Mrs. Lucinda Dowell is the town gossip in a town full of gossips. She reigns supreme above them because it’s her main job outside of her seamstress work. Her prominent nose and eyes are always searching, always curious. She pushes out her lip as she rises to her feet.
“It’s unnatural, I tell ya.” Mrs. Dowell leans further against the window, the pinnacle of surreptitiousness. “He’s just standing there.”
The morning patrons of John’s Tavern all nod their heads at Dowell’s proclamation, some while nursing their morning whiskey.
Mr. Burress, an older gentleman, sat across from her. He sipped the pint in his hands before chiming in. “An honest man has no business idling for as long as he ‘as. Up to no good, I say. Someone should do something about him.”
“And catch the bad spirits. You won’t see me going out there.”
“Oh, you superstitious hag,” he spits. “All you do is talk foolishness.”
“Well, I don’t see you volunteering.”
“Work in the fields later. Got no time to start a row.” He pointed a finger at her. “But I would now any other day.”
“Sure,” Dowell said with a roll of her eyes.
The rest of John’s Tavern started echoing with the same talk. A few bold, freshly inebriated souls leaned out the windows to catch a view of the mortal enigma that tarried on the corner. And there was no shortage of intrigue.
The tavern, being one of the few hubs of rest and drink, attracts a lot of the locals. Every night, people spill out of the front doors to get the latest news and a bit of nightly entertainment. People loiter about the place since most are friendly with the owner, Mr. John Lynton and his family. At this early hour, the tavern still manages to attract a fair bit of business from laborers who stroll in for their morning drink and bread before they toil in the fields.
Miss Lynton rose from behind the counter, her face lips pushed out into a pout. She walked over to Dowell and Burress snapping her fingers at the two of them.
“If you want to start something, best take it to the other side of the road. It’s too early to be causing a stir.”
“You should be the most concerned, Isadora.” Mrs. Dowell said with a shake of the head. “He’s right outside your door.”
“I’m not worried. He’s no longer in our care and has paid his dues. I don’t generally concern myself with the private affairs of paying customers long as they cause no trouble.” She pointed at them. “You two, on the other hand, are riling people up and have yet to pay for those pints you been sucking. I’ll give you the boot myself if you continue. ”
Burress threw his hands up offended. “What’cha lumping me in with her for?”
But this wasn’t enough to stop the indefatigable Mrs. Dowell. She pushes her nose further out the window.
“Not natural, I tell ya.”
I find it fascinating that so much intrigue can be inspired by something so depressingly ordinary.
There’s a man standing in front of John’s Tavern.
He has kept to this station for the last hour and a half, staring at passersby as he lazily smokes his pipe. He stands there with a hump. A slight, skinny figure in a broad rim hat that looks like it could swallow him from high above. He’s also a rather dark fellow, hinting at an occupation requiring significant travel in the sun. He stuffs his pipe and inhales deeply for the fifth time within the hour. The smell of the tobacco is so pungent it filters through the window.
The most curious thing about this man is that he’s a stranger. No one in town knows him and, as far as I can tell, no one has approached him since he crossed the city line.
In my narrow understanding of the world, such a person tends to attract little notice. People come and go in our lives all the time–all strangers–keeping to their private affairs. But because this man is a stranger, because he has kept to himself, because he is so unabashedly ordinary, he’s drawn the nosy and suspicious.
It’s interesting to finally play spectator to these social mores.
On the dusty streets below, men, women, and children are staring. Some more obviously than others. A man a little up the road, a Mr. James Taylor, I think, has been eying the man for the last ten minutes. He’s the unofficial watchdog of the town though it may be more accurate to call him a bear. He fumbles around like one. He vets all strangers with his janky walk, precise spitting, and incomprehensible lingual cadence. He has also cultivated the suspicious eye to a fine art. He adds the hint of a snarling scowl for presentation with thumbs tucked neatly behind his unwashed suspenders.
A couple of children are audacious enough to point as they tug at their mother’s skirts. Some mothers impatiently shush their rudeness with a click of their teeth and a smack on the wrist. Other more apathetic travelers look up at the man and only dedicate a few seconds to him before carrying on. It’s only in the midst of suppertime conversation before the question forces itself.
Who is this man?
