Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

the children of men, increased so rapidly in strength and magnitude, that before the honest burgomasters had determined upon a plan, it was too late to put it in execution—whereupon they wisely abandoned the subject altogether.

THE LITTLE MAN IN BLACK.

The following story has been handed down by a family tradition for more than a century. It is one on which my cousin Christopher dwells with more than usual prolixity; and, being in some measure connected with a personage often quoted in our work, I have thought it worthy of being laid before my readers.

Soon after my grandfather, Mr. Lemuel Cockloft, had quietly seated himself at the Hall, and just about the time that the gossips of the neighbourhood, tired of prying into his affairs, were anxious for some new tea-table topic, the busy community of our little village was thrown into a grand turmoil of curiosity and conjecture—a situation very common to little gossiping villages—by the sudden and unaccountable appearance of a mysterious individual.

The object of this solicitude was a little black-looking man, of a foreign aspect, who took possession of an old building, which having long had the reputation of being haunted, was in a state of ruinous desolation, and an object of fear to all true believers in Ghosts. He usually wore a high sugar-loaf hat with a narrow brim, and a little black cloak, which, short as he was, scarcely reached below his knees. He sought no intimacy or acquaintance with any one-appeared to take no interest in the pleasures or the little broils of the village-nor ever talked, except sometimes to himself in an outlandish tongue. He commonly carried a large book, covered with sheepskin, under his arm, appeared always to be lost in meditation--and was often met by the peasantry, sometimes watching the dawn. ing of the day, sometimes at noon seated under a tree poring over his volume, and sometimes at evening gazing, with a look of sober tranquillity, at the sun as it gradually sunk below the horizon.

The good people of the vicinity beheld something prodigiously singular in all this; a profound mystery seem

ed to hang about the stranger, which, with all their

saga." city, they could not penetrate; and in the excess of worldly charity they pronounced it a sure sign “that he was no better than he should be;" a phrase innocent enough in itself; but which, as applied in common, signifies nearly every thing that is bad. The young people thought him a gloomy misanthrope, because he never joined in their sports; the old men thought still more hardly of him, because he followed no trade, nor ever seemed ambitious of earning a farthing; and as to the old gossips, baffled by the inflexible taciturnity of the stranger, they unanimously declared that a man who could not or would not talk was no better than a dumb beast. The little man in black, careless of their opinions, seemed resolved to maintain the liberty of keeping his own secret; and the consequence was, that, in a little while, the whole village was in an uproar; for in little communities of this description, the members have always the privilege of being thoroughly versed, and even of meddling in all the affairs of each other.

A confidential conference was held one Sunday morning after sermon, at the door of the village church, and the character of the unknown fully investigated. The schoolmaster gave as his opinion that he was the wandering Jew; the sexton was certain that he must be a freemason from his silence; a third maintained, with great obstinacy, that he was a High German Doctor, and that the book which he carried about with him contained the secrets of the black art; but the most prevailing opinion seemed to be that he was a witch-a race of beings at that time abounding in those parts: and a sagacious old matron, from Connecticut, proposed to ascertain the fact by sousing him into a kettle of hot water.

Suspicion, when once afloat, goes with wind and tide, and soon becomes certainty. Many a stormy night was the little man in black seen by the flashes of lightning, frisking and curvetting the air upon a broomstick ; and it was always observed, that at those times the storm did more mischief than at any other. The old lady in particular, who suggested the humane ordeal of the boiling kettle, lost, on one of these occasions, a fine brindle cow; which accident was entirely ascribed to the vengeance

of the little man in black. if ever a mischievous hireling rode his master's favourite horse to a distant frolic, and the animal was observed to be lame and jaded in the

morning,—the little man in black was sure to be at the bottom of the affair ; nor could a high wind howl through the village at night, but the old women shrugged up their shoulders, and observed, "the little man in black was in his tantrums.” In short, he became the bugbear of every house; and was as effectual in frightening little children into obedience and hysterics, as the redoubtable Rawhead-and-bloody-bones himself; nor could a housewife of the village sleep in peace, except under the guardianship of a horse-shoe nailed to the door.

The object of these direful suspicions remained for some time totally ignorant of the wonderful quandary he had occasioned; but he was soon doomed to feel its effects. An individual who is once so unfortunate as to incur the odium of a village, is in a great measure outlawed and proscribed, and becomes a mark for injury and insult; particularly if he has not the power or the disposition to recriminate. - The little venomous passions, which in the great world are dissipated and weakened by being widely diffused, act in the narrow limits of a country town with collected vigour, and become rancorous in proportion as they are confined in their sphere of action. The little man in black experienced the truth of this; every mischievous urchin returning from school had full liberty to break his windows; and this was considered as a most daring exploit; for in such awe did they stand of him, that the

most adventurous schoolboy was never seen to approach his threshold, and at night would prefer going round by the cross-roads, where a traveller had been murdered by the Indians, rather than pass by the door of his forlorn habitation.

