John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

The traveler did not need to hide his smile; the blackness performed that function for him. Tapping his way with his staff, he skirted the brink of the rocky torrent which here assured the summertime vegetation of its moisture, and was shortly heard approaching by the woman who had called out.

“Ah! Friend, whoever you may be!” She caught blindly at his arm. “Save me and my daughter-take us in!”

“I have no lodging hereabout,” said the traveler. “But you do, surely.”

“What?” The woman seemed bewildered; then of a sudden recovered herself. “Why, what a fool I must be!” She went forward, groping, and shortly was heard to knock her fists on resounding planks. “Home!” she cried. “Oh, praise be!”

A door creaked on awkward hinges, and a gleam of firelight showed the outline of a cottage originally built of sturdy four-square logs and boards, that now was tilt-roofed and wore a melancholy garb of grey-green lichen. The child ran forward and threw her arms around a man who rose from a truckle-bed, discarding a blanket of threadbare woollen stuff, but could not speak in greeting for a cough which overcame him.

“My dear, you’re safe!” he croaked when he recovered. “Oh, you should not have taken Nelva!”

“You were asleep,” the woman said, embracing him. “And it’s so rarely that you sleep quite sound… Ah, but I’m forgetting! Yarn, this gentleman who stands at the door: he’s my savior!”

The traveler entered at her beckoning and gave a bow.

“I was almost lost!” the woman babbled. “It was so dark-”

“But surely,” Yarn began, and coughed a second time, and tried again. “But surely you went to buy a lamp!”

“Indeed, indeed! To Master Buldebrime’s-here, sir,” she added to the stranger, bustling about as she spoke while child and father sat down side by side on the bed, “do you make yourself comfortable, and welcome too’ I’d have fallen in the gorge had you not chanced by, so completely was I lost on my own doorstep! Excuse the sparseness of our hospitality, but if you fancy such rude fare we can offer a broth of greens, and maybe some bread, and-”

“But to buy a lamp, and come home in the dark!” Yarn got that out in a single breath, before hacking into coughs anew.

“Hah!” The woman stopped in the middle of the floor, where firelight showed her silhouette, and put her hands on her hips. “When I get back to town, shall I ever give Buldebrime a tongue-lashing! That lamp! That lamp! Here!”

She produced it from the folds of her shawl. “Why, did I not light it to see the path by, returning home? And did it not in the same moment smoke over its chimney, blacker than a barn-door?”

She gestured violently at her husband with it.

“Your pardon for my ill-temper, sir,” she added to the traveler. “But to be without a lamp these nights is more than a body can bear. It’s as though the very dark outside comes creeping in at the unstopped chinks of the wall, dulling the fire-glow! And, say all our neighbors, Goodie Blanchett and Goodie Howkle and the rest: go to Master Buldebrime, his lamps are best, we have our own and sit by night in their warm yellow shine…” As she talked, she was rubbing the smoked-over glass on her shawl. Damp logs on the earth sputtered a counterpoint to her speech.

“I’ll light it again, to prove my word,” she said, and bent to pick a pine-splinter from the fire.

“What’s worst of all,” she added as she carried the flame to the twisted wick, “he took coin from me for it-not a mere bucket of ewe’s milk, or some trifle we could spare! And it does this! Sir!”-rounding on the traveler-“do you not think it criminal, to take advantage of a poor soul thus?”

But the traveler was not paying attention. Gazing at the lamp-chimney, which as predicted was on the instant blearing over, he was uttering sad words within his head:

“Ah, Wolpec, Wolpec! Has it come to this?”

Once this pallid thing of grimy smoke had been an elemental he-even he-was now and then compelled to consult. There were conditions attached to such inquiry, by which he-even he-was forced to abide. Here, now, on the chimney of a common lamp, there writhed blurred characters such as formerly had expressed transcendent truths… but who alive could certify the meaning of such messages? Those tongues had been forgotten everywhere!’

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