The Uninvited Guest

Entry by: percypop

13th July 2016

It was a storm like no other. Trees fell, thatch groaned under the blast of the wind and tiles flicked about the streets like knives.
High up on the ridgeway, was The Beggar’s Rest. It stood next to the crossway where the roads met. Joshua Trim, the landlord, a large man with a dark complexion, ran his house with a firm hand. Customers were generally scarce, but tonight, it was shelter for a throng of folk caught out by the raging weather.

.“There’s no help for it,” said Silas Newcome, a shepherd, “I’ve penned them tight and God save them this night.”

He took a seat by the table and sat quietly nursing a small pot of beer. He had hung up his crook above the great fireplace. Little by little the tavern filled with the victims of the storm. A farrier, Thom Able, still in his leather apron, stooped in and shrugged as he faced the Landlord.

“It’s no use Maister Trim, the animals are frit and I can’t shoe ‘em like this.”

Trim drew a jug of beer for the man.With a nod at the shepherd, Able sat at the other end of the big trestle table, astride the bench as if in the saddle. Maddie, the publican’s wife, added logs to the fire in the great fireplace. Her tired eyes betrayed the hard life she led. For a minute she rested in the inglenook gazing at the flames. then she gathered herself.

By six o’clock, other men had come into the inn shaking their capes. Every time the door swung open the wind rushed in like an unruly dog. Outside, the yard was obscured in the gloom. Joshua struggled out and hung a lantern above the door. The wind howled a curse and flung the light about like a toy.

Carter Brown called for the fiddle and offered a tune. “Who likes a ditty?” he asked, and began to play. Soon the room rang with voices. The wild night outside lost its terrors.

A loud rap at the door broke the mood, and brought the music to a halt. Trim pulled back the bolts and held the open door against the wind. Outlined by the feeble light of the lantern was a man in an oilskin cape. He wore a tarred tricorn hat, black and shiny with rain.
Trim stepped back and nodded to the stranger. The man stepped in. A pool formed around his feet and where he cast his black cape and hat. He was tall and thin and gave the impression of a man of consequence. His eye was proud and he stood upright, stiff as a soldier on parade.

“I’m on my way to Bridport, but lost my way tonight on the moor. Can I rest here?”

Maddie Trim brought out a blanket from the kitchen and handed it to the stranger without a word. He stripped off his coat and sat in the inglenook stretching his damp legs before the fire, wrapping himself in the rough cloth. Sam Barker, the tiler, spoke first.
“You chanced your luck on such a day as this.”
The stranger smiled and said,
“My business in Bridport is urgent for tomorrow, so I tried to cut across the moor to save my legs.”
He had a leather bag with him and laid it carefully beside him. The fiddler tuned up again and the music stirred the company to a song.

Maddie Trim brought out a cauldron of broth and set it on the table.
“All’s welcome to a bit of broth and bread tonight,” she said, “no man should go hungry on such a night.”

The general murmur of thanks was followed by the clatter of boots and spoons as each found a place round the table.
“Mind!” said Joshua Trim, “the ale and mead is to be paid for.”
This was acknowledged with grunts and slurps. Then the tall stranger spoke up.
“Landlord, put out a firkin of ale on my expense to thank you for the company.”

A general roar of approval went up and Trim obliged by hoisting a barrel from the cellar onto the table and spiked the plug. Soon the room filled with the noise of loud voices and occasional bursts of song as the night wore on. The stranger kept to his seat in the inglenook but joined in the general talk.

“So tomorrow is a big day for thee?” said Sam, as if the earlier chat had never been broken, “happen it is a big day for the town as well.”

“What’s that then?” said Gaffer Basset from the table side, his ear cupped to catch every word. “Well the Assize is due and the sentence passed on the thief.”

At that moment, the wind howled and a shaft of lightning blazed across the window. All eyes turned to look. Outside, for an instant, the face of a man was pressed against the glass. Just as quickly, the image disappeared and a rapping commenced, banging urgently on the glass. Trim sprang for the door and others followed. As he lifted the latch the door was flung open with the force of the wind and a man burst into the room. His long ragged coat was covered by a layer of sacking, his leggings and boots were covered in mud. “God bless you!” he said. “I saw the light an’ salvation too!”
His face was pallid, unhealthy as if he had spent time away from the sun, his long dark hair stuck to his forehead by the rain. He looked about with a keen eye, examining each face closely. There was certain ferocity in his stare rather like a wounded animal at bay.

“You’re safe at last,” said the dark man from the inglenook, “come and warm yourself by the fire.”

