Cobblers are a thoughtful race of men, and Tom Shanks was one of their number. He lived in the little village of Acton, in Suffolk, and it was there that an adventure befell him, which, as I am informed by a grandson of his, “had an effect on him from that day to this”—though the “this” in the present case is of a somewhat vague meaning, seeing that Tom has unfortunately been dead some twenty years at least. The terrible adventure that befell him was so much the subject of Tom’s talk, that if ever tale could be handed down by means of oral tradition sure Tom’s story should be intact in every detail.
It seems that one day Tom left Acton on a journey—quite a remarkable event for him, for he was a quiet-going fellow, not given to running away from his last, but sitting contentedly in his little shop, busily employed in providing his neighbours with good foot-gear. On this day, however, Tom was called away by the intelligence that a sister of his, who was in service in a town some little distance away, was ill and wished to see him. The little cobbler was a man with a warm heart, and as soon as he received this ill news he laid aside a pair of shoes he was on for the parson, and which he was very anxious to finish, for the sooner he touched the money the better for him and his; put on his best coat, took his stick in his hand, and, having bid farewell to his wife and three little ones, went on his way, looking back now and then to shake his stick to them, till he came to the turn in the road by the side of the high trees when he could see them no more.
Well, he walked on, and being a stout-hearted little fellow without much flesh to carry, for cobbling did not even in those days bring in a fortune, and Tom and his folk often had hard times of it; he, in the course of the morning, with a slice out of the afternoon, arrived at his destination. There, thank God, he found his sister much better than he might have expected, judging from the account he had heard of her, and having stayed an hour or two to rest his legs, and recruit his stomach with some beef and a pint of ale, he set out on his way homeward.
The way back seemed much longer than it ought to have been, and Tom cleared the ground very slowly. Before he had gone far the night closed in; but what was that to him, for he knew every inch of the road; and as to thieves, why, he had little enough in his pocket to tempt them, and if need be—and Tom was not for his size deficient in courage—he had a good stout stick to defend himself with. Still it was dismal work that tramp through lonely lanes, with the trees standing on each side—not bright and lively as they had been in the day-time, with the sun shining on their leaves, and the wind rustling amongst them, but drawn up, still and dark, like sentinels watching in big cloaks. The day had closed in with clouds, which threatened to make the cobbler’s journey more miserable with a down-pour of rain. But this fortunately kept off, and the moon, having risen, looked out now and then between the clouds, and a star or two winked in a style which brought comfort to Tom’s heart—they seemed so companionable.
So he went on and on, till at length he came to the neighbourhood of Acton again; and glad enough he was once more to find himself in quarters where the very trees and gates and stiles seemed, as it were, to be old friends—Tom having been used to the sight of them daily for as many years as had passed since he was born, and those were not a few, for he was not exactly a chicken.
Well, he came at length to the park gates, and was hurrying past them, for the spot had no particularly good name, and he remembered that he had heard some queer tales concerning sights folk had chanced to see there which they would very much sooner have escaped, when on a sudden his legs seemed, as it were, to refuse to stir, and with his heart thumping against his ribs, as if it would beat a way out for itself, Tom came to a dead stand. What was it that he heard? It seemed like a rushing and grinding of stones, with a cracking like a body of men walking over dry sticks. It could not be the wind, for there was not a breath stirring, and the leaves on the trees lay perfectly still. The noise came nearer and nearer, and the next thought of Tom was that he would like to hide himself in some of the dark shadows around him. But his legs would not stir, and it was as much as he could do, with the aid of his stick, to hold himself up on them. To make matters worse, the moon now, just as the cobbler was wishing for darkness, broke out from a cloud, and cast its light all about him, as if with the very object of showing him up. It is true the light enabled him to have a good look about him, but that was not a thing Tom very much cared about just then.
He stood there a few moments, with the sound coming louder and louder, till it seemed to be just at hand. It was evidently in the park itself. Now it was at the gate. Then, all of a sudden, the gates swung back with a terrible clang, and there issued as strange a procession as Tom’s, or indeed mortal’s, eyes ever set on. First there came two grooms on horses, and then a carriage drawn by four large steeds, while two men rode behind. They were all goodly looking men enough, and the horses were, as Tom saw at a glance, as pretty pieces of flesh as any man might wish to throw leg across, but one thing struck horror to the cobbler’s heart as he looked, for he saw that none of the horsemen had a head on him. On they dashed at a break-neck speed, their horses’ hoofs seeming to dash fire from the stones on the road, while the wheels of the coach looked like four bright circles, so fast was it drawn over the ground. Cracking their whips, as if to urge the steeds on to even greater speed, the men rode on, nor did Tom hear them utter a word as they swept past him.
As the coach went by him, and his eyes were glued upon it, the interior of the carriage seemed to him to be lighted up in some mysterious manner, and inside, Tom said, he clearly saw a gentleman and a lady, for such they evidently were by their dress, sitting side by side, but without heads like their attendants.
Another minute and all was gone. Tom rubbed his eyes and wondered if he had not been asleep, but who ever heard of a man falling asleep standing up with no better prop than a stick in his hand? He looked at the gates. They were closed and fast. He looked down the road, but could distinguish nothing. In the distance, however, he could hear the sound of, as it were, a big gust of wind gradually travelling away, while all around him was still.
It did not take him long to get home after that, you may be sure, and when he told his story, though there were some that laughed and hinted that Tom was trying to make a hero of himself by pretending that he had seen what no one else of those he told the story to had set eyes on, yet the old folk remembered that they themselves had spoken with folk who had seen the very same sight for themselves, so I think that Tom Shanks has the very best claim to be considered the last man in the place who ever witnessed the progress of the spectre coach.