It was Christmas Eve, and the dark had fallen. The train from Euston had just drawn up in Windermere Station, and John Fenwick, carrying his bag, was making his way among the vehicles outside the station, inquiring whether any one was going in the direction of Great Langdale, who could give him a lift. He presently found a farmer’s cart bound for a village on the road, and made a bargain with the lad driving it to carry him to his destination.
They set off in bitter weather. The driver was a farmer’s son who had come to the station to fetch his small brother. Fenwick and he took the little school-boy between them, to protect him as best they could from the wind and sleet. They piled some empty sacks, from the back of the cart, on their knees and shoulders; and the old grey horse set forward cautiously, feeling its way down the many hills of the Ambleside road.
The night was not yet wholly in possession. The limestone road shone dimly white, the forms of the leafless trees passed them in a windy procession, and afar on the horizon, beyond the dark gulf of the lake, there was visible at intervals a persistent dimness, something less black than the sky above and the veiled earth below, which Fenwick knew must be the snowy tops of the mountains. But it was a twilight more mournful than a total darkness; the damp air was nipping cold, and every few minutes gusts of sleet drove in their faces.
The two brothers talked to each other sometimes, in a broad Westmoreland speech. To Fenwick the dialect of his childhood was already strange and disagreeable. So, too, was the wild roughness of the Northern night, the length of the road, the sense of increasing distance from all that most held his mind. He longed, indeed, to see Phoebe and the child, but it was as though he had wilfully set up some barrier between himself and them, which spoiled his natural pleasure. Moreover, he was afraid of Phoebe, of her quick jealous love, and of certain passionate possibilities in her character that he had long ago discerned. If she discovered that he had made a mystery of his marriage—that he had passed in London as unmarried? It was an ugly and uncomfortable ‘if.’ Did he shrink from the possible blow to her—or the possible trouble to himself? Well, she must not find it out! It had been a wretched sort of accident, and before it could do any harm it should be amended.
Suddenly, a sound of angry water. They were close on the lake, and waves driven by the wind were plashing on the shore. Across the lake, a light in a house-window shone through the storm, the only reminder of human life amid a dark wilderness of mountains. Wild sounds crashed through the trees; and accompanying the tumult of water came the rattle of a bitter rain lashing the road, the cart, and their bent shoulders.
‘There’ll not be a dry stitch on us soon,’ said Fenwick, presently, to the young man beside him.