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Chapter XV. In Which I Meet with a Pedler by the Name of "Gabbing" Dick

"You won't be wantin' ever a broom, now?"

I sat up, sleepily, and rubbed my eyes. The sun was gone, and the blue sky had changed to a deep purple, set here and there with a quivering star. Yet the light was still strong enough to enable me to distinguish the speaker--a short, thick-set man. Upon his shoulder he carried a bundle of brooms, a pack was slung to his back, while round his neck there dangled a heterogeneous collection of articles--ribbons, laces, tawdry neck chains, and the like; indeed, so smothered was he in his wares that, as he stood there, he had more the aspect of some disordered fancy than of a human being.

"You won't be wantin' ever a broom, now?" he repeated, in a somewhat melancholy tone.

"No," said I.

"Nor yet a mop?"

"Nor that either," said I.

"A belt, now," he suggested mournfully, "a fine leather belt wi' a steel buckle made in Brummagem as ever was, and all for a shillin'; what d'ye say to a fine belt?"

"That I have no need of one, thank you."

"Ah, well!" said the man, spitting dejectedly at a patch of shadow, "I thought as much; you aren't got the look of a buyer."

"Then why ask me?"

"Hinstinct!" said he, "it's jest hinstinct--it comes as nat'ral to me as eatin', or walkin' these 'ere roads."

"Have you come far to-day?"

"Twenty mile, maybe," he answered, setting down his bundle of brooms.

"Are you tired?"

"'Course I'm tired."

"Then why not sit down and rest?"

"Because I'd 'ave to get up again, wouldn't I?"

"Are you hungry?

"'Ungry aren't the word for it."

"And how is trade?"

"Couldn't be worse!"

"I perceive you are a pessimist," said I.

"No," said he, "I'm a pedler--baptism'l name Richard, commonly known as 'Gabbin' Dick.'"

"At least yours is a fine healthy trade," said I.

"'Ow so?"

"A life of constant exercise, and fresh air; to-day for instance--"

"'Ot as a hoven!" said he.

"Yet there was a good, cool wind," said I.

"Ah! an' with dust enough to choke a man! And then there's the loneliness o' these 'ere roads."

"Loneliness?" said I.

"That's the word; sometimes it gets so bad as I'm minded to do away wi' myself--"

"Strange!" I began.

"Not a bit," said be; "when you've been a-walkin' an' a-walkin' all day past 'edge and 'edge, and tree and tree, it's bad enough, but it's worse when the sun's gone out, an' you foller the glimmer o' the road on and on, past 'edges as ain't 'edges, and trees as ain't trees, but things as touch you as you pass, and reach out arter you in the dark, behind. Theer's one on 'em, back theer on the Cranbrook road, looks like an oak-tree in the daytime--ah, an' a big 'un--it's nearly 'ad me three times a'ready--once by the leg, once by the arm, and once by the neck. I don't pass it arter dark no more, but it'll 'ave me yet--mark my words--it'll 'ave me one o' these fine nights; and they'll find me a-danglin' in the gray o' the dawn!"

"Do you mean that you are afraid?" I inquired.

"No, not afeared exactly; it's jest the loneliness--the lonely quietness. Why, Lord! you aren't got no notion o' the tricks the trees and 'edges gets up to a' nights--nobody 'as but us as tramps the roads. Bill Nye knowed, same as I know, but Bill Nye's dead; cut 'is throat, 'e did, wi' one o' 'is own razors--under a 'edge."

"And what for?" I inquired, as the Pedler paused to spit lugubriously into the road again.

"Nobody knowed but me. William Nye 'e were a tinker, and a rare, merry 'un 'e were--a little man always up to 'is jinkin' and jokin' and laughin'. 'Dick,' 'e used to say (but Richard I were baptized, though they calls me Dick for short), 'Dick,' 'e used to say, 'd'ye know that theer big oak-tree--the big, 'oller oak as stands at the crossroads a mile and a 'alf out o' Cranbrook? A man might do for 'isself very nice, and quiet, tucked away inside of it, Dick,' says 'e; 'it's such a nice, quiet place, so snug and dark, I wonder as nobody does. I never pass by,' says 'e, 'but I takes a peep inside, jest to make sure as theer aren't no legs a-danglin', nor nobody 'unched up dead in the dark. It's such a nice, quiet place,' e used to say, shakin' 'is lead, and smilin' sad-like, 'I wonder as nobody's never thought of it afore.' Well, one day, sure enough, poor Bill Nye disappeared--nobody knowed wheer. Bill, as I say, was a merry sort, always ready wi' a joke, and that's apt to get a man friends, and they searched for 'im 'igh and low, but neither 'ide nor 'air o' poor Bill did they find. At last, one evenin' I 'appened to pass the big oak--the 'oller oak, and mindin' Bill's words, thinks I--'ere's to see if 'tis empty as Bill said. Goin' up to it I got down on my 'ands and knees, and, strikin' a light, looked inside; and there, sure enough, was poor Bill Nye hunched up inside of it wi' a razor in 'is 'and, and 'is 'ead nigh cut off--and what wi' one thing and another, a very unpleasant sight he were."

"And why--why did he do it?" I asked.

"Because 'e 'ad to, o' course--it's jest the loneliness. They'll find me some day, danglin'--I never could abide 'blood myself--danglin' to the thing as looks like a oak tree in the daytime."

"What do you mean?" said I.

The Pedler sighed, shook his head, and shouldered his brooms.

"It's jest the loneliness!" said he, and, spitting over this shoulder, trudged upon his way.

Jeffery Farnol

Book One

Book Two. The Woman

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