The only living creature that seemed to have any care or affection for this deserted being was an old tui nspit,the companion of this lonely mansion and his solitary wanderings ;-the sharer of his scanty meals, and, sorry am I to say it,--the sharer of his persecutions. The turnspit, like his master, was peaceable and inoffensive; never known to bark at a horse, to growl at a traveller, or to quarrel with the dogs of the neighbourhood. He followed close by his master's heels when he went out, and when he returned stretched himself in the sunbeams at the door; demeaning himself in all things like a civil and well disposed turnspit. But notwithstanding, his exemplary deportment, he fell likewise under the ill report of the village; as being the familiar of the little man

[ocr errors]

in black, and the evil spirit that presided at his incantations. The old hovel was considered as the scene of their unhallowed rites, and its harmless tenants regarded with a detestation which their inoffensive conduct never merited. Though pelted and jeered at by the brats of the village, and frequently abused by their parents, the little man in black never turned to rebuke them; and his faithful dog, when wantonly assaulted, looked up wistfully in his master's face, and there learned a lesson of patience and forbearance.

The movements of this inscrutable being had long been the subject of speculation at Cockloft-hall, for its inmates were full as much given to wondering as their descendants. The patience with which he bore his persecutions particularly surprised them--for patience is a virtue but fittle known in the Cockloft family. My grandmother, who, it appears, was rather superstitious, saw, in this humility, nothing but the gloomy sullenness of a wizard, who restrained himself for the present, in hopes of midnight vengeance—the parson of the village, who was a man of some reading, pronounced it the stubborn insensibilitỹ of a stoic philosopher-my grandfather, who, worthy soul, seldom wandered abroad in search of conclusions, took datum from his own excellent heart, and regarded it as the humble forgiveness of a Christian. But however different were their opinions as to the character of the stranger, they agreed in one particular, namely, in never intruding upon his solitude; and my grandmother, who was at that time nursing my mother, never left the room without wisely putting the large family bible in the cradle—a sure talisman, in her opinion, against witchcraft and necromancy.

One stormy windy night, when a bleak north-east wind moaned about the cottages, and howled around the village steeple, my grandfather was returning from club preceded by a servant with a lantern. Just as he arrived opposite the desolate abode of the little man in black, he was arrested by the piteous howling of a dog, which, heard in the pauses of a storm, was exquisitely mournful; and he fancied now and then that he caught the low and broken groans of some one in distress. He stopped for some minutes, hesitating between the benevolence of his heart and a sensation of genuine delicacy, which, in spite of his eccentricity, he fully possessed, and which forbade him to pry into the concerns of his neighbours. Perhaps, too, this hesitation might have been strengthened by a little taint of superstition; or surely, if the unknown had been addicted to witchcraft, this was a most propitious night for his vagaries. At length the old gentleman's philanthropy predominated; he approached the hovel, and pushing open the door,--for poverty has no occasion for locks and keys, -beheld, by the light of the lantern, a scene that smote his generous heart to the core.

On a miserable bed, with pallid and emaciated visage and hollow eyes; in a room destitute of every convenience; without fire to warm or friend to console him, lay this helpless mortal, who had been so long the terror and wonder of the village. His dog was crouching on the scanty coverlet, and shivering with cold. My grandfather stepped softly and hesitatingly to the bedside, and accosted the forlorn sufferer in his usual accents of kindness. The little man in black, seemed recalled by the tones of compassion from the lethargy into which he had fallen; for, though his heart was almost frozen, there was yet one chord that answered to the call of the good old man who bent over him;-the tones of sympathy, so novel to his ear, called back his wandering senses, and acted like a restorative to his solitary feelings.

He raised his eyes, but they were vacant and haggard ; -he put forth his hand, but it was cold; he essayed to speak, but the sound died away in his throat;-he pointed to his mouth with an expression of dreadful meaning, and, sad to relate! my grandfather understood that the harmless stranger, deserted by society, was perishing with hunger! With the quick impulse of humanity he despatched the servant to the hall for refreshment." A little warm nourishment renovated him for a short time, but not long; it was evident his pilgrimage was drawing to a close, and he was about entering that peaceful asylum where “the wicked cease from troubling."

His tale of misery was short, and quickly told ;-infirmities had stolen upon him, heightened by the rigours of the season; he had taken to his bed without strength to rise and ask for assistance; "and if I had,” said he, in a tone of bitter despondency, " to whom should I have applied? I have no friend that I know of in the world! the villagers avoid me as something loathsome and dangerous; and here, in the midst of Christians, should I have

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »