At first glance, the thirty-eight-year-old Barry Plumb gives the impression of intelligence. But running an antique shop in Dampford is more complicated than he imagined. The tax collector is eager to examine his records. So when the letter arrived asking him to value a sofa and spend a few days at the remote School of Manners in the wilds of North Rompshire, he jumped at the offer. He is expected for dinner at 8:30 p.m. He’s already over an hour late.
It’s been raining for days. Barry’s 1947 Alvis TA14 splashes through the downpour in the dark. Who would have thought this part of Rompshire is so wild? The narrow winding roads don’t make for easy driving. He only has himself to blame. Ms. Pettigrew, the headmistress, warned him of the treacherous conditions after dark.
He hasn’t seen another vehicle for an hour. Two headlamp-cones of yellow are his only illumination, that and the occasional lightning. No streetlights here. No lights at all except for the glow of his instrument panel.
As he crests a hill, a flash of lightning, and for an instant, he sees untamed country; gnarled trees, stone walls, and a forest in the distance. Rain pounds on the car’s roof. His wiper blades aren’t up to the job. The heater is on the blink. He wipes condensation from the interior glass, but he can see little in front of him, and his rear-view mirror is black. The serpentine road is only wide enough for one vehicle now.
The road winds downhill. The wind howls. And if that is possible, it’s raining harder. Then he comes to a junction of three narrow roads: a signpost.
He can barely get the car door open against the wind. He squelches across to the signpost. Even with his flashlight, he has to get close to read: Great Sodden 7 Miles.
But that means the school is in the direction he’s just come from.
He gets back in the car just as the sign blows down. He’s wet, tired, and lost. He’ll catch his death of cold if he’s not careful.
With difficulty he turns the Alvis around in the narrow lane and heads back up the track he has just driven down.
The rain ceases, the wind stills, and fog descends as the road twists up toward the moorland. He finds a flat area and pulls the car over to search for his map, but it must have blown from the car when he got out to read the wooden road sign.
He is now impossibly late for his dinner appointment at Ms. Pettigrew’s.
The moon is up because it’s lighter now. His watch says 10:14 p.m. He looks out of the car window to see a tall figure in a cap and long overcoat appearing through the mist.
The man tips his hat and opens the car door. Barry gets out and follows him as if doing so is the most natural thing in the world.