Outside the railway station Colonel Baigent handed his carpet-bag to the conductor of the hotel omnibus, and stood for a moment peering about in the dusk, as if to take his bearings.
‘For The Dragon, sir?’ asked the conductor.
‘The Dragon?’ Yes, certainly,’ echoed Colonel Baigent, aroused by the name from the beginnings of a brown study. ‘So The Dragon is still standing, eh?’
”Twas standing all right when I left it, twenty minutes ago,’ the man answered flippantly; for to-night was Christmas Eve, and English hotel servants do not welcome guests who stay over Christmas.
But the colonel remarked nothing amiss in his tone. In fact, he was not listening. He stared out into the mirk beyond the flare of gas in the entrance-way, slowly bringing his mind to bear on the city at his feet, with its maze of dotted lights. The afternoon had been cold and gusty, with now and then a squall of hail from the north-west. The mass of the station buildings behind him blotted out whatever of daylight yet lingered. Eastward a sullen retreating cloud backed the luminous haze thrown up from hundreds of street-lamps and shop-windows–a haze that faintly silhouetted the clustered roofs. The roofs were wet. The roadway, narrowing as it descended the hill, shone with recent rain.
‘You may carry down my bag,’ said the colonel. ‘I will walk. Somewhere to the right here should be a road leading to Westgate, eh?’
‘Tisn’t the shortest way,’ the conductor objected.
‘I have plenty of time,’ said the colonel mildly.
Indeed, a milder-looking man for a hero–he had earned and won his V.C.–or a gentler of address, could scarcely be conceived; or an older-fashioned. His voice, to be sure, had a latent tone of command. But the patient face, with its drooping moustache and long gray side-whiskers; the short yet attenuated figure, in a tweed suit of no particular cut; the round felt hat, cheap tie, and elastic-sided boots–all these failed very signally to impress the conductor, who flung the carpet-bag inside the omnibus with small ceremony, and banged the door.
‘Right, Bill!’ he called.
”Oo is it?’ asked the driver, slewing round in the light of his near-side lamp.
‘Might be a commercial–if ’twasn’t for his bag, and his way of speakin’.’
The omnibus rattled off and down the hill. Colonel Baigent gazed after it, alone beneath the gas-lamp; for the few passengers who had alighted from his train had jostled past him and gone their ways, and his porter had turned back wearily into the station, where express and excursion trains had all day been running the Christmas traffic down to its last lees.
Colonel Baigent gazed after the omnibus, then back through the passage-way leading past the booking-office to the platform. All this was new to him. There had been no such thing as railway or railway station thirty-five years ago, when, a boy of seventeen just emancipated from school, he had climbed to the box-seat of the then famous ‘Highflyer’ coach, and been driven homewards to a Christmas in which the old sense of holiday mingled and confused itself with a new and wonderful feeling that school was over and done with for ever.
During his Indian exile he had nursed a long affection for the city; had collected and pored over books relating to it and its antiquities; and now, as he left the station and struck boldly into the footway on the right, he found himself surprisingly at home. The path led him over a footbridge, and along between high garden walls. But it led him surely enough to Westgate, and the spot occupied in Norman times (as he recalled) by five bordels or shanties, where any belated traveller (‘such as I to-night,’ thought the colonel) arriving after the gates were shut, might find hospitality for the love of God. The suburb here lay deserted. He halted, and listened to a footfall that died away into the darkness on his right. He felt at home again–here, wrapped around by the ghostly centuries as by the folds of a mantle, and warm within the folds.