Silence. Loneliness. Desolation.
And the darkness of late afternoon in November, when the fog from the Bristol Channel had laid its pall upon moor and valley and hill: the last grey glimmer of a wintry sunset had faded in the west: earth and sky are wrapped in the gloomy veils of oncoming night. Some little way ahead a tiny light flickers feebly.
'Surely we cannot be far now.'
'A little more patience, Mounzeer. Twenty minutes and we be there.'
'Twenty minutes, mordieu. And I have ridden since the morning. And you tell me it was not far.'
'Not far, Mounzeer. But we be not 'orzemen either of us. We doan't travel very fast.'
'How can I ride fast on this heavy beast? And in this satané mud. My horse is up to his knees in it. And I am wet --ah! wet to my skin in this sacré fog of yours.'
The other made no reply. Indeed he seemed little inclined for conversation: his whole attention appeared to be riveted on the business of keeping in his saddle, and holding his horse's head turned in the direction in which he wished it to go: he was riding a yard or two ahead of his companion, and it did not need any assurance on his part that he was no horseman: he sat very loosely in his saddle, his broad shoulders bent, his head thrust forward, his knees turned out, his hands clinging alternately to the reins and to the pommel with that ludicrous inconsequent gesture peculiar to those who are wholly unaccustomed to horse exercise.
His attitude, in fact, as well as the promiscuous set of clothes which he wore -- a labourer's smock, a battered high hat, threadbare corduroys and fisherman's boots -- at once suggested the loafer, the do-nothing who hangs round the yards of half-way houses and posting inns on the chance of earning a few coppers by an easy job which does not entail too much exertion on his part and which will not take him too far from his favourite haunts. When he spoke -- which was not often-- the soft burr in the pronunciation of the sibilants betrayed the Westcountryman.
His companion, on the other hand, was obviously a stranger: high of stature, and broadly built, his wide shoulders and large hands and feet, his square head set upon a short thick neck, all bespoke the physique of a labouring man, whilst his town-made clothes -- his heavy caped coat, admirably tailored, his buckskin breeches and boots of fine leather -- suggested, if not absolutely the gentleman, at any rate one belonging to the well-to-do classes. Though obviously not quite so inexperienced in the saddle as the other man appeared to be, he did not look very much at home in the saddle either: he held himself very rigid and upright and squared his shoulders with a visible effort at seeming at ease, like a townsman out for a constitutional on the fashionable promenade of his own city, or a cavalry subaltern but lately emerged from a riding school. He spoke English quite fluently, even colloquially at times, but with a marked Gallic accent.
The road along which the two cavaliers were riding was unspeakably lonely and desolate -- an offshoot from the main Bath to Weston road. It had been quite a good secondary road once. The accounts of the county administration under date 1725 go to prove that it was completed in that year at considerable expense and with stone brought over for the purpose all the way from Draycott quarries, and for twenty years after that a coach used to ply along it between Chelwood and Redhill as well as two or three carriers, and of course there was all the traffic in connexion with the Stanton markets and the Norton Fairs. But that was night on fifty years ago now, and somehow -- once the mail coach was discontinued -- it had never seemed worth while to keep the road in decent repair. It had gone from bad to worse since then, and travelling on it these days either ahorse or afoot had become very unpleasant. It was full of ruts and crevasses and knee-deep in mud, as the stranger had very appositely remarked, and the stone parapet which bordered it on either side, and which had once given it such an air of solidity and of value, was broken down in very many places and threatened soon to disappear altogether.
The country round was as lonely and desolate as the road. And that sense of desolation seemed to pervade the very atmosphere right through the darkness which had descended on upland and valley and hill. Though nothing now could be seen through the darkness which had descended on upland and valley and hill. Though nothing now could be seen through the gloom and the mist, the senses were conscious that even in broad daylight there would be nothing to see. Loneliness dwelt in the air as well as upon the moor. There were no homesteads for miles around, no cattle grazing, no pastures, no hedges, nothing-- just arid, waste land with here and there a group of stunted trees or an isolated yew, and tracts of rough, coarse grass not nearly good enough for cattle to eat.
There are vast stretches of upland equally desolate in many parts of Europe -- notably in Northern Spain -- but in England, where they are rare, they seem to gain an additional air of loneliness through the very life which dulsates in their vicinity. This bit of Somersetshire was one of them in this year of grace 1793. Despite the proximity of Bath and its fashionable life, its gaieties and vitality, distant only a little over twenty miles, and of Bristol distant less than thirty, it had remained wild and forlorn, almost savage in its grim isolation, primitive in the grandeur of its solitude.
The road at the point now reached by the travellers begins to slope in a gentle gradient down to the level of the Chew, a couple of miles further on: it was midway down this slope that the only sign of living humanity could be perceived in that tiny light which glimmered persistently. The air itself under its mantle of fog had become very still, only the water of some tiny moorland stream murmured feebly in its stony bed ere it lost its entity in the bosom of the river far away.
