was, too, something so
weird in the manner of its coming and vanishing, that my spirits,
already by no means very high, became further depressed by the
revolting sight of this creature as if by an unlucky presage."

He got away from the coast unobserved, as far as he knew, then
struggled manfully to the west against wind and rain, on a barren
dark upland, under a sky of ashes. Far away the harsh and desolate
mountains raising their scarped and denuded ridges seemed to wait
for him menacingly. The evening found him fairly near to them,
but, in sailor language, uncertain of his position, hungry, wet,
and tired out by a day of steady tramping over broken ground during
which he had seen very few people, and had been unable to obtain
the slightest intelligence of Tom Corbin's passage. "On! on! I
must push on," he had been saying to himself through the hours of
solitary effort, spurred more by incertitude than by any definite
fear or definite hope.

The lowering daylight died out quickly, leaving him faced by a
broken bridge. He descended into the ravine, forded a narrow
stream by the last gleam of rapid water, and clambering out on the
other side was met by the night which fen like a bandage over his
eyes. The wind sweeping in the darkness the broadside of the
sierra worried his ears by a continuous roaring noise as of a
maddened sea. He suspected that he had lost the road. Even in
daylight, with its ruts and mud-holes and ledges of outcropping
stone, it was difficult to distinguish from the dreary waste of the
moor interspersed with boulders and clumps of naked bushes. But,
as he says, "he steered his course by the feel of the wind," his
hat rammed low on his brow, his head down, stopping now and again
from mere weariness of mind rather than of body--as if not his
strength but his resolution were being overtaxed by the strain of
endeavour half suspected to be vain, and by the unrest of his
feelings.

In one of these pauses borne in the wind faintly as if from very
far away he heard a sound of knocking, just knocking on wood. He
noticed that the wind had lulled suddenly.

His heart started beating tumultuously because in himself he
carried the impression of the desert solitudes he had been
traversing for the last six hours--the oppressive sense of an
uninhabited world. When he raised his head a gleam of light,
illusory as it often happens in dense darkness, swam before his
eyes. While he peered, the sound of feeble knocking was repeated--
and suddenly he felt rather than saw the existence of a massive
obstacle in his path. What was it? The spur of a hill? Or was it
a house! Yes. It was a house right close, as though it had risen
from the ground or had come gliding to meet him, dumb and pallid;
from some dark recess of the night. It towered loftily. He had
come up under its lee; another three steps and he could have
touched the wall with his hand. It was no doubt a posada and some
other traveller was trying for admittance. He heard again the
sound of cautious knocking.

Next moment a broad band of light fell into the night through the
opened door. Byrne stepped eagerly into it, whereupon the person
outside leaped with a stifled cry away into the night. An
exclamation of surprise was heard too, from within. Byrne,
flinging himself against the half closed door, forced his way in
against some considerable resistance.

A miserable candle, a mere rushlight, burned at the end of a long
deal table. And in its light Byrne saw, staggering yet, the girl
he had driven from the door. She had a short black skirt, an
orange shawl, a dark complexion--and the escaped single hairs from
the mass, sombre and thick like a forest and held up by a comb,
made a black mist about her low forehead. A shrill lamentable howl
of: "Misericordia!" came in two voices from the further end of the
long room, where the fire-light of an open hearth played between
heavy shadows. The girl recovering herself drew a hissing breath
through her set teeth.

It is unnecessary to report the long process of questions and
answers by which he soothed the fears of two old women who sat on
each side of the fire, on which stood a large earthenware pot.
Byrne thought at once of two witches watching the brewing of some
deadly potion. But all the same, when one of them raising forward
painfully her broken form lifted the cover of the pot, the escaping
steam had an appetising smell. The other did not budge, but sat
hunched up, her head trembling all the time.

They were horrible. There was something grotesque in their
decrepitude. Their toothless mouths, their hooked noses, the
meagreness of the active one, and the hanging yellow cheeks of the
other (the still one, whose head trembled) would have been
laughable if the sight of their dreadful physical degradation had
not been appalling to one's eyes, had not gripped one's heart with
poignant amazement at the unspeakable misery of age, at the awful
persistency of life becoming at last an object of disgust and
dread.

