“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.
HOW I HEARD THE STEPS OF ONE WHO DOGGED ME IN THE SHADOWS
And, in a little while, I rose, and buckled on my knapsack. The shadows were creeping on apace, but the sky was wonderfully clear, while, low down upon the horizon, I saw the full-orbed moon, very broad and big. It would be a brilliant night later, and this knowledge rejoiced me not a little. Before me stretched a succession of hills—that chain of hills which, I believe, is called the Weald, and over which the dim road dipped, and wound, with, on either hand, a rolling country, dark with wood, and coppice—full of mystery. The wind had quite fallen, but from the hedges, came sudden rustlings and soft, unaccountable noises. Once, something small and dark scuttered across the road before me, and once a bird, hidden near by, set up a loud complaint, while, from the deeps of a neighboring wood, came the mournful note of a night-jar.
And, as I walked, I bethought me of poor Bill Nye, the Tinker. I could picture him tramping upon this very road, his jingling load upon his back, and the “loneliness” upon and around him. A small man, he would be, with a peaked face, little, round, twinkling eyes, grizzled hair, and a long, blue chin. How I came to know all this I cannot tell, only it seemed he must be so. On he went, his chin first upon one shoulder, and now upon the other, shooting furtive glances at hedges which were not hedges, and trees which were not trees. Somewhere there was a “thing” that looked like a big oak tree in the daytime—a hollow oak. On he went through the shadows, on and on. Presently he turned out of the road, and there, sure enough, was the oak itself. Kneeling down, he slipped off his burden and pushed it through a jagged hole at the root. Then he glanced round him, a long, stealthy look, down at the earth and up at the sky, and crept into the tree. In the dimness I could see him fumble for the thing he wanted, pause to thumb its edge, and, throwing up his chin, raise his hand—
“Folly!” said I aloud, and stopped suddenly in my stride.
The moon’s rim was just topping the trees to my left, and its light, feeble though it was as yet, served to show that I had reached a place where four roads met.
Now, casting my eyes about me, they were attracted by a great tree that grew near by, a tree of vast girth and bigness. And, as I looked, I saw that it was an oak-tree, near the root of which there was a jagged, black hole.
How long I stood staring at this, I cannot say, but, all at once, the leaves of the tree were agitated as by a breath of wind, and rustled with a sound indescribably desolate, and from the dark mass rose the long-drawn, mournful cry of some night bird.