The Three Strangers (2)
'Who can that be?' asked Shepherd Fennel.
No one answered. The room was silent, although there were more than twenty people in it, and nothing could be heard except the rain beating on the windows.
The stillness was broken by a bang. It was the sound of a gun, and it came from Casterbridge.
'What does that mean?' cried several people at once.
'A prisoner's escaped from Casterbridge prison - that's what it means,' replied the man in grey, jumping up from his chair. 'I wonder if it's my man?'
'It must be!' said the shepherd. 'And I think we've seen him! The little man who looked in at the door just now, and shook like a leaf when he saw ye and heard your song!'
'His face was as white as a sheet,' said the fiddler.
'His hands shook like an old man's,' said a farm worker.
'His heart seemed as heavy as a stone,' said Mrs Fennel.
'True,' said the man by the fire. ' His face was white, his hands shook, and he ran like the wind - it's all true.'
'We were all wondering what made him run off like that,' said one of the women, 'and now 'tis explained.'
'Is there a policeman here?' asked the hangman.
One of the men came slowly forward, pushed by his friends. 'I'm one o' the king's officers, sir,' he said.
'Then take some of these men at once, follow the criminal, and bring him back here. He hasn't gone far, I'm sure.'
'I will, sir, I will, when I've got my uniform. I'll go home and put it on, and come back here immediately!'
'Uniform! Never mind about your uniform! The man'll be far away by that time!'
'But I must have my uniform! There's the king's name on it in gold - I can't arrest a man without my uniform on.'
'I'm a king's man myself,' said the man in grey coldly, 'and I order you to find and arrest this man at once! Now then, all the men in the house must come with us. Are you ready?'
The men left the cottage to start their search, and the women ran upstairs to see the new baby, who had begun to cry loudly. But the living room did not stay empty for long. A few minutes later the first stranger came quietly back into the house. He cut himself a large piece of cake, and drank another mug of mead. He was still eating when another man came in just as quietly. It was the man in grey.
'Oh, you here?' said the hangman, smiling. 'I thought you had gone to help look for the prisoner.'
'And I thought you had gone too,' replied the other. 'Well, I felt that there were enough people without me,' said the man in grey, helping himself to the mead.
'I felt the same as you.'
'These shepherd-people can easily find the man because they know this hilly country. They'll have him ready for me by the morning, and it'll be no trouble to me at all.'
'Yes, they'll find him. We'll save ourselves all that trouble.'
'True, true. Well, I'm going to Caster bridge. Are you going the same way? We could walk together.'
'No, I'm sorry to say I'm going the other way.' And after finishing their mead, the two men shook hands warmly, said goodbye to each other, and went their different ways.
Out on the hills, the shepherd and his friends were getting cold and wet in their search for the prisoner. They had no luck at all until they reached the top of a hill, where a single tree stood. Suddenly they saw the man who they were looking for, standing next to the tree.
'Your money or your life!' cried the policeman loudly.
'No, no,' whispered the shepherd. 'That's what robbers say, not good, honest people like us!'
'Well, I must say something, mustn't I? Ye don't realize how difficult it is to remember what to say!'
The little man now seemed to notice them for the first time. 'Well, travellers, did I hear ye speak to me?' he asked.
'You did,' replied the policeman. 'We arrest ye for not waiting in Casterbridge prison for your hanging tomorrow!'
The little man did not seem at all afraid, and to everyone's surprise agreed with great politeness to go back to the shepherd's cottage. When they arrived there, they discovered that two officers from Casterbridge prison, and a judge who lived nearby, were waiting for them.
'Gentlemen,' said the policeman, 'I've brought back your prisoner - here he is!'
'But this is not our man!' cried one of the prison officers.
'What?' said the judge. 'Haven't you got the right man?'
'But then who can this man be?' asked the policeman.
'I don't know,' said the prison officer. 'But our prisoner is very different. He's tall and thin, with a deep, musical voice.'
'That was the stranger who sat by the fire!' cried Fennel.
The little man now spoke to the judge for the first time. 'Sir,' he said, 'I must explain. I've done nothing wrong - my only crime is that the prisoner is my brother. Today I was on my way to visit him in Casterbridge prison for the last time, when I got lost in the dark. I stopped here to ask the way, and when I opened the door, I saw my brother sitting by the fire. Right next to him was the hangman who'd come to take his life! My brother looked at me, and I knew he meant, "Don't tell them who I am, or I'll die!" I was too frightened to do anything except turn and run away.
'And do you know where your brother is now?'
'No, sir. I haven't seen him since I left the cottage.'
'And what's his job?'
'He's a clockmaker, sir.'
'He said he worked with wheels,' said Shepherd Fennel. 'He meant the wheels of clocks and watches, I suppose.'
'Well, we must let this poor man go,' said the judge. 'Clearly, it's his brother who is the wanted man.'
And so the little man left the cottage with a sad, slow step.
The next morning, men were out on the hills again, searching for the clever thief. But the shepherds and farm workers did not look very carefully. They did not think the man should hang, just for stealing a sheep, and they liked the wonderful coolness that he showed, when sitting next to the hangman at the shepherd's party. So the prisoner was never found, and the man in grey never did his morning's work in Casterbridge, nor ever met again the friendly stranger who had sung the hangman's song with him by the shepherd's fire.
The grass has long been green on the graves of Shepherd Fennel and his wife, and the baby whose health was drunk that night is now an old lady. But the arrival of the three strangers at the shepherd's cottage, and all that happened afterwards, is a story as well known as ever in the hills and valleys around Casterbridge.
- THE END -