To get over it Byrne began to talk, saying that he was an
Englishman, and that he was in search of a countryman who ought to
have passed this way. Directly he had spoken the recollection of
his parting with Tom came up in his mind with amazing vividness:
the silent villagers, the angry gnome, the one-eyed wine-seller,
Bernardino. Why! These two unspeakable frights must be that man's
aunts--affiliated to the devil.

Whatever they had been once it was impossible to imagine what use
such feeble creatures could be to the devil, now, in the world of
the living. Which was Lucilla and which was Erminia? They were
now things without a name. A moment of suspended animation
followed Byrne's words. The sorceress with the spoon ceased
stirring the mess in the iron pot, the very trembling of the
other's head stopped for the space of breath. In this
infinitesimal fraction of a second Byrne had the sense of being
really on his quest, of having reached the turn of the path, almost
within hail of Tom.

"They have seen him," he thought with conviction. Here was at last
somebody who had seen him. He made sure they would deny all
knowledge of the Ingles; but on the contrary they were eager to
tell him that he had eaten and slept the night in the house. They
both started talking together, describing his appearance and
behaviour. An excitement quite fierce in its feebleness possessed
them. The doubled-up sorceress flourished aloft her wooden spoon,
the puffy monster got off her stool and screeched, stepping from
one foot to the other, while the trembling of her head was
accelerated to positive vibration. Byrne was quite disconcerted by
their excited behaviour. . . Yes! The big, fierce Ingles went away
in the morning, after eating a piece of bread and drinking some
wine. And if the caballero wished to follow the same path nothing
could be easier--in the morning.

"You will give me somebody to show me the way?" said Byrne.

"Si, senor. A proper youth. The man the caballero saw going out."

"But he was knocking at the door," protested Byrne. "He only
bolted when he saw me. He was coming in."

"No! No!" the two horrid witches screamed out together. "Going
out. Going out!"

After all it may have been true. The sound of knocking had been
faint, elusive, reflected Byrne. Perhaps only the effect of his
fancy. He asked -

"Who is that man?"

"Her novio." They screamed pointing to the girl. "He is gone home
to a village far away from here. But he will return in the
morning. Her novio! And she is an orphan--the child of poor
Christian people. She lives with us for the love of God, for the
love of God."

The orphan crouching on the corner of the hearth had been looking
at Byrne. He thought that she was more like a child of Satan kept
there by these two weird harridans for the love of the Devil. Her
eyes were a little oblique, her mouth rather thick, but admirably
formed; her dark face had a wild beauty, voluptuous and untamed.
As to the character of her steadfast gaze attached upon him with a
sensuously savage attention, "to know what it was like," says Mr.
Byrne, "you have only to observe a hungry cat watching a bird in a
cage or a mouse inside a trap."

It was she who served him the food, of which he was glad; though
with those big slanting black eyes examining him at close range, as
if he had something curious written on his face, she gave him an
uncomfortable sensation. But anything was better than being
approached by these blear-eyed nightmarish witches. His
apprehensions somehow had been soothed; perhaps by the sensation of
warmth after severe exposure and the ease of resting after the
exertion of fighting the gale inch by inch all the way. He had no
doubt of Tom's safety. He was now sleeping in the mountain camp
having been met by Gonzales' men.

Byrne rose, filled a tin goblet with wine out of a skin hanging on
the wall, and sat down again. The witch with the mummy face began
to talk to him, ramblingly of old times; she boasted of the inn's
fame in those better days. Great people in their own coaches
stopped there. An archbishop slept once in the casa, a long, long
time ago.

The witch with the puffy face seemed to be listening from her
stool, motionless, except for the trembling of her head. The girl
(Byrne was certain she was a casual gipsy admitted there for some
reason or other) sat on the hearth stone in the glow of the embers.
She hummed a tune to herself, rattling a pair of castanets slightly
now and then. At the mention of the archbishop she chuckled
impiously and turned her head to look at Byrne, so that the red
glow of the fire flashed in her black eyes and on her white teeth
under the dark cowl of the enormous overmantel. And he smiled at
her.

