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The sun was high when I came to a place where the ways divided, and, while I stood hesitating which road to take, I heard the cool plash and murmur of a brook at no great distance. Wherefore, being hot and thirsty, I scrambled through the hedge, and, coming to the brook, threw myself face down beside it, and, catching up the sweet pure water in my hands, drank my fill; which done, I bathed my feet, and hands, and face, and became much heartened and refreshed thereby. Now because I have ever loved the noise of running waters, in a little while, I rose and walked on beside the stream, listening to its blithesome melody. So, by devious ways, for the brook wound prodigiously, I came at length to a sudden declivity down which the water plunged in a miniature cascade, sparkling in the sun, and gleaming with a thousand rainbow hues. On I went, climbing down as best I might, until I found myself in a sort of green basin, very cool after the heat and glare of the roads, for the high, tree-clad sides afforded much shade. On I went, past fragrant thickets and bending willows, with soft lush grass underfoot and leafy arches overhead, and the brook singing and chattering at my side; albeit a brook of changeful mood, now laughing and dimpling in some fugitive ray of sunshine, now sighing and whispering in the shadows, but ever moving upon its appointed way, and never quite silent. So I walked on beside the brook, watching the fish that showed like darting shadows on the bottom, until, chancing to raise my eyes, I stopped. And there, screened by leaves, shut in among the green, stood a small cottage, or hut. My second glance showed it to be tenantless, for the thatch was partly gone, the windows were broken, and the door had long since fallen from its hinges. Yet, despite its forlornness and desolation, despite the dilapidation of broken door and fallen chimney, there was something in the air of the place that drew me strangely. It was somewhat roughly put together, but still very strong, and seemed, save for the roof, weatherfast.
"A man might do worse than live here," thought I, "with the birds for neighbors, and the brook to sing him to sleep at night. Indeed, a man might live very happily in such a place."
I was still looking at the hut, with this in my mind, when I was startled by hearing a thin, quavering voice behind me:
"Be you 'm a-lookin' at t' cottage, master?"
Turning sharp round, I beheld a very ancient man in a smock frock, who carried a basket on one arm, and leaned upon a stick.
"Yes," I answered; "I was wondering how it came to be built in such an out-of-the-world spot."
"Why, 't were built by a wanderin' man o' the roads."
"It's very lonely!" said I.
"Ye may well say so, sir--haunted it be, tu."
"Haunted?" said I.
"Haunted as ever was!" answered the old man, with a sprightly nod strangely contrasting with his wrinkled face and tremulous limbs. "No one ventur's nigh the place arter dark, an' few enough in the daytime, for that matter."
"On account of the ghost?"
"Ah!" nodded the Ancient, "moans 'e du, an' likewise groans. Theer's some as says 'e twitters tu, an' shakes chains."
"Then nobody has lived here of late?"
"Bless 'ee no--nor wouldn't, no, not if ye paid 'em tu. Nobody's come a-nigh the place, you may say, since 't were built by the wanderin' man. Lived 'ere all alone, 'e did--killed 'isself 'ere likewise."
"Killed himself!" said I.
"Ah--! 'ung 'isself--be'ind th' door yonder, sixty an' six year ago come August, an' 't were me as found 'im. Ye see," said the old man, setting down his basket, and seating himself with great nicety on the moss-grown doorstep, "ye see, 't were a tur'ble storm that night--rain, and wind, wi' every now an' then a gert, cracklin' flame o' lightnin'. I mind I'd been up to th' farm a-courtin' o' Nancy Brent--she 'm dead now, poor lass, years an' years ago, but she were a fine, buxom maid in those days, d'ye see. Well, I were comin' 'ome, and what wi' one thing an' another, I lost my way. An' presently, as I were stumblin' along in the dark, comes another crackle o' lightnin', an' lookin' up, what should I see but this 'ere cottage. 'T were newer-lookin' then, wi' a door an' winders, but the door was shut an' the winders was dark--so theer I stood in the rain, not likin' to disturb the stranger, for 'e were a gert, fierce, unfriendly kind o' chap, an' uncommon fond o' bein' left alone. Hows'ever, arter a while, up I goes to th' door, an' knocks (for I were a gert, strong, strappin', well-lookin' figure o' a man myself, in those days, d'ye see, an' could give a good buffet an' tak one tu), so up I goes to th' door, an' knocks wi' my fist clenched, all ready (an' a tidy, sizable fist it were in those days) but Lord! nobody answered, so, at last, I lifted the latch." Here the Ancient paused to draw a snuff-box from his pocket, with great deliberation, noting my awakened interest with a twinkling eye.
"Well?" I inquired.
"Well," he continued slowly, "I lifted th' latch, an' give a push to the door, but it would only open a little way--an inch, p'r'aps, an' stuck." Here he tapped, and opened his snuff-box.
"Well?" I inquired again.
"Well," he went on, "I give it a gert, big push wi' my shoulder (I were a fine, strong chap in those days), an', just as it flew open, comes another flash o' lightnin', an' the fust thing I seen was--a boot."
"A boot!" I exclaimed.
"A boot as ever was," nodded the Ancient, and took a pinch of snuff with great apparent gusto.
