Three at table, p.1
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       Three at Table, p.1

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Three at Table

  Produced by David Widger



  By W. W. Jacobs


  The talk in the coffee-room had been of ghosts and apparitions, andnearly everybody present had contributed his mite to the stock ofinformation upon a hazy and somewhat thread-bare subject. Opinionsranged from rank incredulity to childlike faith, one believer going sofar as to denounce unbelief as impious, with a reference to the Witch ofEndor, which was somewhat marred by being complicated in an inexplicablefashion with the story of Jonah.

  "Talking of Jonah," he said solemnly, with a happy disregard of the factthat he had declined to answer several eager questions put to him on thesubject, "look at the strange tales sailors tell us."

  "I wouldn't advise you to believe all those," said a bluff, clean-shavenman, who had been listening without speaking much. "You see when asailor gets ashore he's expected to have something to tell, and hisfriends would be rather disappointed if he had not."

  "It's a well-known fact," interrupted the first speaker firmly, "thatsailors are very prone to see visions."

  "They are," said the other dryly, "they generally see them in pairs, andthe shock to the nervous system frequently causes headache next morning."

  "You never saw anything yourself?" suggested an unbeliever.

  "Man and boy," said the other, "I've been at sea thirty years, and theonly unpleasant incident of that kind occurred in a quiet Englishcountryside."

  "And that?" said another man.

  "I was a young man at the time," said the narrator, drawing at his pipeand glancing good-humouredly at the company. "I, had just come back fromChina, and my own people being away I went down into the country toinvite myself to stay with an uncle. When I got down to the place Ifound it closed and the family in the South of France; but as they weredue back in a couple of days I decided to put up at the Royal George,a very decent inn, and await their return.

  "The first day I passed well enough; but in the evening the dulness ofthe rambling old place, in which I was the only visitor, began to weighupon my spirits, and the next morning after a late breakfast I set outwith the intention of having a brisk day's walk.

  "I started off in excellent spirits, for the day was bright and frosty,with a powdering of snow on the iron-bound roads and nipped hedges, andthe country had to me all the charm of novelty. It was certainly flat,but there was plenty of timber, and the villages through which I passedwere old and picturesque.

  "I lunched luxuriously on bread and cheese and beer in the bar of a smallinn, and resolved to go a little further before turning back. When atlength I found I had gone far enough, I turned up a lane at right anglesto the road I was passing, and resolved to find my way back by anotherroute. It is a long lane that has no turning, but this had several, eachof which had turnings of its own, which generally led, as I found bytrying two or three of them, into the open marshes. Then, tired oflanes, I resolved to rely upon the small compass which hung from my watchchain and go across country home.

  "I had got well into the marshes when a white fog, which had been forsome time hovering round the edge of the ditches, began gradually tospread. There was no escaping it, but by aid of my compass I was savedfrom making a circular tour and fell instead into frozen ditches orstumbled over roots in the grass. I kept my course, however, until atfour o'clock, when night was coming rapidly up to lend a hand to the fog,I was fain to confess myself lost.

  "The compass was now no good to me, and I wandered about miserably,occasionally giving a shout on the chance of being heard by some passingshepherd or farmhand. At length by great good luck I found my feet on arough road driven through the marshes, and by walking slowly and tappingwith my stick managed to keep to it. I had followed it for some distancewhen I heard footsteps approaching me.

  "We stopped as we met, and the new arrival, a sturdy-looking countryman,hearing of my plight, walked back with me for nearly a mile, and puttingme on to a road gave me minute instructions how to reach a village somethree miles distant.

  "I was so tired that three miles sounded like ten, and besides that, alittle way off from the road I saw dimly a lighted window. I pointed itout, but my companion shuddered and looked round him uneasily.

  "'You won't get no good there,' he said, hastily.

  "'Why not?' I asked.

  "'There's a something there, sir,' he replied, 'what 'tis I dunno, butthe little 'un belonging to a gamekeeper as used to live in these partssee it, and it was never much good afterward. Some say as it's a poormad thing, others says as it's a kind of animal; but whatever it is, itain't good to see.'

  "'Well, I'll keep on, then,' I said. 'Goodnight.'

  "He went back whistling cheerily until his footsteps died away in thedistance, and I followed the road he had indicated until it divided intothree, any one of which to a stranger might be said to lead straight on.I was now cold and tired, and having half made up my mind walked slowlyback toward the house.

  "At first all I could see of it was the little patch of light at thewindow. I made for that until it disappeared suddenly, and I found myselfwalking into a tall hedge. I felt my way round this until I came to asmall gate, and opening it cautiously, walked, not without some littlenervousness, up a long path which led to the door. There was no light andno sound from within. Half repenting of my temerity I shortened my stickand knocked lightly upon the door.

  "I waited a couple of minutes and then knocked again, and my stick wasstill beating the door when it opened suddenly and a tall bony old woman,holding a candle, confronted me.

  "'What do you want?' she demanded gruffly.

  "'I've lost my way,' I said, civilly; 'I want to get to Ashville.'

  "'Don't know it,' said the old woman.

  "She was about to close the door when a man emerged from a room at theside of the hall and came toward us. An old man of great height andbreadth of shoulder.

  "'Ashville is fifteen miles distant,' he said slowly.

  "'If you will direct me to the nearest village, I shall be grateful,' Iremarked.

  "He made no reply, but exchanged a quick, furtive glance with the woman.She made a gesture of dissent.

  "'The nearest place is three miles off,' he said, turning to me andapparently trying to soften a naturally harsh voice; 'if you will give methe pleasure of your company, I will make you as comfortable as I can.'

  "I hesitated. They were certainly a queer-looking couple, and the gloomyhall with the shadows thrown by the candle looked hardly more invitingthan the darkness outside.

  "'You are very kind,' I murmured, irresolutely, 'but--'

  "'Come in,' he said quickly; 'shut the door, Anne.'

  "Almost before I knew it I was standing inside and the old woman,muttering to herself, had closed the door behind me. With a queersensation of being trapped I followed my host into the room, and takingthe proffered chair warmed my frozen fingers at the fire.

  "'Dinner will soon be ready,' said the old man, regarding me closely. 'Ifyou will excuse me.'

  "I bowed and he left the room. A minute afterward I heard voices; hisand the old woman's, and, I fancied, a third. Before I had finished myinspection of the room he returned, and regarded me with the same strangelook I had noticed before.

  "'There will be three of us at dinner,' he said, at length. 'We two andmy son.'

  "I bowed again, and secretly hoped that that look didn't run in thefamily.

  "'I suppose you don't mind dining in the dark,' he said, abruptly.

  "'Not at all,' I replied, hiding my surprise as well as I could, 'butreally I'm afraid I'm intruding. If you'll allow me--'

  "He waved his huge gaunt hands. 'We're not going to lose you now we'vegot you,' he said, wi
th a dry laugh. 'It's seldom we have company, andnow we've got you we'll keep you. My son's eyes are bad, and he can'tstand the light. Ah, here is Anne.'

  "As he spoke the old woman entered, and, eyeing me stealthily, began tolay the cloth, while my host, taking a chair the other side of thehearth, sat looking silently into the fire. The table set, the old womanbrought in a pair of fowls ready carved in a dish, and placing threechairs, left the room. The old man hesitated a moment, and then, risingfrom his chair, placed a large screen in front of the fire and
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