He rested now in the ease of security. His advent not having been
expected there could be no plot against him in existence.
Drowsiness stole upon his senses. He enjoyed it, but keeping a
hold, so he thought at least, on his wits; but he must have been
gone further than he thought because he was startled beyond measure
by a fiendish uproar. He had never heard anything so pitilessly
strident in his life. The witches had started a fierce quarrel
about something or other. Whatever its origin they were now only
abusing each other violently, without arguments; their senile
screams expressed nothing but wicked anger and ferocious dismay.
The gipsy girl's black eyes flew from one to the other. Never
before had Byrne felt himself so removed from fellowship with human
beings. Before he had really time to understand the subject of the
quarrel, the girl jumped up rattling her castanets loudly. A
silence fell. She came up to the table and bending over, her eyes
in his -

"Senor," she said with decision, "You shall sleep in the
archbishop's room."

Neither of the witches objected. The dried-up one bent double was
propped on a stick. The puffy faced one had now a crutch.

Byrne got up, walked to the door, and turning the key in the
enormous lock put it coolly in his pocket. This was clearly the
only entrance, and he did not mean to be taken unawares by whatever
danger there might have been lurking outside.

When he turned from the door he saw the two witches "affiliated to
the Devil" and the Satanic girl looking at him in silence. He
wondered if Tom Corbin took the same precaution last might. And
thinking of him he had again that queer impression of his nearness.
The world was perfectly dumb. And in this stillness he heard the
blood beating in his ears with a confused rushing noise, in which
there seemed to be a voice uttering the words: "Mr. Byrne, look
out, sir." Tom's voice. He shuddered; for the delusions of the
senses of hearing are the most vivid of all, and from their nature
have a compelling character.

It seemed impossible that Tom should not be there. Again a slight
chill as of stealthy draught penetrated through his very clothes
and passed over all his body. He shook off the impression with an
effort.

It was the girl who preceded him upstairs carrying an iron lamp
from the naked flame of which ascended a thin thread of smoke. Her
soiled white stockings were full of holes.

With the same quiet resolution with which he had locked the door
below, Byrne threw open one after another the doors in the
corridor. All the rooms were empty except for some nondescript
lumber in one or two. And the girl seeing what he would be at
stopped every time, raising the smoky light in each doorway
patiently. Meantime she observed him with sustained attention.
The last door of all she threw open herself.

"You sleep here, senor," she murmured in a voice light like a
child's breath, offering him the lamp.

"Buenos noches, senorita," he said politely, taking it from her.

She didn't return the wish audibly, though her lips did move a
little, while her gaze black like a starless night never for a
moment wavered before him. He stepped in, and as he turned to
close the door she was still there motionless and disturbing, with
her voluptuous mouth and slanting eyes, with the expression of
expectant sensual ferocity of a baffled cat. He hesitated for a
moment, and in the dumb house he heard again the blood pulsating
ponderously in his ears, while once more the illusion of Tom's
voice speaking earnestly somewhere near by was specially
terrifying, because this time he could not make out the words.

He slammed the door in the girl's face at last, leaving her in the
dark; and he opened it again almost on the instant. Nobody. She
had vanished without the slightest sound. He closed the door
quickly and bolted it with two heavy bolts.

A profound mistrust possessed him suddenly. Why did the witches
quarrel about letting him sleep here? And what meant that stare of
the girl as if she wanted to impress his features for ever in her
mind? His own nervousness alarmed him. He seemed to himself to be
removed very far from mankind.

He examined his room. It was not very high, just high enough to
take the bed which stood under an enormous baldaquin-like canopy
from which fell heavy curtains at foot and head; a bed certainly
worthy of an archbishop. There was a heavy table carved all round
the edges, some arm-chairs of enormous weight like the spoils of a
grandee's palace; a tall shallow wardrobe placed against the wall
and with double doors. He tried them. Locked. A suspicion came
into his mind, and he snatched the lamp to make a closer
examination. No, it was not a disguised entrance. That heavy,
tall piece of furniture stood clear of the wall by quite an inch.
He glanced at the bolts of his room door. No! No one could get at
him treacherously while he slept. But would he be able to sleep?
he asked himself anxiously. If only he had Tom there--the trusty
seaman who had fought at his right hand in a cutting out affair or
two, and had always preached to him the necessity to take care of
himself. "For it's no great trick," he used to say, "to get
yourself killed in a hot fight. Any fool can do that. The proper
pastime is to fight the Frenchies and then live to fight another
day."

