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A Town North of Chelmsford
If you take a certain road north of Chelmsford the black pavement will melt into cobblestone, and shiny cars will turn to buggies, and then finally clear of the road entirely. On this peaceful road edged in by long rows of dark pines there was a horse-drawn buggy, all alone, with a driver and single passenger. He was heading towards a town hidden amongst the hills and all but forgotten by the people of the county of Essex. The name of the town, indeed, has been lost, for names are a tool to help travelers get about the world, and no one had traveled to or from this little town in a long time.
The town was built in a way that suggested there was a time when a great architect had laid out a proper city plan, but had eventually thrown it out half way and started to build in whatever way his heart desired. The streets often changed size, twisting and turning on each other like a great many-armed creature that sprawled itself lazily in the summer sun. There were no street signs or directions, because the people who lived in this little town knew exactly where everything, and everyone, was. The residents were all of the same manner; happy, social, proper. They approached the rare visitors they did have with the same warmth they gave to their fellow neighbor; a genuine happiness that was deeply rooted in many generations of refined propriety.
One of these happy little people was the local seamstress, a widow by the name of Ms. Morgan. Her husband had died in a curious case of the flu that took the town a while back when a desperate produce vendor had come to haggle his wares. This instance, along with a few others, caused the town to be wary of strangers. Nevertheless, their tender nature and openness always led them to accept the unknown, and often trouble, with open arms.
It was after hours, and Ms. Morgan was busy shelving the summer dyes and, if there was time, unwind and rewind the thick wool winter yarns now in storage. Expecting some late night telegraph or perhaps her neighbor, for tea, she unlocked the little metal hook and opened the door to the warm September air. But it was not her neighbor, and this visitor had not come for tea. Taking up roughly the whole portal stood a man not much under seven feet. He wore a thin black trench coat that would have signified wealth in London, but was now fading with dust and riddled with patches of every color. The more interesting of these patches were a number of army decorations that had been crudely sewn in at the shoulders. A red and black shawl was wrapped around his neck like a scarf; its ornamental designs were pretty to the untrained eye, but told the gruesome story of an Indian prince who had his tongue ripped out by his power-hungry uncle. It was lucky for Ms. Morgan, who was already taken aback by the nature of this stranger, that she did not understand the nature of those designs. The dress gave him the appearance of a beggar, but his size and posture emphasized a man of stature and confidence, like some great monument that stood valiantly against the weathering elements of time.
Some time had passed while the seamstress was analyzing her guest before she realized neither of them had said a single word in greeting. Always one to be proper, especially in first acquaintances, she stammered out a “hello” and stepped out of the doorway to let the strange man in. Hesitating for only a moment, the man slowly stepped through the doorway and closed the door behind him. Desperate to regain her composure, Ms. Morgan hurried behind the counter at the far end of the room.
“Is there something I can do for you Mr…?”
The stranger slowly took in his surroundings, as if she were merely another little outfit hanging on a post. Shaken but not yet insulted by this rude behavior, Ms. Morgan started to rattle off a list of her services in hopes it would trigger a response. Throughout her monologue, the man ambled about the room, admiring with impartial attention the sea blue knickers or the red robin corset or the goldenrod bow.
Having exhausted herself and all possible topics of conversation, Ms. Morgan accepted defeat and let the room fall silent. It was at that moment that the stranger rapidly turned around and approached her from across the room. Stopping a good three feet from the shining glass counter, the man produced from his coat a tattered old military uniform. He set it down on the counter, and, reaching back into his coat, produced a small leather bag. He carefully opened it and took out one gold and two silver coins; he stacked them carefully in front of Ms. Morgan. She gathered that it was much more than mending the old uniform would cost, and prepared to object, but the man quickly turned away and headed for the door. The seamstress motioned to get up and stop him but he was gone.
She did not see him the next few days, but others about the town had their own, similar experiences with this silent stranger. He was seen walking about town, admiring shops through windows, and, in general, observing the little world in which they all lived. There was a discrepancy though; he never paid much attention to the people, but rather the little knick-knacks that could be found all up and down the winding roads of this town north of Chelmsford. This irked the townspeople; this silent, mysterious man who did not care for other people and their day-to-day lives. It started to upset them, some more than others, but they refused as a collective to complain.
