The Bad Old Woman in Black

The bad old woman in black ran down the street of theox-butchers.

Windows at once were opened high up in those crazygables; heads were thrust out: it was she. Then there arosethe counsel of anxious voices, calling sideways from windowto window or across to opposite houses. Why was she therewith her sequins and bugles and old black gown? Why had sheleft her dreaded house? On what fell errand she hasted?

They watched her lean, lithe figure, and the wind in thatold black dress, and soon she was gone from the cobbledstreet and under the town's high gateway. She turned atonce to her right and was hid from the view of the houses. Then they all ran down to their doors, and small groupsformed on the pavement; there they took counsel together,the eldest speaking first. Of what they had seen they saidnothing, for there was no doubt it was she; it was of thefuture they spoke, and the future only.

In what notorious thing would her errand end? What gainshad tempted her out from her fearful home? What brilliantbut sinful scheme had her genius planned? Above all, whatfuture evil did this portend? Thus at first it was onlyquestions. And then the old grey-beards spoke, each one toa little group; they had seen her out before, had known herwhen she was younger, and had noted the evil things that hadfollowed her goings: the small groups listened well to theirlow and earnest voices. No one asked questions now orguessed at her infamous errand, but listened only to thewise old men who knew the things that had been, and who toldthe younger men of the dooms that had come before.

Nobody knew how many times she had left her dreadedhouse; but the oldest recounted all the times that theyknew, and the way she had gone each time, and the doom thathad followed her going; and two could remember theearthquake that there was in the street of the shearers.

So were there many tales of the times that were, told onthe pavement near the old green doors by the edge of thecobbled street, and the experience that the aged men hadbought with their white hairs might be had cheap by theyoung. But from all their experience only this was clear,that never twice in their lives had she done the sameinfamous thing, and that the same calamity twice had neverfollowed her goings. Therefore it seemed that means weredoubtful and few for finding out what thing was about tobefall; and an ominous feeling of gloom came down on thestreet of the ox-butchers. And in the gloom grew fears ofthe very worst. This comfort they only had when they puttheir fear into words -- that the doom that followed hergoings had never yet been anticipated. One feared that withmagic she meant to move the moon; and he would have dammedthe high tide on the neighbouring coast, knowing that as themoon attracted the sea the sea must attract the moon, andhoping by his device to humble her spells. Another wouldhave fetched iron bars and clamped them across the street,remembering the earthquake there was in the street of theshearers. Another would have honoured his household gods,the little cat-faced idols seated above his hearth, gods towhom magic was no unusual thing, and, having paid their feesand honoured them well, would have put the whole case beforethem. His scheme found favour with many, and yet at lastwas rejected, for others ran indoors and brought out theirgods too, to be honoured, till there was a herd of gods allseated there on the pavement; yet would they have honouredthem and put their case before them but that a fat man ranup last of all, carefully holding under a reverent arm hisown two hound-faced gods, though he knew well -- as, indeed,all men must -- that they were notoriously at war with thelittle cat-faced idols. And although the animositiesnatural to faith had all been lulled by the crisis, yet alook of anger had come into the cat-like faces that no onedared disregard, and all perceived that if they stayed amoment longer there would be flaming around them thejealousy of the gods; so each man hastily took his idolshome, leaving the fat man insisting that his hound-facedgods should be honoured.

Then there were schemes again and voices raised indebate, and many new dangers feared and new plans made.

But in the end they made no defence against danger, forthey knew not what it would be, but wrote upon parchment asa warning, and in order that all might know: "*The bad oldwoman in black ran down the street of the ox-butchers.*"