Byrne found it a hard matter not to fall into listening to the
silence. Somehow he had the conviction that nothing would break it
unless he heard again the haunting sound of Tom's voice. He had
heard it twice before. Odd! And yet no wonder, he argued with
himself reasonably, since he had been thinking of the man for over
thirty hours continuously and, what's more, inconclusively. For
his anxiety for Tom had never taken a definite shape. "Disappear,"
was the only word connected with the idea of Tom's danger. It was
very vague and awful. "Disappear!" What did that mean?

Byrne shuddered, and then said to himself that he must be a little
feverish. But Tom had not disappeared. Byrne had just heard of
him. And again the young man felt the blood beating in his ears.
He sat still expecting every moment to hear through the pulsating
strokes the sound of Tom's voice. He waited straining his ears,
but nothing came. Suddenly the thought occurred to him: "He has
not disappeared, but he cannot make himself heard."

He jumped up from the arm-chair. How absurd! Laying his pistol
and his hanger on the table he took off his boots and, feeling
suddenly too tired to stand, flung himself on the bed which he
found soft and comfortable beyond his hopes.

He had felt very wakeful, but he must have dozed off after all,
because the next thing he knew he was sitting up in bed and trying
to recollect what it was that Tom's voice had said. Oh! He
remembered it now. It had said: "Mr. Byrne! Look out, sir!" A
warning this. But against what?

He landed with one leap in the middle of the floor, gasped once,
then looked all round the room. The window was shuttered and
barred with an iron bar. Again he ran his eyes slowly all round
the bare walls, and even looked up at the ceiling, which was rather
high. Afterwards he went to the door to examine the fastenings.
They consisted of two enormous iron bolts sliding into holes made
in the wall; and as the corridor outside was too narrow to admit of
any battering arrangement or even to permit an axe to be swung,
nothing could burst the door open--unless gunpowder. But while he
was still making sure that the lower bolt was pushed well home, he
received the impression of somebody's presence in the room. It was
so strong that he spun round quicker than lightning. There was no
one. Who could there be? And yet . . .

It was then that he lost the decorum and restraint a man keeps up
for his own sake. He got down on his hands and knees, with the
lamp on the floor, to look under the bed, like a silly girl. He
saw a lot of dust and nothing else. He got up, his cheeks burning,
and walked about discontented with his own behaviour and
unreasonably angry with Tom for not leaving him alone. The words:
"Mr. Byrne! Look out, sir," kept on repeating themselves in his
head in a tone of warning.

"Hadn't I better just throw myself on the bed and try to go to
sleep," he asked himself. But his eyes fell on the tall wardrobe,
and he went towards it feeling irritated with himself and yet
unable to desist. How he could explain to-morrow the burglarious
misdeed to the two odious witches he had no idea. Nevertheless he
inserted the point of his hanger between the two halves of the door
and tried to prize them open. They resisted. He swore, sticking
now hotly to his purpose. His mutter: "I hope you will be
satisfied, confound you," was addressed to the absent Tom. Just
then the doors gave way and flew open.

He was there.

He--the trusty, sagacious, and courageous Tom was there, drawn up
shadowy and stiff, in a prudent silence, which his wide-open eyes
by their fixed gleam seemed to command Byrne to respect. But Byrne
was too startled to make a sound. Amazed, he stepped back a
little--and on the instant the seaman flung himself forward
headlong as if to clasp his officer round the neck. Instinctively
Byrne put out his faltering arms; he felt the horrible rigidity of
the body and then the coldness of death as their heads knocked
together and their faces came into contact. They reeled, Byrne
hugging Tom close to his breast in order not to let him fall with a
crash. He had just strength enough to lower the awful burden
gently to the floor--then his head swam, his legs gave way, and he
sank on his knees, leaning over the body with his hands resting on
the breast of that man once full of generous life, and now as
insensible as a stone.

"Dead! my poor Tom, dead," he repeated mentally. The light of the
lamp standing near the edge of the table fell from above straight
on the stony empty stare of these eyes which naturally had a mobile
and merry expression.

