During my Saturday evening hike walking through pleasant hills and dales in the countryside of the north, I had spectacularly misjudged the time it was going to take me between the pub I had my lunch at and the B & B in a small rural village I had booked on the Internet. Looking back, perhaps I had imbibed just one extra for the road which isn't a good idea normally for a walker with a few miles in front of him, but the beer was cool, tasty and golden.
The last vestiges of light were showing to the west and stars were just starting to twinkle in this place where no light pollution barred the delights of the heavens. A full moon, low and large in the sky showed it's mournful face. The day, if you remember was warm, the first dry day for a while and the air was still and smelled slightly damp. I decided that as the forecast was fair, I would sleep al fresco overnight and was looking for a suitable spot, an old barn or a derelict shepherd's hut often found dotted around these lonely roads.
Surprisingly, the tarmacadam road, although narrow and wide enough just for one car, became cobbled. My walking boots slid easily across the smooth well worn stones. Ahead I saw a cottage on my right. As I got closer, I noticed it was covered in ivy and the front garden which was about three foot deep was overgrown with what remained of cottage plants, hollyhocks, roses, lupins and others I couldn't identify.
The windows were dark and I knocked on the door and the hollow sound of my knock thundered through the cottage but there was no response. I looked around the back garden which was full of sapling trees, seeded over years of neglect but the doors were firmly shut. The moonlight cast a half light about the place creating dark shadows here and there and I felt slightly uncomfortable, as if being watched, but then I was tired and the place was unfamiliar to me. I walked back onto the road and opposite the cottage I spied an old bench on the other side of the cobbles facing the ivy clad cottage. Like all good hikers, I came prepared and settled down in my sleeping bag on the solid if somewhat elderly bench, resting, I imagined, like many before me.
Uneasily, I began to nod off when I heard loud knocking. Startled, I raised myself on my elbow and as I looked toward the cottage, there was a man stood at the door. He knocked at the moonlit door and I heard him ask firmly, "Is anybody there?"
I suddenly noticed that just a few yards along the road was a horse, tethered to the fence and it was eating the grass on the verge; yet despite the stillness, I could not hear it chomp. A startled bird flew out of the ivy above the man's head and frightened me for an instant, but it seemed not to bother him. He was strangely dressed in what looked like a brown coat with long tails and a brown waistcoat. He wore a white silk cravat around his neck, almost flourescent in the moonlight. His trousers were like cords and he had riding boots, shining and highly polished in the moons silvery glow. On his head was the strangest thing, it looked like a tricolour hat, three corners and black - how bizarre. He hammered on the door again, "Is anybody there?" Louder this time.
No one answered and I was dumb struck, I couldn't move. I wanted to tell him that no-one was in, but he stood still, listening. The silence was overwhelming and I daren't intervene. Nothing was there to listen to the sound of man in the dead of night, and yet, I imagined a thousand eyes upon him from the windows, a hundred ears listening quietly from the dark empty interior.
The horse moved and I jumped again. This time the man, (I'll call him the Traveller because of his mode of transport), banged on the door even louder with his clenched fist and almost shouted, "Tell them I came, and no-one answered, that I kept my word." I thought I heard the echo of his emotional and fatalistic sounding voice through the cottage and then once more silence descended and what I was watching was, for a fleeting moment, captured like a photograph: still and silent, but no camera could capture the melancholy of the scene before me.
I fumbled for my digital camera and took a picture but even though the flash lit the scene and highlighted the face of the man in his early thirties, with a handsome and weathered face, he batted not an eyelid as he put his foot in the stirrup and rode away and the sound of iron on the cobbles faded away as he rode off into the enveloping darkness.
Silence reigned once more and I nervously packed my bag and hurriedly left the area in the pitch black with just a small torch and moonlight to guide me. Eventually, out of breath, I came to an old pub a few miles down the road where I obtained shelter for the night and settled into a warm soft bed but not before I had partaken of a neat scotch with the landlord to settle my nerves.
Over a hot chocolate in my attic bedroom, I looked on the map for the name of the cottage on the cobbled road and although I had the latest edition of the Ordnance Survey for the area, I could find no cottage and no imprint of a road, any road on the map - cobbled or otherwise. I scoured the map until the early hours of the morning and could find no trace of the ivy covered cottage.
I looked at the one photograph I took of the Traveller as I had lain on the bench transfixed by that haunting scene. I had seen his face through the viewfinder brightly lit by the flash at the time I took the photograph.
The photograph dear blogger, shows the old cottage with slate roof and mature creeping ivy; but... no Traveller.
With thanks to Walter de la Mare for his inspiration. Story and picture intellectual property of Rarelesserspotted.