The Inn of The Two Witches

A Find

This tale, episode, experience—call it how you will—was related in the fifties of the last century by a man who, by his own confession, was sixty years old at the time. Sixty is not such a bad age—unless in perspective, when no doubt it is contemplated by the majority of us with mixed feelings. It is a calm age; the game is practically over by then; and standing aside one begins to remember with a certain vividness what a fine fellow one used to be. I have observed that, by an amiable attention of Providence, most people begin at sixty to take a romantic view of themselves.

I suppose it was the romanticism of growing age which set our man to relate his experience for his own satisfaction or for the wonder of his posterity. It could not have been for his glory, because the experience was simply that of an abominable fright—terror he calls it. You will have guessed that the relation alluded to in the very first lines was in writing.

This writing constitutes the Find declared in the sub-title. It was made in a box of books bought in London, in a street which no longer exists, from a second-hand bookseller in the last stage of decay. As to the books themselves, they were at least twentieth-hand, and on inspection turned out not worth the very small sum of money disbursed. It might have been some premonition of that fact which made me say: ‘But I must have the box too.’ The decayed bookseller assented with the careless, tragic gesture of a man already doomed to extinction.

A litter of loose pages at the bottom of the box excited my curiosity but faintly. The close, neat, regular handwriting was not attractive at first sight. But the statement that in AD 1813 the writer was twenty- two years old caught my eye. Two-and-twenty is an interesting age, in which one is easily reckless and easily frightened, the faculty of reflection being weak and the power of imagination strong.

In another place the phrase ‘At night we stood in again’* arrested my languid attention, because it was a sea phrase. ‘Let’s see what it is all about,’ I thought, without excitement.

Oh! but it was a dull-faced MS, each line resembling every other line in their close-set and regular order. It was like the drone of a monotonous voice. A treatise on sugar-refining (the dreariest subject I can think of) could have been given a more lively appearance. ‘In AD 1813 I was twenty-two years old,’ he begins earnestly, and goes on with every appearance of calm, horrible industry. Don’t imagine, however, that there is anything archaic in my find. Diabolic ingenuity in invention, though as old as the world, is by no means a lost art. Look at the telephones for shattering the little peace of mind given to us in this world, or at the machine guns for letting with dispatch life out of our bodies. Nowadays any blear-eyed old witch, if only strong enough to turn an insignificant little handle, could lay low a hundred young men of twenty in the twinkling of an eye.

If this isn’t progress! … Why, immense! We have moved on, and so you must expect to meet here a certain naïveness of contrivance and simplicity of aim appertaining to the remote epoch. And of course no motoring tourist can hope to find such an inn anywhere now. This one, the one of the title, was situated in Spain. That much I discovered only from internal evidence, because a good many pages of that relation were missing—perhaps not a great misfortune after all. The writer seemed to have entered into a most elaborate detail of the why and wherefore of his presence on that coast—presumably the north coast of Spain. His experience has nothing to do with the sea, though. As far as I can make it out, he was an officer on board a sloop-of-war.* There’s nothing strange in that. At all stages of the long Peninsular campaign* many of our men-of-war, of the smaller kind, were cruising off the north coast of Spain—as risky and disagreeable a station as can be well imagined.

It looks as though that ship of his had had some special service to perform. A careful explanation of all the circumstances was to be expected from our man, only, as I’ve said, some of his pages (good tough paper too) were missing: gone in covers for jampots or in wadding for the fowling-pieces of his irreverent posterity. But it is to be seen clearly that communication with the shore and even the sending of messengers inland was part of her service, either to obtain intelligence from or to transmit orders or

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