Byrne turned his own away from them. Tom's black silk neckerchief
was not knotted on his breast. It was gone. The murderers had
also taken off his shoes and stockings. And noticing this
spoliation, the exposed throat, the bare up-turned feet, Byrne felt
his eyes run full of tears. In other respects the seaman was fully
dressed; neither was his clothing disarranged as it must have been
in a violent struggle. Only his checked shirt had been pulled a
little out the waistband in one place, just enough to ascertain
whether he had a money belt fastened round his body. Byrne began
to sob into his handkerchief.

It was a nervous outburst which passed off quickly. Remaining on
his knees he contemplated sadly the athletic body of as fine a
seaman as ever had drawn a cutlass, laid a gun, or passed the
weather earring in a gale, lying stiff and cold, his cheery,
fearless spirit departed--perhaps turning to him, his boy chum, to
his ship out there rolling on the grey seas off an iron-bound
coast, at the very moment of its flight.

He perceived that the six brass buttons of Tom's jacket had been
cut off. He shuddered at the notion of the two miserable and
repulsive witches busying themselves ghoulishly about the
defenceless body of his friend. Cut off. Perhaps with the same
knife which . . . The head of one trembled; the other was bent
double, and their eyes were red and bleared, their infamous claws
unsteady. . . It must have been in this very room too, for Tom
could not have been killed in the open and brought in here
afterwards. Of that Byrne was certain. Yet those devilish crones
could not have killed him themselves even by taking him unawares--
and Tom would be always on his guard of course. Tom was a very
wide awake wary man when engaged on any service. . . And in fact
how did they murder him? Who did? In what way?

Byrne jumped up, snatched the lamp off the table, and stooped
swiftly over the body. The light revealed on the clothing no
stain, no trace, no spot of blood anywhere. Byrne's hands began to
shake so that he had to set the lamp on the floor and turn away his
head in order to recover from this agitation.

Then he began to explore that cold, still, and rigid body for a
stab, a gunshot wound, for the trace of some killing blow. He felt
all over the skull anxiously. It was whole. He slipped his hand
under the neck. It was unbroken. With terrified eyes he peered
close under the chin and saw no marks of strangulation on the
throat.

There were no signs anywhere. He was just dead.

Impulsively Byrne got away from the body as if the mystery of an
incomprehensible death had changed his pity into suspicion and
dread. The lamp on the floor near the set, still face of the
seaman showed it staring at the ceiling as if despairingly. In the
circle of light Byrne saw by the undisturbed patches of thick dust
on the floor that there had been no struggle in that room. "He has
died outside," he thought. Yes, outside in that narrow corridor,
where there was hardly room to turn, the mysterious death had come
to his poor dear Tom. The impulse of snatching up his pistols and
rushing out of the room abandoned Byrne suddenly. For Tom, too,
had been armed--with just such powerless weapons as he himself
possessed--pistols, a cutlass! And Tom had died a nameless death,
by incomprehensible means.

A new thought came to Byrne. That stranger knocking at the door
and fleeing so swiftly at his appearance had come there to remove
the body. Aha! That was the guide the withered witch had promised
would show the English officer the shortest way of rejoining his
man. A promise, he saw it now, of dreadful import. He who had
knocked would have two bodies to deal with. Man and officer would
go forth from the house together. For Byrne was certain now that
he would have to die before the morning--and in the same mysterious
manner, leaving behind him an unmarked body.

The sight of a smashed head, of a throat cut, of a gaping gunshot
wound, would have been an inexpressible relief. It would have
soothed all his fears. His soul cried within him to that dead man
whom he had never found wanting in danger. "Why don't you tell me
what I am to look for, Tom? Why don't you?" But in rigid
immobility, extended on his back, he seemed to preserve an austere
silence, as if disdaining in the finality of his awful knowledge to
hold converse with the living.

Suddenly Byrne flung himself on his knees by the side of the body,
and dry-eyed, fierce, opened the shirt wide on the breast, as if to
tear the secret forcibly from that cold heart which had been so
loyal to him in life! Nothing! Nothing! He raised the lamp, and
all the sign vouchsafed to him by that face which used to be so
kindly in expression was a small bruise on the forehead--the least
thing, a mere mark. The skin even was not broken. He stared at it
a long time as if lost in a dreadful dream. Then he observed that
Tom's hands were clenched as though he had fallen facing somebody
in a fight with fists. His knuckles, on closer view, appeared
somewhat abraded. Both hands.

