’In the month
of November, in the year ’fifty-two,
Three jolly fox-hunters, all sons of the Blue,
Sing fol-de-rol, lol-de-rol—’
Beyond the lodge gates came the high-road, and here half a dozen of the chorusers shouted goodnight, and rode away northward and by east in the teeth of the wind; but the greater number bowled along with the doctor south-west to the cross-roads under Barrow Down. There the Polpeor road struck off to the left, and, swinging into it, he found himself alone.
The night was moonless but strewn with stars. A tonic north-east wind hummed over the high moors, and seemed to prick old Dapple, prescient of his own straw and rack, to his very best trot. It was a penetrating wind, too; but Doctor Unonius, wrapped in his frieze coat, with the famous Penalune brandy playing about the cockles of his heart, defied its chill. At this rate half an hour would bring him to the gate of Landeweddy Farm, under the lee of Four Barrows; and beyond Landeweddy, where the road plunged straight to Polpeor and the coast, he would reach complete shelter. Let the wind blow from this quarter never so fiercely, in the steep lanes under the seaward edge of the moor a man could hear it screaming overhead and laugh at it, lighting his pipe.
The sound of hoofs and wheels died away down the westward road. Doctor Unonius, with face set for home, pursed his mouth and inaudibly whistled a tune,—
’In the month of November, in the year ‘fifty-two.’
‘Whoa there, Dapple! Steady! Why, what ails the horse?’ For Dapple, as the gig turned a corner of road, on a sudden had shied violently, half reared, and come to a halt with a jerk that set the gig quivering, and had almost broken its shafts.
‘Why, hallo!’ exclaimed the doctor, peering forward.
To the right of the road, a little ahead of him, stood a woman. She had drawn aside, close to the hedge, doubtless to let them pass. The rays of the gig lamp fell full on her—a broad-shouldered woman of more than ordinary height. Over her head was flung a dark shawl, and her left hand held its edges tightly together at the throat. In her right she carried a leathern bag. This was as much as the doctor could see, for the shawl concealed her features. He could not recognise her at all, though he knew, or believed that he knew, everybody—man, woman, or child—within a radius of ten miles. But Doctor Unonius was ever polite.
‘Hey? Good-evening, ma’am!’ he sang out. ’You startled the old horse a bit. I hope he has not frightened you?’
There was no answer.
’Can I offer you a lift, ma’am, if you’re going my way? The hour is late, and the weather none too pleasant for tramping these high moors.’
Still there was no answer.
‘You needn’t be afraid of Dapple,’ he assured her. ’He’ll stand still as a rock now, if you’ll climb up.’