Snuffers in hand ready to douse the time-candle and the rest, the owner of the shop appeared in a tallow-stiff smock. Shaven, his red jowls glistened as though he sweated the very fabric of his wares. He was poised to fawn, expecting one of the gentry who came by ordinary to view his stocks late in the evening, they being readier than the common sort to brave the dark, what with their covered carriages and palankeens.
But that lasted a mere eyeblink. Here was only some nondescript poor woman, likely hoping to trade some useless odds and ends against a lamp instead of purchasing one with honest currency.
“What is it you want?” he demanded.
“What would I come here for but a lamp?” the woman snapped, and added from the corner of her mouth, “Be silent, Nelva!”
The little girl complied, but her eyes remained enormously round as she gazed from one to another of the shining lights.
“Here!” went on the woman, slapping coins on the counter. “Three good coppers, as you see-what’s more the rims aren’t clipped! We need a lamp to eat our supper by. The one we had is broke, and do I set Nelva here close enough by the hearth to see by fire-flame smoke makes her weep and salts her dish with tears. For the bairn’s sake, give me the best you can.”
She planted her hands on her hips and stood back. Taking up the coins, Master Buldebrime studied them. As claimed, they were properly round and gave back to the time-candle the proper reddish sheen. He bit one, shrugged, and turned to a shelf of his cheapest lamps.
“This is the best I can do,” he said, selecting one. “Take it or leave it.”
The woman looked it over cannily. She said, “But that’s a short candle in it, that’s been lit!”
“Then take a brand-new candle, and my blessings,” the shopkeeper snorted, catching one up at random from a stack and throwing the shortened one to be re-melted later. “For three coppers that’s the most I can spare. And wouldn’t part with so much but that yon’s a pretty child.” He eyed Nelva, leaning forward on the counter. “Hmm! Yes! In three-four years you should let me know again. I’ll ‘prentice her to the candle-making trade. There’s men aplenty who’d wed a wife with such a profitable skill.”
Wrapping the lamp in her shawl, the woman said harshly, “Thank you, but no, Master Buldebrime! We hear the tales of your apprentices, even out where we live by Rotten Tor. So you like little girls as well as boys?”
The shopkeeper’s face darkened below the saddest ruby of any of his lamps.
“Get out!” he rasped, and made as though to hurl his bronze snuffers.
Though the hand which clutched the coins stayed safely resting on the counter.
Once more the flames quavered as, faced with the prospect of returning to that dreadful black and cold, the child objected to the notion of departure; shortly, however, her mother dragged her over the threshold and the door banged shut. Buldebrime remained for a long moment fuming as foully as his cheapest candles, then mastered his rage and went to bar the entrance. He made the rounds with his snuffers, and resorted at last to his cosy living-room, leaving the shop lit only- through a skylight-by the far-off gleam of four crucial conjunct planets wheeling downward from the zenithal line.
Not right, the traveler decided-not right at all!
He stood and pondered on the flank of Rotten Tor, a louring crest so friable not even goats might climb it in safety, staring in what long familiarity assured him must be the direction of Cleftor Vale. Granted that the entire valley lay in the daytime shadow of the Heights, should it not now be lit at least by starshine? And, come to that, was not the moon inclining towards its full?
Yet here was such blackness as only a shout might penetrate-or a scream! Like the one which had just re-echoed to him, in two parts: beginning with the cry of a child, continuing in a tone louder, deeper, more heartfelt.
“Ho, that we were safe at home! Help, if there’s anyone there!”