II.9. Fate Or Chance?
It was close on six o'clock when Allan and his friends left the boat, and the
evening influence was creeping already, in its mystery and its stillness, over the
watery solitude of the Broads.
The shore in these wild regions was not like the shore elsewhere. Firm as it
looked, the garden ground in front of the reed-cutter's cottage was floating
ground, that rose and fell and oozed into puddles under the pressure of the foot.
The boatmen who guided the visitors warned them to keep to the path, and
pointed through gaps in the reeds and pollards to grassy places, on which
strangers would have walked confidently, where the crust of earth was not strong
enough to bear the weight of a child over the unfathomed depths of slime and
water beneath. The solitary cottage, built of planks pitched black, stood on ground
that had been steadied and strengthened by resting it on piles. A little wooden
tower rose at one end of the roof, and served as a lookout post in the fowling
season. From this elevation the eye ranged far and wide over a wilderness of
winding water and lonesome marsh. If the reed-cutter had lost his boat, he would
have been as completely isolated from all communication with town or village as
if his place of abode had been a light-vessel instead of a cottage. Neither he nor
his family complained of their solitude, or looked in any way the rougher or the
worse for it. His wife received the visitors hospitably, in a snug little room, with a
raftered ceiling, and windows which looked like windows in a cabin on board
ship. His wife's father told stories of the famous days when the smugglers came
up from the sea at night, rowing through the net-work of rivers with muffled oars
till they gained the lonely Broads, and sank their spirit casks in the water, far from
the coast-guard's reach. His wild little children played at hide-and-seek with the
visitors; and the visitors ranged in and out of the cottage, and round and round the
morsel of firm earth on which it stood, surprised and delighted by the novelty of
all they saw. The one person who noticed the advance of the evening--the one
person who thought of the flying time and the stationary Pentecosts in the boat--
was young Pedgift. That experienced pilot of the Broads looked askance at his
watch, and drew Allan aside at the first opportunity.
"I don't wish to hurry you, Mr. Armadale," said Pedgift Junior; "but the time is
getting on, and there's a lady in the case."
"A lady?" repeated Allan.
"Yes, sir," rejoined young Pedgift. "A lady from London; connected (if you'll
allow me to jog your memory) with a pony-chaise and white harness."
"Good heavens, the governess!" cried Allan. "Why, we have forgotten all about
"Don't be alarmed, sir; there's plenty of time, if we only get into the boat again.
This is how it stands, Mr. Armadale. We settled, if you remember, to have the
gypsy tea-making at the next 'Broad' to this--Hurle Mere?"
"Certainly," said Allan. "Hurle Mere is the place where my friend Midwinter has
promised to come and meet us."