“Assuredly he’s not dangerous, he’s probably just shy.” The younger men said.
“Perhaps the cat got his tongue, and he don’t know how to speak no more.” Older gentlemen agreed.
They each came to their own conclusion about the strange man who did not talk and went on living their lives. And besides, after a few days he returned to the little seamstress; no doubt to pick up his belongings and leave the town for good.
The tall man crossed the room towards Ms. Morgan, who was diligently standing behind the counter, beaming over the fine job she did at mending the old uniform. He picked up the uniform and, just as he had done that first night, produced from his coat an article of clothing and some coins. It was an old suit that looked to have seen one too many ballroom dances, and was now ready to sit down eternally to punch. Visibly upset that this would not be the end of this strange episode, Ms. Morgan picked up her measuring tape and quickly motioned around the counter to take the man’s measurements. In her haste she stumbled on the edge of basket of thick wool and went careening into the stranger. The sharp end of her heel dug deeply into his foot in an attempt to regain control of her flight, and a sharp yelp sprung forth from the man’s chest. This sudden outburst only served to frighten Ms. Morgan more, and the whole mess crashed to the floor in a tumult of flailing limbs. By the time Ms. Morgan had righted herself the man had staggered to his feet and rushed out the door.
Ms. Morgan did not see the stranger for the next couple of days, nor did anyone else. People were assured he was still about however, for his lodgings at the inn were still reserved and people heard shuffling and mumbling late at night. The next night after the incident Ms. Morgan was cleaning up around where they had fallen, and to her dismay she heard a blood-curdling yell not unlike the one the man had given. She quickly rushed out the door into the warm night, but it was silent, and there was no one to be seen. Ms. Morgan was not the only one to have strange experiences like these. All throughout the town people were reporting strange sounds, whimpers, and mutterings when it appeared no one else was around. When the local doctor, a very scholarly professional, could deduce nothing wrong with the minds of these people, the town jumped to the only other logical conclusion; ghosts, spirits, or the devil himself had taken a hold of the town. It wasn’t long before this rise in invisible miscreants was associated with the arrival of the silent stranger, and soon a large collective, including Ms. Morgan, had gathered at his door at the local inn.
After a considerable knocking, one of the larger fellows smashed in the door; only to find the man sitting calmly in his chair, silently working away at papers with intelligible symbols and Arabic lettering. He turned around slowly as the band of citizens filled the tiny room. Catching sight of Ms. Morgan near the front, the man suddenly changed his complexion from one of general disinterest to shame. He reached into that infinite coat pocket and pulled out a large red marker. Drawing a thick “X” on the ground, he stood upon it and began to do the most peculiar thing. His mouth started to move rapidly, but no words came out. This strange phenomenon went on for roughly five minutes, when he suddenly stopped, and stepped back from the “X.” He then motioned to Ms. Morgan, who hesitantly approached and stood where he had marked. Not a moment passed after she had reached the spot before she suddenly heard a passive, almost melancholy voice.
“I am sorry for the trouble I have caused you, but I assure you I bring no ill will. Let me tell you what I am and why I have come to this little town north of Chelmsford. I was once an esteemed lieutenant in the English army. I went on many conquests to new lands and we enslaved a great many people to our will. It was on one of these journeys in India that I met an old gypsy who cursed me on behalf of the English empire. The nature of my curse is very particular, in that wherever I go no one shall here me, but whenever I speak my words will linger on in that spot forever. I was dismissed from the army when I could no longer communicate, and not long after lost the family I returned to in London. Ever since then, I have been looking for a place where a strange man can hide away, and perhaps salvage what little is left of his existence. I understand my presence has been of trouble to you, and I have already all but packed my things, and after I get my outfit back from your nice little seamstress, I will be off.”
The words stopped, and Ms. Morgan stepped back from the “X.” Every villager took their turn, until all understood the message. During this process, the man packed his things and, collecting his suit from Ms. Morgan, borrowed a buggy and was off.
This strange tale still echoes in shady bars around the darker parts of London. I did not believe it when I first came across it, so I made the journey myself to the little town north of Chelmsford. There I came across a little inn, and inside a room that is never allowed to be occupied, a red “X.” If you do not believe me, go there and stand on that strange marking, and have a listen for yourself.