The discovery of these slight signs was more appalling to Byrne
than the absolute absence of every mark would have been. So Tom
had died striking against something which could be hit, and yet
could kill one without leaving a wound--by a breath.

Terror, hot terror, began to play about Byrne's heart like a tongue
of flame that touches and withdraws before it turns a thing to
ashes. He backed away from the body as far as he could, then came
forward stealthily casting fearful glances to steal another look at
the bruised forehead. There would perhaps be such a faint bruise
on his own forehead--before the morning.

"I can't bear it," he whispered to himself. Tom was for him now an
object of horror, a sight at once tempting and revolting to his
fear. He couldn't bear to look at him.

At last, desperation getting the better of his increasing horror,
he stepped forward from the wall against which he had been leaning,
seized the corpse under the armpits, and began to lug it over to
the bed. The bare heels of the seaman trailed on the floor
noiselessly. He was heavy with the dead weight of inanimate
objects. With a last effort Byrne landed him face downwards on the
edge of the bed, rolled him over, snatched from under this stiff
passive thing a sheet with which he covered it over. Then he
spread the curtains at head and foot so that joining together as he
shook their folds they hid the bed altogether from his sight.

He stumbled towards a chair, and fell on it. The perspiration
poured from his face for a moment, and then his veins seemed to
carry for a while a thin stream of half, frozen blood. Complete
terror had possession of him now, a nameless terror which had
turned his heart to ashes.

He sat upright in the straight-backed chair, the lamp burning at
his feet, his pistols and his hanger at his left elbow on the end
of the table, his eyes turning incessantly in their sockets round
the walls, over the ceiling, over the floor, in the expectation of
a mysterious and appalling vision. The thing which could deal
death in a breath was outside that bolted door. But Byrne believed
neither in walls nor bolts now. Unreasoning terror turning
everything to account, his old time boyish admiration of the
athletic Tom, the undaunted Tom (he had seemed to him invincible),
helped to paralyse his faculties, added to his despair.

He was no longer Edgar Byrne. He was a tortured soul suffering
more anguish than any sinner's body had ever suffered from rack or
boot. The depth of his torment may be measured when I say that
this young man, as brave at least as the average of his kind,
contemplated seizing a pistol and firing into his own head. But a
deadly, chilly, langour was spreading over his limbs. It was as if
his flesh had been wet plaster stiffening slowly about his ribs.
Presently, he thought, the two witches will be coming in, with
crutch and stick--horrible, grotesque, monstrous--affiliated to the
devil--to put a mark on his forehead, the tiny little bruise of
death. And he wouldn't be able to do anything. Tom had struck out
at something, but he was not like Tom. His limbs were dead
already. He sat still, dying the death over and over again; and
the only part of him which moved were his eyes, turning round and
round in their sockets, running over the walls, the floor, the
ceiling, again and again till suddenly they became motionless and
stony-starting out of his head fixed in the direction of the bed.

He had seen the heavy curtains stir and shake as if the dead body
they concealed had turned over and sat up. Byrne, who thought the
world could hold no more terrors in store, felt his hair stir at
the roots. He gripped the arms of the chair, his jaw fell, and the
sweat broke out on his brow while his dry tongue clove suddenly to
the roof of his mouth. Again the curtains stirred, but did not
open. "Don't, Tom!" Byrne made effort to shout, but all he heard
was a slight moan such as an uneasy sleeper may make. He felt that
his brain was going, for, now, it seemed to him that the ceiling
over the bed had moved, had slanted, and came level again--and once
more the closed curtains swayed gently as if about to part.

Byrne closed his eyes not to see the awful apparition of the
seaman's corpse coming out animated by an evil spirit. In the
profound silence of the room he endured a moment of frightful
agony, then opened his eyes again. And he saw at once that the
curtains remained closed still, but that the ceiling over the bed
had risen quite a foot. With the last gleam of reason left to him
he understood that it was the enormous baldaquin over the bed which
was coming down, while the curtains attached to it swayed softly,
sinking gradually to the floor. His drooping jaw snapped to--and
half rising in his chair he watched mutely the noiseless descent of
the monstrous canopy. It came down in short smooth rushes till
lowered half way or more, when it took a run and settled swiftly
its turtle-back shape with the deep border piece fitting exactly
the edge of the bedstead. A slight crack or two of wood were
heard, and the overpowering stillness of the room resumed its sway.

