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The Dead Man in the Oak-Tree1
At last they agreed that the best thing they could do was to put him out of the way. Quietly as their conspiracy was conducted, he saw there was something plotting, and determined to be out of reach of their murderous intentions; so he got up early one morning, and rode out of Rome.
On, on, on,2 he went till he had left Rome many miles behind, and then he saw hanging in an oak-tree the body of a man all in pieces, among the branches.
For a moment he was overcome with horror at the sight; but, nevertheless, he did not forget his good practice of saying a De Profundis.
No sooner had he completed the psalm, than one by one the pieces came down from the tree and put themselves together, till a dead man stood before him, all complete. Gladly would he have spurred his horse on and got away from the horrible sight, but he was riveted to the spot, and durst not move, or scarcely take breath. But worse was in store, for now the dreadful apparition took hold of his bridle.
'Fear nothing, young man!' said the corpse, in a tone, which though meant to be kind, was so sepulchral that it thrilled the ear. 'Only change places with me for a little space; you get up in the oak-tree, and lend your horse to me.'
The youth mechanically got off his horse, and climbed up into the tree, while the mangled corpse got on to the horse, and rode away back towards Rome. He had not been gone five minutes when he heard four shots3 fired.
Looking from his elevation in the direction of the sound, he saw his four evil companions, who had just fired their pieces into the corpse which rode his horse, without making it sit a bit less erect than before. Then he saw them go stealthily up to the figure and look at it, and then run away, wild with terror,
As soon as they had turned their backs, the corpse turned the horse's head round, and trotted back to the oak-tree.
'Now, my son,' said the corpse, alighting from the horse, 'I have done you this good turn because you said a De Profundis for me; but such interpositions don't befall a man every day. Turn over a new leaf, before a worse thing happens.'
Having said this, the dead body, piece by piece, replaced itself amid the branches of the oak-tree, where it had hung before.
The young man got on his horse again, penitent and thoughtful, and rode to a friary,4 where, after spending an edifying life, he died a holy death.
1 'II Morto della Quercia.'
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