At this summons a rough-looking ostler emerged into the circle of light thrown by the single lamp and, touching his hat, announced in a surly voice that he was the individual In question. The guard and he then proceeded to drag the trunks to the vehicle. It was a small wagonette, with a high seat for the driver in front.
“Where to, sir?” asked the driver, when the travellers had taken their seats.
“To Hampton Priory. Do you know where that is?”
“Better’n two mile from here, and close to the railway line,” said the man. “There hain’t been no one livin’ there for two year at the least.”
“We are expected and all will be ready for us,” said Girdlestone.
“Go as fast as you can, for we are cold.”
The driver cracked his whip, and the horse started at a brisk trot down the dark country road.
Looking round her, Kate saw that they were passing through a large country village, consisting of a broad main street, with a few insignificant offshoots branching away on either side. A church stood on one side, and on the other the village inn. The door was open and the light shining through the red curtains of the bar parlour looked warm and cosy. The clink of glasses and the murmur of cheerful voices sounded from within. Kate, as she looked across, felt doubly cheerless and lonely by the contrast. Girdlestone looked too, but with different emotions.
“Another plague spot,” he cried, jerking his head in that direction. “In town or country it is the same. These poison-sellers are scattered over the whole face of the land, and every one of them is a focus of disease and misery.”
“Beg your pardon, sir,” the surly driver observed, screwing round in his seat. “That ‘ere’s the Flyin’ Bull, sir, where I be in sarvice, and it ain’t no poison-seller, but a real right down good house.”
“All liquor is poison, and every house devoted to the sale of it is a sinful house,” Girdlestone said curtly.
“Don’t you say that to my maister,” remarked the driver. “He be a big man wi’ a ter’bly bad temper and a hand like a leg o’ mutton. Hold up, will ye!”
The last remark was addressed to the horse, which had stumbled in going down a sharp incline. They were out of the village by this time, and the road was lined on either side by high hedges, which threw a dense shadow over everything. The feeble lamps of the wagonette bored two little yellow tunnels of light on either side. The man let the reins lie loose upon the horse’s back, and the animal picked out the roadway for itself. As they swung round from the narrow lane on to a broader road Kate broke out into a little cry of pleasure.
“There’s the sea!” she exclaimed joyfully. The moon had broken from behind the clouds and glittered on the vast silvery expanse.
“Yes, that’s the sea,” the driver said, “and them lights down yonder is at Lea Claxton, where the fisher-folk live; and over there,” pointing with his whip to a long dark shadow on the waters, “is the Oilywoite.”
“The Isle of Wight, he means,” said Girdlestone. The driver looked at him reproachfully. “Of course,” said he, “if you Lunnon folks knows more about it than we who are born an’ bred in the place, it’s no manner o’ use our tryin’ to teach you.” With this sarcastic comment he withdrew into himself, and refused to utter another word until the end of their journey.
It was not long before this was attained. Passing down a deeply rutted lane, they came to a high stone wall which extended for a couple of hundred yards. It had a crumbling, decaying appearance, as far as could be judged in the uncertain light. This wall was broken by a single iron gate, flanked by two high pillars, each of which was surmounted by some weather-beaten heraldic device. Passing through they turned up a winding avenue, with lines of trees on either side, which shot their branches so thickly above them that they might have been driving through some sombre tunnel. This avenue terminated in an open space, in the midst of which towered a great irregular whitewashed building, which was the old Priory. All below it was swathed in darkness, but the upper windows caught the glint of the moon and emitted a pallid and sickly glimmer. The whole effect was so weird and gloomy that Kate felt her heart sink within her. The wagonette pulled up in front of the door, and Girdlestone assisted her to alight.
There had been no lights or any symptoms of welcome, but as they pulled down the trunks the door opened and a little old woman appeared with a candle in her hand, which she carefully shaded from the wind while she peered out into the darkness.
“Is that Mr. Girdlestone?” she cried.
“Of course it is,” the merchant said impatiently. “Did I not telegraph and tell you that I was coming?”
“Yes, yes,” she answered, hobbling forward with the light. “And this is the young lady? Come in, my dear, come in. We have not got things very smart yet, but they will soon come right.”
She led the way through a lofty hall into a large sitting-room, which, no doubt, had been the monkish refectory in bygone days. It looked very bleak and cold now, although a small fire sputtered and sparkled in the corner of the great iron grate. There was a pan upon the fire, and the deal table in the centre of the room was laid out roughly as for a meal. The candle which the old woman had carried in was the only light, though the flickering fire cast strange fantastic shadows in the further corners and among the great oaken rafters which formed the ceiling.