In a wilderness sunlight is noise. Darkness is a great, tremendous silence, accented by small and distant sounds. The music of the wind in the trees is songs of loneliness, hymns of abandonment, and lays of the absence of things congenial and alive.
Once a campfire lay dying in a fit of temper. A few weak flames struggled cholerically among the burned-out logs. Beneath, a mass of angry, red coals glowered and hated the world. Some hemlocks sighed and sung and a wind purred in the grass. The moon was looking through the locked branches at four imperturbable bundles of blankets which lay near the agonized campfire. The fire groaned in its last throes, but the bundles made no sign.
Off in the gloomy unknown a foot fell upon a twig. The laurel leaves shivered at the stealthy passing of danger. A moment later a man crept into the spot of dim light. His skin was fiercely red and his whiskers infinitely black. He gazed at the four passive bundles and smiled a smile that curled his lips and showed yellow, disordered teeth. The campfire threw up two lurid arms and, quivering, expired. The voices of the trees grew hoarse and frightened. The bundles were stolid.
The intruder stepped softly nearer and looked at the bundles. One was shorter than the others. He regarded it for some time motionless. The hemlocks quavered nervously and the grass shook. The intruder slid to the short bundle and touched it. Then he smiled. The bundle partially upreared itself, and the head of a little man appeared.
“Lord!” he said. He found himself looking at the grin of a ghoul condemned to torment.
“Come,” croaked the ghoul.
“What?” said the little man. He began to feel his flesh slide to and fro on his bones as he looked into this smile.
“Come,” croaked the ghoul.
“What?” the little man whimpered. He grew gray and could not move his legs. The ghoul lifted a three-pronged pickerel-spear and flashed it near the little man’s throat. He saw menace on its points. He struggled heavily to his feet.
He cast his eyes upon the remaining mummy-like bundles, but the ghoul confronted his face with the spear.
“Where?” shivered the little man.
The ghoul turned and pointed into the darkness. His countenance shone with lurid light of triumph.
“Go!” he croaked. The little man blindly staggered in the direction indicated. The three bundles by the fire were still immovable. He tried to pierce the cloth with a glance, and opened his mouth to whoop, but the spear ever threatened his face.
The bundles were left far in the rear and the little man stumbled on alone with the ghoul. Tangled thickets tripped him, saplings buffeted him, and stones turned away from his feet. Blinded and badgered, he began to swear frenziedly. A foam drifted to his mouth, and his eyes glowed with a blue light.
“Go on!” thunderously croaked the ghoul.
The little man’s blood turned to salt. His eves began to decay and refused to do their office. He fell from gloom to gloom.
At last a house was before them. Through a yellow-papered window shone an uncertain light. The ghoul conducted his prisoner to the uneven threshold and kicked the decrepit door. It swung groaning back and he dragged the little man into a room.
A soiled oil-lamp gave a feeble light that turned the pine-board walls and furniture a dull orange. Before a table sat a wild, gray man. The ghoul threw his victim upon a chair and went and stood by the man. They regarded the little man with eyes that made wheels revolve in his soul.
He cast a dazed glance about the room and saw vaguely that it was dishevelled as from a terrific scuffle. Chairs lay shattered, and dishes in the cupboard were ground to pieces. Destruction had been present. There were moments of silence. The ghoul and the wild, gray man contemplated their victim. A throe of fear passed over him and he sank limp in his chair. His eyes swept feverishly over the faces of his tormentors. At last the ghoul spoke.
“Well!” he said to the wild, gray man.
The other cleared his throat and stood up.
“Stranger,” he said, suddenly, “how much is thirty-three bushels of pertaters at sixty-four an’ a half a bushel?”
The ghoul leaned forward to catch the reply. The wild, gray man straightened his figure and listened. A fierce light shone on their faces. Their breaths came swiftly. The little man wriggled his legs in agony.
“Twenty-one, no, two, six and—”
“Quick!” hissed the ghoul, hoarsely.
“Twenty-one dollars and twenty-eight cents and a half,” laboriously stuttered the little man.
The ghoul gave a tremendous howl.
“There, Tom Jones, dearn yer!” he yelled, “what did I tell yer! hey? Hain’t I right? See? Didn’t I tell yer that?”
The wild, gray man’s body shook. He was delivered of a frightful roar. He sprang forward and kicked the little man out of the door.