An older woman, who most refer to as Ms. Winingham was airing out rugs in the window across the street. In between this chore, she passes by her aperture and stares. Her eyebrows are either disappearing in her white hair or pronouncing themselves in the center of her forehead. Deepening and deepening into an almost dark line.
Who is this man?
The ground floor of John’s Tavern is now rife with talk and speculation. The town in miniature gather and debate–their lives consumed by the question mark in the street.
Who is this man?
The ledger bore no fruit. The man simply marked an X to identify himself in its pages. Someone, while Miss Lynton wasn’t looking, peeked into its contents and began spreading a rumor that it was an ill omen. The mark of some evil spirit imprinting itself on the establishment.
Miss Lynton was rather incensed by this breach. She tends to have very little tolerance for some of the patrons’ more rowdy behavior. She’s the youngest child of Mr. Lynton and most people are familiar with this intolerance. They take great pleasure in teasing her for it.
After some heckling, she sought to placate the crowd by providing the circumstances surrounding the man’s arrival.
The man entered town when the fog still hung thick outside. It was around 10 PM when he entered the tavern. He failed to attract too much attention among the Bacchant revel that filled the place last night. Mr. Lynton gave him lodgings because he amply provided money. He handed him the keys to the furthest room down the hall–the one located next to mine, in fact.
Other tenants reported hearing strange noises throughout the night. I’m personally not sure how valid these claims are. Other than the Tavern’s usual noise, I heard nothing but some damnable howling.
Other more keen observers have noted some special items on his person. He has a special watch. From those who got a good look at it, they remarked it looked quite priceless. A bit too priceless. There has been loud speculation as to whether he stole it. Or perhaps, even more fantastically, maybe he’s of noble lineage.
I will concede one legitimate oddity about the man. He was alone with nothing but a satchel and the clothes on his back. If Miss Lynton’s account is to be believed, the image of his dark lank figure cutting through the fog on a moonlit night does seem ominous. And with no companion or map, one has to wonder how he stumbled upon this small little town and for what purpose.
The minutes roll by and then another thing happens. Something more curious that put everyone who bore witness on edge.
Another stranger rolls into town.
No one can agree on what he looked like exactly. Other than the equally wide-brimmed hat he wore, his face was hidden by shadow. The well-used shirt and trousers he wore were ill-fitting and hung from his frame loosely.
This man, being carried through on mule and buggy, rode up to the front of John’s Tavern. They nodded to each other before the man on the corner hopped into the back of the wagon. They both rode off into the distance, the eyes of the town on them until they disappeared into the thick of the woods.
Rumor spread like wildfire. More people came knocking on the tavern door trading theories. Some more zealous townsfolk talked of possible fortifications if other travelers started strolling into town bringing mischief. And yet one question continued to ring above it all.
Who was that man?
This town will never know.
His name was Lee Edwards by the way.
Edwards had a roughhewn yet kindly face. He stayed at John’s Tavern after traveling 20 miles out from H—-. He had a bit of wealth but wanted to test his luck further out west where there are large plots of land up for sale. He also heard whispers of gold up in California. He and his buddy, Adam Crocker, decided to make Hollow Grove their rendezvous point before proceeding to S—-.
I asked him about his watch and he said it was a family heirloom. His grandfather was from France and had a great fondness for clocks. The pocket watch he carried on his person was his most prized possession.
He let me have a look at it and it was a nice piece. Carefully engraved within the otherwise smooth silver were birds and arabesques of small leaves. If I had to guess, it would have been worth a good $100 if not more.
I wished him luck on his adventures out west before returning to my lodgings. Daniel came by a few minutes later to pick up his comrade.
I’m conflicted for lack of a better term. It’s been a little over a week since I’ve arrived in this town and this seems to be the height of what it could offer. Recording is a rather broad thing to occupy one’s time and Mr. Hollow refuses to give more specific instruction. Outside of person to person interactions, there’s an abysmal dearth of things to write about.
I don’t mean to sound bitter. I truly don’t. But it’s hard to conceal my frustration. The people here are very reluctant to talk and when they do talk, it’s usually with the same subtle suspicion. Or not so subtle in some cases.
But I’ll continue recording since that’s what I’m being kept to do.
I guess the usual gossip and paranoia will do then.