It was a little after noon, and several of the men employed about the mill were lounging round the stove in the tavern when Clarkson went in. He found some of his own particular associates among the group, and, being in a generous humour, he pulled out a dirty dollar-note and ordered glasses round. These were followed by others; and when, after another half-hour, he got into his sleigh again, he was quite beyond the power of guiding his horse, or even of seeing where he was going. He was more noisy than ever; and as he started off, some of his more sober companions shouted warnings after him, and stood watching him as he went, with a pretty strong feeling that he was not likely to reach home safely.
In fact, he had proceeded but a little way across the open plain where Dr. Morton’s body had been found when he took a wrong direction, and, instead of keeping a tolerably straight line towards his own home, he turned to the left, following a track which led to the water’s edge, and ran beside it, over broken and boggy ground, until after making a semicircle it rejoined the principal road on the further side of the plain. No sober man would have chosen this track, for it was heavy for the horse, and was carried over several rough bridges across the large drains which had lately been cut to carry off the water from the swamp. The deep snow which had fallen, with little previous frost, lay soft and thick over the whole ground; it covered the holes in the bridges, and so choked up the drains that in many places they were completely concealed, and what appeared to be a smooth level surface of ground might really be a dangerous pitfall. Here, however, Clarkson chose to go. He flogged his horse unmercifully, and the sleigh flew over the ground, scattering the snow and striking every moment against some roughness of the road which it concealed. They passed one of the drains safely, though the round logs of which the bridge was formed shook and rattled under them; but between that and the next, the tipsy driver turned quite out of the track, and drove on at the same headlong pace towards the open trench. At the very brink the horse stopped; he tried to turn aside, but a tremendous lash of the whip urged him on; he leaped forward and just cleared the drain, but the weight of the sleigh dragged him backwards, and the whole mass crashed through the snow and the thin ice under it into the bottom of the cutting.
Some of the men who had watched Clarkson drive off from the tavern had not yet returned to their work, and the place where the accident happened was not so far off but that something of it could be seen. Two or three started off, and soon arrived at the spot where the sleigh had disappeared.