"Go on," said I, "go on."
"Oh!--it's a fine story, a fine story!" he chuckled. "Theer bean't many men o' my age as 'as fund a 'ung man in a thunderstorm! Well, as I tell ye, I seen a boot, likewise a leg, an' theer were this 'ere wanderin' man o' the roads a-danglin' be'ind th' door from a stapil--look ye!" he exclaimed, rising with some little difficulty, and hobbling into the hut, "theer be th' very stapil, so it be!" and he pointed up to a rusty iron staple that had been driven deep into the beam above the door.
"And why," said I, "why did he hang himself?"
"Seein' e' 'ad no friends, and never told nobody--nobody never knowed," answered the old man, shaking his head, "but on that theer stapil 'e 'ung 'isself, an' on that theer stapil I fund 'im, on a stormy night sixty and six year ago come August."
"You have a wonderful memory!" said I.
"Ay, to be sure; a wunnerful mem'ry, a wunnerful mem'ry!"
"Sixty and six years is an age," said I.
"So it be," nodded the Ancient. "I were a fine young chap in those days, tall I were, an' straight as a arrer, I be a bit different now."
"Why, you are getting old," said I.
"So 's t' stapil yonder, but t' stapil looks nigh as good as ever."
"Iron generally wears better than flesh and blood," said I; "it's only natural."
"Ay, but 'e can't last forever," said the Ancient, frowning, and shaking his head at the rusty staple. "I've watched un, month in an' month out, all these years, an' seen un growin' rustier an' rustier. I'll last 'ee out yet,' I've said to un--'e knows it--'e 've heerd me many an' many a time. 'I'll last 'ee out yet!' I've said, an' so I will, to--'e can't last forever an' I be a vig'rus man--a mortal vig'rus man--bean't I?"
"Wonderfully!" said I.
"An' so strong as a bull?"
"To be sure."
"An' t' stapil can't last much longer--eh, maister? so old an' rusty as 'e be?"
"One would hardly think so."
"Not so long as a tur'ble vig'rus man, like I be?" he inquired, with a certain wistful appeal in his eyes.
"No," I answered impulsively.
"I knowed it--I knowed it," he chuckled, feebly brandishing his stick, "such a poor old stapil as 'tis, all eat up wi' rust. Every time I come 'ere a-gatherin' watercress, I come in an' give un a look, an' watch un rustin' away, an' rustin' away; I'll see un go fust, arter all, so I will!" and, with another nod at the staple, he turned, and hobbled out into the sunshine.
And seeing how, despite his brave showing, he labored to carry the heavy basket, I presently took it from him, disregarding his protests, and set off by his side; yet, as we went, I turned once to look back at the deserted hut.
"You 'm thinkin' 'tis a tur'ble bad place at night?" said the old man.
"On the contrary," I answered, "I was thinking it might suit a homeless man like me very well indeed."
"D'ye mean--to live there?" exclaimed the Ancient.
"Yes," said I.
"Then you bean't afraid o' the ghost?"
"No," I answered.
"P'r'aps you be one o' they fules as think theer bean't no ghosts?"
"As to that," I answered, "I don't know, but I don't think I should be much afraid, and it is a great blessing to have some spot on this unfriendly world that we can call 'home'--even though it be but a hut, and haunted."
In a little while the path we followed led up a somewhat steep ascent which, though not so precipitous as the place where I had entered the hollow, was a difficult climb, notwithstanding; seeing which, I put out a hand to aid my aged companion. But he repulsed me almost sharply:
"Let be," he panted, "let be, nobody's never 'elped me up this 'ere path, an' nobody never shall!" So up we went, the Ancient and I, side by side, and very slowly, until, the summit being reached, he seated himself, spent and breathless, upon a fallen tree, which had doubtless served this purpose many times before, and mopped at his wrinkled brow with a trembling hand.
"Ye see," he cried, as soon as he had recovered his breath sufficiently, "ye see, I be wunnerful spry an' active--could dance ye a hornpipe any day, if I was so minded."
"On my word," said I, "I believe you could! But where are you going now?"
"How far is that?"
"'Bout a mile acrost t' fields, you can see the pint o' Joel Amos's oast-'ouse above the trees yonder."
"Is there a good inn at Sissinghurst?"
"Ay, theer's 'The Bull,' comfortable, an' draws fine ale!"
"Then I will go to Sissinghurst."
"Ay, ay," nodded the old man, "if it be good ale an' a comfortable inn you want you need seek no further nor Siss'n'urst; ninety an' one years I've lived there, an' I know."
"Ninety-one years!" I repeated.
"As ever was!" returned the Ancient, with another nod. "I be the oldest man in these parts 'cept David Relf, an' 'e died last year."
"Why then, if he's dead, you must be the oldest," said I.
"No," said the Ancient, shaking his head,--"ye see it be this way: David were my brother, an' uncommon proud 'e were o' bein' the oldest man in these parts, an' now that 'e be dead an' gone it du seem a poor thing--ah! a very poor thing!--to tak' 'vantage of a dead man, an' him my own brother!" Saying which, the Ancient rose, and we went on together, side by side, towards Sissinghurst village.
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