'Five more minutes and we be at th' Bottom Inn,' quoth the man who was ahead, in response to another impatient ejaculation from his companion.
'If we don't break our necks meanwhile in this confounded darkness,' retorted the other, for his horse had just stumbled and the inexperienced rider had been very nearly pitched over into the mud.
'I be as anxious to arrive as you are, Mounzeer,' observed the countryman laconically.
'I thought you knew the way,' muttered the stranger.
' 'Ave I not brought you safely through the darkness?' retorted the otehr; 'you was pretty well ztranded at Chelwood Mounzeer, or I be much mistaken. Who else would 'ave brought you out 'ere at this time o' night, I'd like to know -- and in this weather too? You wanted to get to th' Bottom Inn and didn't know 'ow to zet about it: none o' the gaffers up to Chelwood 'peared eager to 'elp you when I come along. Well, I've brought you to th' Bottom Inn and . . . Whoa! Whoa! my beauty! Whoa, confound you! Whoa!'
And for the next moment or two the whole of his attention had perforce to be concentrated on the business of sticking to his saddle whilst he brought his fagged-out, ill-conditioned nag to a standstill.
The little glimmer of light had suddenly revealed itself in the shape of a lanthorn hung inside the wooden porch of a small house which had loomed out of the darkness and the fog. It stood at an angle of the road where a narrow lane had its beginnings ere it plunged into the moor beyond and was swallowed up by the all-enveloping gloom. The house was small and ugly; square like a box and built of grey stone, its front flush with the road, its rear flanked by several small oubuildings. Above the porch hung a plain sign-board bearing the legend: 'The Bottom Inn' in white letters upon a black ground: to right and left of the porch there was a window with closed shutters, and on the floor above two more windows -- also shuttered-- completed the architectural features of the Bottom Inn.
It was uncompromisingly ugly and uninviting, for beyond the faint glimmer of the lanthorn only one or two narrow streaks of light filtrated through the chinks of the shutters.
The travellers, after some difference of opinion with their respective horses, contrived to pull up and to dismount without any untoward accident. The stranger looked about him, peering into the darkness. The place indeed appeared dismal and inhospitable enough: its solitary aspect suggested footpads and the abode of cut-throats. The silence of the moor, the pall of mist and gloom that hung over upland and valley sent a shiver through his spine.
'You are sure this is the place?' he queried.
'Can't ye zee the zign?' retorted the other gruffly.
'Can you hold the horses while I go in?'
'I doan't know as 'ow I can, Mounzeer. I've never 'eld two 'orzes all at once. Suppose they was to start kickin' or thought o' runnin' away.'
'Running away, you fool!' muttered the stranger, whose temper had evidently suffered grievously during the weary, cold journey from Chelwood. 'I'll break your satané head if anything happens to the beasts. How can I get back to Bath save the way I came? Do you think I want to spend the night in this God-forsaken hole?'
Without waiting to hear any further protests from the lout, he turned into the porch and with his riding whip gave three consecutive raps against the door of the inn, followed by two more. The next moment there was the sound of rattling of bolts and chains, the door was cautiously opened and a timid voice queried:
'Is it Mounzeer?'
'Pardieu! Who else?' growled the stranger. 'Open the door, woman. I am perished with cold.'
With an unceremonious kick he pushed the door further open and strode in. A woman was standing in the dimly lighted passage. As the stranger walked in she bobbed him a respectful curtsey.
'It is all right, Mounzeer,' she said; 'the Captain's in the coffee-room. He came over from Bristol early this afternoon.'
'No one else here, I hope,' he queried curtly.
'No one, zir. It ain't their hour not yet. You'll 'ave the 'ouse to yourself till after midnight. After that there'll be a bustle, I reckon. Two shiploads come into Watchet last night -- brandy and cloth, Mounzeer, so the Captain says, and worth a mint o' money. The pack 'orzes will be through yere in the small hours.'
'That's all right, then. Send me in a bite and a mug of hot ale.'
'I'll see to it, Mounzeer.'
'And stay -- have you some sort of stabling where the man can put the two horses up for an hour's rest?'
'Aye, aye, zir.'
'Very well then, see to that too: and see that the horses get a feed and a drink and give the man something to eat.'
'Very good, Mounzeer. This way, zir. I'll see the man presently. Straight down the passage, zir. The coffee-room is on the right. The Captain's there, waiting for ye.'
She closed the front door carefully, then followed
the stranger to the door of the coffee-room. Outside an anxious
voice was heard muttering a string of inconsequent and wholly
superfluous 'Whoa's!' Of a truth the two wearied nags were only
too anxious for a little rest.