Byrne stood up, gasped for breath, and let out a cry of rage and
dismay, the first sound which he is perfectly certain did make its
way past his lips on this night of terrors. This then was the
death he had escaped! This was the devilish artifice of murder
poor Tom's soul had perhaps tried from beyond the border to warn
him of. For this was how he had died. Byrne was certain he had
heard the voice of the seaman, faintly distinct in his familiar
phrase, "Mr. Byrne! Look out, sir!" and again uttering words he
could not make out. But then the distance separating the living
from the dead is so great! Poor Tom had tried. Byrne ran to the
bed and attempted to lift up, to push off the horrible lid
smothering the body. It resisted his efforts, heavy as lead,
immovable like a tombstone. The rage of vengeance made him desist;
his head buzzed with chaotic thoughts of extermination, he turned
round the room as if he could find neither his weapons nor the way
out; and all the time he stammered awful menaces. . .

A violent battering at the door of the inn recalled him to his
soberer senses. He flew to the window pulled the shutters open,
and looked out. In the faint dawn he saw below him a mob of men.
Ha! He would go and face at once this murderous lot collected no
doubt for his undoing. After his struggle with nameless terrors he
yearned for an open fray with armed enemies. But he must have
remained yet bereft of his reason, because forgetting his weapons
he rushed downstairs with a wild cry, unbarred the door while blows
were raining on it outside, and flinging it open flew with his bare
hands at the throat of the first man he saw before him. They
rolled over together. Byrne's hazy intention was to break through,
to fly up the mountain path, and come back presently with Gonzales'
men to exact an exemplary vengeance. He fought furiously till a
tree, a house, a mountain, seemed to crash down upon his head--and
he knew no more.

* * * * *

Here Mr. Byrne describes in detail the skilful manner in which he
found his broken head bandaged, informs us that he had lost a great
deal of blood, and ascribes the preservation of his sanity to that
circumstance. He sets down Gonzales' profuse apologies in full
too. For it was Gonzales who, tired of waiting for news from the
English, had come down to the inn with half his band, on his way to
the sea. "His excellency," he explained, "rushed out with fierce
impetuosity, and, moreover, was not known to us for a friend, and
so we . . . etc., etc. When asked what had become of the witches,
he only pointed his finger silently to the ground, then voiced
calmly a moral reflection: "The passion for gold is pitiless in
the very old, senor," he said. "No doubt in former days they have
put many a solitary traveller to sleep in the archbishop's bed."

"There was also a gipsy girl there," said Byrne feebly from the
improvised litter on which he was being carried to the coast by a
squad of guerilleros.

"It was she who winched up that infernal machine, and it was she
too who lowered it that night," was the answer.

"But why? Why?" exclaimed Byrne. "Why should she wish for my
death?"

"No doubt for the sake of your excellency's coat buttons," said
politely the saturnine Gonzales. "We found those of the dead
mariner concealed on her person. But your excellency may rest
assured that everything that is fitting has been done on this
occasion."

Byrne asked no more questions. There was still another death which
was considered by Gonzales as "fitting to the occasion." The one-
eyed Bernardino stuck against the wall of his wine-shop received
the charge of six escopettas into his breast. As the shots rang
out the rough bier with Tom's body on it went past carried by a
bandit-like gang of Spanish patriots down the ravine to the shore,
where two boats from the ship were waiting for what was left on
earth of her best seaman.

Mr. Byrne, very pale and weak, stepped into the boat which carried
the body of his humble friend. For it was decided that Tom Corbin
should rest far out in the bay of Biscay. The officer took the
tiller and, turning his head for the last look at the shore, saw on
the grey hillside something moving, which he made out to be a
little man in a yellow hat mounted on a mule--that mule without
which the fate of Tom Corbin would have remained mysterious for
ever.


June, 1913.

Joseph Conrad

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