Quite what his plans were, what he proposed doing and how he should do it, Hugh had not the slightest idea. He mistrusted Slotman. He experienced exactly the same feelings as would a man who, hearing that there was a savage wild beast let loose where an immense amount of harm may be done, puts a gun under his arm and sallies forth.
Even if Joan had not the immense claim on him that she had, he believed he would do exactly what he was doing now. He might be wrong about Slotman, of course. The man might have cleared out and left the country, but Hugh fancied that he had not. Here was a little gold-mine, a young girl, rich and unprotected, a girl of whom this villain believed certain things, which if true would give him a great power over her. That they were not true, Slotman did not know, and he would use his fancied knowledge to obtain his ends and to make Joan’s life unbearable.
So Hugh Alston was here in rough, shaggy tweeds, sitting on the self-same seat beside the old stocks where most mornings Ellice Brand came.
“I’m here,” he said to himself, and pulled hard on his pipe. “I am here, and here I am going to stay. Sooner or later, unless I am dead out in my reckonings, that brute will turn up, and when he does he’ll find me here ahead of and waiting for him.”
“The Meredyths,” said Mrs. Bonner, “hev lived at Starden”—she called it ’Sta-a-arden’—“oh, I wouldn’t like to say for how long, centuries anyhow. Then for a time things got despirit with them, and the place was sold. Bought it was by Mr. Gorridge, a London gentleman. Thirty years he lived here. I remember him buying it; I would be about eighteen then, just before I married Bonner. Master Roger I think it was, anyhow one of ‘em—the Meredyths I mean—went to Australia and kep’ sheep or something there, and made money, and he bought the old place back, Mr. Gorridge being dead and gone. You’ll see ’is tomb in the church, Mr. Alston.”
“Thank you,” Hugh said. “I’ll be sure to look for it.”
“A wonderful expensive tomb, and much admired,” said Mrs. Bonner.
“I am sure it must be in the best taste. And then?”
“Oh, then Mr. Roger died at sea and left it all, Starden Hall and his money, to Miss Joan Meredyth. And she lives there now, and I suppose she’ll go on living there when she is married.”
“When she is married,” he repeated.
“To Mr. John Everard of Buddesby, a rare pleasant-spoken, nice gentleman as no one can speak a word against. Passes here most days in his car, he does—always running over from Buddesby, as is but natcheral.”
Starden Hall gates stood about a quarter of a mile out of Starden village, and midway between the village and the Hall gates was Mrs. Bonner’s clean, typically Kentish little cottage.