Wildshott, the Hampshire seat of the Kennetts, stands off the Winton-Sarum road, at a distance of some six miles from the former, and some three and a half from the sporting town of Longbridge, on the way to the latter. The house is lonely situated in wild but beautiful country, lying as it does in the trough of the great downs whose summits hereabouts command some of the most spacious views in the County. A mile north-east, footing a gentle incline, shelters the village of Leighway; less than a mile away, in a hollow of the main road, stands a wayside tavern called the Bit and Halter; and, with these two exceptions, no nearer neighbour has Wildshott than the tiny Red Deer inn, which perches on a high lift of the downs a mile and a half distant, rising north.
The stately, wrought-iron gates of Wildshott open from the main road. Thence a drive of considerable extent reaches to the house, which is a rectangular red-brick Jacobean structure, with stone stringcourses and a fine porch, having a great shell over it. There are good stables contiguous, and the grounds about are ample and well timbered--almost too well timbered, it might be thought by some people, since the closeness of the foliage gives an effect of gloom and solemnity to a building which, amid freer surroundings, should have nothing but grace and frankness to recommend it. But settled as it is in the wash of the hills, with their moisture draining down upon it, growth and greenness have become a tradition of its life, and as such not to be irreverently handled by succeeding generations of Kennetts.
All down the west boundary of the upper estate- which, to its northernmost limit, breaks upon that bare hill on whose summit, at closer range now, the little Red Deer inn sits solitary--runs a wide fringe of beech-wood, which is continued to the high road, and thence, on the further side, dispersed among the miscellaneous plantations which are there situated. The highway itself roughly bisects the property-the best of whose grass and arable lands are contained in the southern division-and can be reached from the house, if one likes, through the long beech thicket by way of a narrow path, which, entering near the stables, runs as far as the containing hedge, in which, at some fifty yards from the main entrance, is a private wicket, leading down by a couple of steps to the road. This path is known, through some superstitious association, as the Bishop's Walk, and is little used at any time, the fact that it offers a short cut from the house to the lower estate being regarded, perhaps, as inadequate compensation for its solitariness, its dankness, and the glooms of the packed foliage through which it penetrates. Opposite the wicket, across the road, an ordinary bar-gate gives upon a corresponding track, driven through the thick of a dense coppice, which, at a depth of some two hundred feet, ends in the open fields. It is useful to bear in mind these local features, in view of the event which came presently to give them a tragic notoriety.
At Winton a wagonette met the two gentlemen, and they were landed at Wildshott soon after four o'clock. Bickerdike was interested to discover that they were the only guests. He was not surprised for himself, since he and Hugo Kennett were on terms of unceremonial intimacy. He did wonder a little what qualities he and the Baron could be thought to possess in common that they should have been chosen together for so exclusive an invitation. But no doubt it was pure accident; and in any case there was his friend to explain. He was a bit down in the mouth, was Hugo-for any reason, or no reason, or the devil of a reason; never mind what-and old Viv was always a tower of strength to him in his moods-hence old Viv's citation to come and>'buck' his friend, and incidentally to enjoy a few days' shooting, which accounted for one half of the coincidence. Old Viv accepted his part philosophically; it was not the first time he had been called upon to play it with this up and down young officer, whose temporal senior he was by some six years, and whose elder, in all questions of sapience and self-sufficiency, he might have been by fifty. He did not ask what was the matter, but he said ' all right,' as if all right were all reassurance, and gave a little nod to settle the matter. He had a well-looking, rather judicial face, clean shaven, a prim mouth, a somewhat naked head for a man of thirty, and he wore eyeglasses on a neatly turned nose, with a considerable prominence of the organ of eventuality above it. The complacent bachelor was writ plain in his every line. And then he inquired regarding the Baron.
' O ! I know very little about him,' was young Kennett's answer. 'I believe the governor picked him up in Paris originally, but how or where I can't say. He's a marvel at chess; and you remember that's the old man's obsession. They're at it eternally while he's down here'.
'This isn't his first visit then?'
'No, I believe not; but it's the first time I've seen him. I'm quoting Audrey for the chess. Why, what's the matter? Is anything wrong with him?'
' There you go, you rabbit! Who said anything was wrong with him? I've met him before, that's all.'
' Have you ? Where ?
' Why, in Paris. You remember the Montesquieu, and my French Baron ?'
' I remember there was a Baron. I don't think you ever told me his name.'
* Well, it was Le Sage, and this is the man'.
' Is it ? That's rather queer.'
'The coincidence of your meeting again like this'.
'O, as to that, coincidence, you know, is only queer till you have traced back its clues and found it inevitable'.
'Well, that's true. You can trace it in his case to the governor's being down with the gout again, and confined to the house, and wanting something and somebody to distract him'.
'There you are, you see. He thought of chess, and thought of this Le Sage, and wrote up to him on the chance. Your father probably knows more about his movements than we do. So we're both accounted for. No, what is queer to me is the man's confounded habit of secrecy. Why didn't he say, when I met him in Paris, that the friend I was waiting for was known to him? Why didn't he admit yesterday, admit until we actually met on the platform to-day, that we were bound for the same place? I hate a stupidly reticent man'.