Now it seemed to me that I was back upon the road, standing once more beside the great oak-tree. And, as I watched, a small, hunched figure crept from the jagged opening in the trunk, a figure with a jingling pack upon its back, at sight of which I turned and ran, filled with an indescribable terror. But, as I went, the Tinker’s pack jingled loud behind me, and when I glanced back, I saw that he ran with head dangling in most hideous fashion, and that his right hand grasped a razor. On I sped faster and faster, but with the Tinker ever at my heels, until I had reached this tavern; the door crashed to, behind me, only just in time, and I knew, as I lay there, that he was standing outside, in the moonlight, staring up at my casement with his horrible, dead face.
Here I very mercifully awoke, and lay, for a while, blinking in the ghostly radiance of the moon, which was flooding in at the window directly upon me. Now whether it was owing to the vividness of my dream, I know not, but as I lay, there leapt up within me a sudden conviction that somebody was indeed standing outside in the lane, staring up at my window. So firmly was I convinced of this that, moved by a sudden impulse, I rose, and, cautiously approaching the window, peered out. And there, sure enough, his feet planted wide apart, his hands behind his back, stood a man staring up at my window. His head was thrown back so that I could see his face distinctly a fleshy face with small, close-set eyes and thick lips, behind which I caught the gleam of big, white teeth. This was no tinker, but as I looked, I recognized him as the slenderer of the two “Corinthians” with whom I had fallen out at “The Chequers.” Hereupon I got me back to bed, drowsily wondering what should bring the fellow hanging about a dilapidated hedge-tavern at such an hour. But gradually my thoughts grew less coherent, my eyes closed, and in another moment I should have been asleep, when I suddenly came to my elbow, broad awake and listening, for I had heard two sounds, the soft creak of a window opened cautiously near by, and a stealthy footstep outside my door.
IN WHICH I BECOME A SQUIRE OF DAMES
Who does not recognize the solemn majesty of Night—that season of awesome stillness when tired mankind lies supine in that strange inertia so like death; when the soul, quitting the wearied body for a space, flies hence—but whither?
What wonder is it if, at such an hour as this, we are prone to magnify trifles, or that the most insignificant thing becomes an omen full of ghastly meaning and possibilities? The creak of a door in the silence, a rustle in the dark, become to us of infinitely greater moment than the crash of falling empires.
Thus, for a space, I lay, with ears on the stretch, and every nerve tingling, waiting for—I knew not what.
In a little, I became conscious of yet another sound, indescribably desolate: the low, repressed sound of a woman’s sobbing.