I. HOW I DINED AT THE “INDIAN QUEENS.”
The sensation was odd; for I could have made affidavit I had never visited the place in my life, nor come within fifty miles of it. Yet every furlong of the drive was earmarked for me, as it were, by some detail perfectly familiar. The high-road ran straight ahead to a notch in the long chine of Huel Tor; and this notch was filled with the yellow ball of the westering sun. Whenever I turned my head and blinked, red simulacra of this ball hopped up and down over the brown moors. Miles of wasteland, dotted with peat-ricks and cropping ponies, stretched to the northern horizon: on our left three long coombes radiated seaward, and in the gorge of the midmost was a building stuck like a fish-bone, its twisted Jacobean chimneys overtopping a plantation of ash-trees that now, in November, allowed a glimpse, and no more, of the grey facade. I had looked down that coombe as we drove by; and catching sight of these chimneys felt something like reassurance, as if I had been counting, all the way, to find them there.
But here let me explain who I am and what brought me to these parts. My name is Samuel Wraxall–the Reverend Samuel Wraxall, to be precise: I was born a Cockney and educated at Rugby and Oxford. On leaving the University I had taken orders; but, for reasons impertinent to this narrative, was led, after five years of parochial work in Surrey, to accept an Inspectorship of Schools. Just now I was bound for Pitt’s Scawens, a desolate village among the Cornish clay-moors, there to examine and report upon the Board School. Pitt’s Scawens lies some nine miles off the railway, and six from the nearest market-town; consequently, on hearing there was a comfortable inn near the village, I had determined to make that my resting-place for the night and do my business early on the morrow.
“Who lives down yonder?” I asked my driver.
“Squire Parkyn,” he answered, not troubling to follow my gaze.
“May be: Belonged to these parts before I can mind.”
“What’s the place called?”
I had certainly never heard the name before, nevertheless my lips were forming the syllables almost before he spoke. As he flicked up his grey horse and the gig began to oscillate in more business-like fashion, I put him a fourth question–a question at once involuntary and absurd.
“Are you sure the people who live there are called Parkyn?”
He turned his head at this, and treated me quite excusably to a stare of amazement.
“Well–considerin’ I’ve lived in these parts five-an’-forty year, man and boy, I reckon I ought to be sure.”
The reproof was just, and I apologised. Nevertheless Parkyn was not the name I wanted. What was the name? And why did I want it? I had not the least idea. For the next mile I continued to hunt my brain for the right combination of syllables. I only knew that somewhere, now at the back of my head, now on my tongue-tip, there hung a word I desired to utter, but could not. I was still searching for it when the gig climbed over the summit of a gentle rise, and the “Indian Queens” hove in sight.
It is not usual for a village to lie a full mile beyond its inn: yet I never doubted this must be the case with Pitt’s Scawens. Nor was I in the least surprised by the appearance of this lonely tavern, with the black peat-pool behind it and the high-road in front, along which its end windows stare for miles, as if on the look-out for the ghosts of departed coaches full of disembodied travellers for the Land’s End. I knew the sign-board over the porch: I knew–though now in the twilight it was impossible to distinguish colours–that upon either side of it was painted an Indian Queen in a scarlet turban and blue robe, taking two black children with scarlet parasols to see a blue palm-tree. I recognised the hepping-stock and granite drinking-trough beside the porch; as well as the eight front windows, four on either side of the door, and the dummy window immediately over it. Only the landlord was unfamiliar. He appeared as the gig drew up–a loose-fleshed, heavy man, something over six feet in height–and welcomed me with an air of anxious hospitality, as if I were the first guest he had entertained for many years.