As Mr. Bentley had said, however far the distance and gloomy the reason for my journey, it did represent an escape from the London particular and nothing was more calculated to raise my spirits in anticipation of a treat to come than the sight of that great cavern of a railway station, glowing like the interior of a blacksmith’s forge. Here, all was clangor and the cheerfulness of preparations for departure, and I purchased papers and journals at the bookstall and walked down the platform beside the smoking, puffing train, with a light step. The engine, I remember, was the Sir Bedivere.
I found a corner seat in an empty compartment, put my coat, hat and baggage on the rack and settled down in great contentment. When we pulled out of London, the fog, although still lingering about the suburbs, began to be patchier and paler, and I all but cheered. By then, a couple of other passengers had joined me in my compartment, but, after nodding briefly, were as intent on applying themselves to newspapers and other documents as myself, and so we traveled a good many uneventful miles toward the heart of England. Beyond the windows, it was quickly dark and, when the carriage blinds were pulled down, all was as cozy and enclosed as some lamplit study.
At Crewe I changed with ease and continued on my way, noting that the track began to veer toward the east, as well as heading north, and I ate a pleasant dinner. It was only when I came to change again, onto the branch line at the small station of Homerby, that I began to be less comfortable, for here the air was a great deal colder and blowing in gusts from the east with an unpleasant rain upon its breath, and the train in which I was to travel for the last hour of my journey was one of those with ancient, comfortless carriages upholstered in the stiffest of leathercloth over unyielding horsehair, and with slatted wooden racks above. It smelled of cold, stale smuts and the windows were grimed, the floor unswept.
Until the very last second, it seemed that I was to be alone not merely in my compartment but in the entire train, but, just at the blowing of the guard’s whistle, a man came through the barrier, glanced quickly along the cheerless row of empty carriages and, catching sight of me at last, and clearly preferring to have a companion, climbed in, swinging the door shut as the train began to move away. The cloud of cold, damp air that he let in with him added to the chill of the compartment, and I remarked that it was a poor night, as the stranger began to unbutton his greatcoat. He looked me up and down inquisitively, though not in any unfriendly way, and then up at my things upon the rack, before nodding agreement.
“It seems I have exchanged one kind of poor weather for another. I left London in the grip of an appalling fog, and up here it seems to be cold enough for snow.”
“It’s not snow,” he said. “The wind’ll blow itself out and take the rain off with it by morning.”
“I’m very glad to hear it.”
“But, if you think you’ve escaped the fogs by coming up here, you’re mistaken. We get bad frets in this part of the world.”
“Aye, frets. Sea-frets, sea-mists. They roll up in a minute from the sea to land across the marshes. It’s the nature of the place. One minute it’s as clear as a June day, the next …” he gestured to indicate the dramatic suddenness of his frets. “Terrible. But if you’re staying in Crythin you won’t see the worst of it.”
“I stay there tonight, at the Gifford Arms. And tomorrow morning. I expect to go out to see something of the marshes later.”
And then, not particularly wishing to discuss the nature of my business with him, I picked up my newspaper again and unfolded it with a certain ostentation, and so, for some little while, we rumbled on in the nasty train, in silence—save for the huffing of the engine, and the clanking of iron wheels upon iron rails, and the occasional whistle, and the bursts of rain, like sprays of light artillery fire, upon the windows.
I began to be weary, of journeying and of the cold and of sitting still while being jarred and jolted about, and to look forward to my supper, a fire and a warm bed. But in truth, and although I was hiding behind its pages, I had read my newspaper fully, and I began to speculate about my companion. He was a big man, with a beefy face and huge, raw-looking hands, well enough spoken but with an odd accent that I took to be the local one. I put him down as a farmer, or else the proprietor of some small business. He was nearer to sixty than fifty, and his clothes were of good quality, but somewhat brashly cut, and he wore a heavy, prominent seal-ring on his left hand, and that, too, had a newness and a touch of vulgarity about it. I decided that he was a man who had made, or come into, money late and unexpectedly, and was happy for the world to know it.
Having, in my youthful and priggish way, summed up and all but dismissed him, I let my mind wander back to London and to Stella, and for the rest, was only conscious of the extreme chill and the ache in my joints, when my companion startled me, by saying, “Mrs. Drablow.” I lowered my paper, and became aware that his voice echoed so loudly through the compartment because of the fact that the train had stopped, and the only sound to be heard was the moan of the wind, and a faint hiss of steam, far ahead of us.
“Drablow,” he pointed to my brown envelope, containing the Drablow papers, which I had left lying on the seat beside me.
I nodded stiffly.
“You don’t tell me you’re a relative?”
“I am her solicitor.” I was rather pleased with the way it sounded.
“Ah! Bound for the funeral?”
“You’ll be about the only one that is.” In spite of myself, I wanted to find out more about the business, and clearly my companion knew it.
“I gather she had no friends—or immediate family—that she was something of a recluse? Well, that is sometimes the way with old ladies. They turn inward—grow eccentric. I suppose it comes from living alone.”
“I daresay that it does, Mr.…?”
“Kipps. Arthur Kipps.”
“And, when you live alone in such as place as that, it comes a good deal easier.”
“Come,” I said smiling, “you’re not going to start telling me strange tales of lonely houses?”
He gave me a straight look. “No,” he said, at last, “I am not.”
For some reason then, I shuddered, all the more because of the openness of his gaze and the directness of his manner.
“Well,” I replied in the end, “all I can say is that it’s a sad thing when someone lives for eighty-seven years and can’t count upon a few friendly faces to gather together at their funeral!”
And I rubbed my hand on the window, trying to see out into the darkness. We appeared to have stopped in the middle of open country, and to be taking the full force of the wind that came howling across it. “How far have we to go?” I tried not to sound concerned, but was feeling an unpleasant sensation of being isolated far from any human dwelling, and trapped in this cold tomb of a railway carriage, with its pitted mirror and stained, dark-wood paneling. Mr. Daily took out his watch.
“Twelve miles, we’re held up for the down train at Gapemouth tunnel. The hill it runs through is the last bit of high ground for miles. You’ve come to the flatlands, Mr. Kipps.”
“I’ve come to the land of curious place-names, certainly. This morning, I heard of the Nine Lives Causeway, and Eel Marsh, tonight of Gapemouth tunnel.”
“It’s a far-flung part of the world. We don’t get many visitors.”
“I suppose because there is nothing much to see.”
“It all depends what you mean by ‘nothing.’ There’s the drowned churches and the swallowed-up village,” he chuckled. “Those are particularly fine examples of ‘nothing to see.’ And we’ve a good wild ruin of an abbey with a handsome graveyard—you can get to it at low tide. It’s all according to what takes your fancy!”
“You are almost making me anxious to get back to that London particular!”
There was a shriek from the train whistle.
“Here she comes.” And the train coming away from Crythin Gifford to Homerby emerged from Gapemouth tunnel and trundled past us, a line of empty yellow-lit carriages that disappeared into the darkness, and then immediately we were under way again.
“But you’ll find everything hospitable enough at Crythin, for all it’s a plain little place. We tuck ourselves in with our backs to the wind, and carry on with our business. If you care to come with me, I can drop you off at the Gifford Arms—my car will be waiting for me, and it’s on my way.”
He seemed keen to reassure me and to make up for his teasing exaggeration of the bleakness and strangeness of the area, and I thanked him and accepted his offer, whereupon we both settled back to our reading, for the last few miles of that tedious journey.