The stranger nodded his thanks and threw down the sacking as he climbed into the nook and held out his arms to the warmth of the fire. Maddie brought him a blanket and took his steaming clothes away. For a second she looked hard at the man, and then she nodded to the table where the broth and bread lay.
“Help yourself,” she said.

Sitting together at the fireside, the two incomers began to talk as their bodies warmed at the fire and their minds freed up with the ale and the company.

“Good of ye to share the firkin this night,” said the newcomer.
“My pleasure,” said the dark man, “like you, I needed a refuge on this wild night. Where have you come from?”
“I come from,” he hesitated, “Portsmouth, but stopped off in Bridport for a spell.”
He turned to his companion. “What was your route and purpose?”

There was an audience throughout the inn to hear the answer. A hush fell as the assembly pretended to be busy but each one listened with one ear to the mystery man with the tricorn hat. The man rose and stretched himself; he stepped out into the living space before the fireplace and raised his pot of ale to the crowd.
“Here’s to the Storm and good company!”
A holler rang out in reply, “An’ here’s to you Sir,” a general toast followed and the dark man smiled in a genial way.
“I’ll wager a guinea to any man who can guess my trade in one question,” he said and spread his arms out in a broad gesture. Outside the wind still moaned and distant thunder muttered.
Trim’s instinct told him the man was an “official” mayhap a Customs Man.
He offered, “Excise.” The man shook his head.

Sam Barker shouted, “Press gang.” The press gangs had swept through Dorset the year before.
Again, the man smiled and said, “No.”

He pulled his leather bag towards him and said. “A clue to help you.” The room was now abuzz with interest. From his bag he drew a coil. Not a rough rope of hemp, nor a string of twine, but a pure white silken cord no thicker than a man’s thumb. His eyes scanned the group with a glitter that they had never seen before.

“Merciful Christ! He’s the hangman!” cried Maddie and she covered her face with her apron.

“A guinea to that good lady!” He smiled thinly and pulled out the coil that unwound like a beautiful snake emerging from the gaping bag. A silence fell like a curtain across the whole room.

“An’ tomorrow the man what stole Farmer Betwood’s sheep is hung...” said Peter Hichen.

“I have a job to do. Yes, at ten tomorrow in Bridport.”

He put away the rope and went back to the inglenook and sat beside the other newcomer. Fumbling in his pocket, he found a guinea and offered it to Maddie.
She shook her head and gathered up some crocks intent on leaving. Her eyes never looked at the man again as she left the room. Gradually, the atmosphere in the bar returned to its former noisy level.

Just then, above the roar of the storm, the boom of cannon sounded from a distance. There was a short silence in the room and then the fiddler began again.
A second time they heard the boom above the wind and rain. The music stopped.
The publican Trim said, “It’s the prison gun!”
The whole assembly stiffened. The hangman stood and Trim looked at him. The man stepped out into the room and spoke to the whole group.
“The gun must mean the condemned man has escaped. I need a posse to search for him.”

Trim looked to Thom Able the farrier. “Well Thom, you’re the sworn constable, where’s you staff? You need to find the man.”
“I ain’t got me staff with me on such a night! How was I to know the man would run?”

“Never mind the staff!” said the hangman. “I have power to raise a posse here and now.” and he flourished a silver badge from his waistcoat. “I name you all for the posse. Anyone who defaults is reported to the magistrate.”

Grumbling, the men began to gather their coats, capes and coverings to follow the dark man who commanded them. The man from the fireside gathered his sacking and coat. He was the last to follow out into the storm.

Alone in the inn, Maddie made up the fire and cleared the table. A light knock tapped on the kitchen door and the second stranger in the sacking slipped in and stood with his back to the door.
“I seed you knew me Maddie, from the first off, I got nowhere to go but here, so what could I do?” He looked at her with pleading eyes.
“You’re a marked man, Jo,” she said calmly. “What can I do agin the Law?”
“It was no justice to hang a man for one sheep!” he spoke fiercely “You know well I had been turned out and my childer starving...”
She dried her hands on her apron and gave a slight nod.
“The Assizes is London judges and they show no mercy.”
She sighed and put her hands to her head brushing a wisp of her grey hair away. Then she opened the great chest which stood below the stairs and brought out a heavy coat.
“There Jo, I can do no more."
He grabbed the coat and waited while she cut a thick slice of bread and a piece of cheese from the larder. Wrapping them in an old newspaper, she handed the parcel to him. He held her hands as she gave them to him and for a second their eyes met and her face softened, her eyes grew moist and she bit her lip.
“Go on Jo Gargery, you broke my heart once, but I forgive you.”

He held her hands for a moment but said nothing, and then he kissed her poor chapped fingers and went out of the door into the raging night.