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The man took a short step forward, and hissed back his retort:
"And the last thing I heard of you Ц was your sticking up the Mount Clarence bank, and taking five hundred ounces of gold! You were taken; but escaped the same night Ц with the swag. That's the last I heard of you Ц Ned Ryan Ц Ned the Ranger Ц Sundown!"
"I can hang you for that murder," pursued Miles, as though he had not heard a word of this retort.
"Not without dragging yourself in after me, for life; which you'd find the worse half of the bargain! Now listen, Ned Ryan; I'll be plain with you. I can, and mean to, bleed you for that gold Ц for my fair share of it."
"And this is what you want with me?" asked Miles, in a tone so low and yet so fierce that the confidence of Jem Pound was for an instant shaken.
"I want money; I'm desperate Ц starving!" he answered, his tone sinking for once into a whine.
"Starvation doesn't carry a man half round the world."
"I was helped," said Pound darkly.
"Who helped you?"
"All in good time, Sundown, old mate! Come, show me the colour of it first."
Miles spread out his arms with a gesture that was candour itself.
"I have none to give you. I am cleaned out myself."
"That's a lie!" cried Pound, with a savage oath.
Miles answered with cool contempt:
"Do you think a man clears out with five hundred ounces in his pockets? Do you think he could carry it ten miles, let alone two hundred?"
Jem Pound looked hard at the man who had been his captain in a life of crime. A trace of the old admiration and crude respect for a brilliant fearless leader, succeeded though this had been by years of bitter hatred, crept into his voice as he replied:
"You could! No one else! No other man could have escaped at all as you did. I don't know the thing you couldn't do!"
"Fool!" muttered Miles, half to himself.
"That's fool number two," answered Pound angrily. "Well, maybe I am one, maybe I'm not; anyhow I've done what a dozen traps have tried and failed, and I'll go on failing Ц until I help them: I've run you to earth, Ned Ryan!"
"Ah! Well, tell me how."
"No, I heard a footstep just then; people are about."
"A chance passer," said Miles.
"You should have come with me. Walls are safe if you whisper; here there are no walls."
"You are right. We have stuck to the most public part, though; follow me through here."
They had been standing between two noble trees of the main avenue. This avenue, as all the world knows, is composed of nothing but horse chestnuts; but behind the front rank on either side are four lines of limes, forming to right and left of the great artery four minor parallel channels. Miles and his companion, turning inwards, crossed the soft sward of the minor avenues, and emerged on the more or less broken ground that expands southward to Hampton Wick. This tract is patched in places with low bracken, and dotted in others with young trees.It is streaked with converging paths Ц some worn by the heavy tread of men, others by the light feet of the deer, but all soft and grassy, and no more conspicuous than the delicate veins of a woman's hand.
They left the trees behind, and strode on heedlessly into the darkness. Their shins split the dew from the ferns; startled fawns rose in front of them and scampered swiftly out of sight, a momentary patch of grey upon the purple night.
"This will suit you," said Miles, still striding aimlessly on. "It is a good deal safer than houses here. Now for your story."
He was careful as they walked to keep a few inches in the rear of Pound, who, for his part, never let his right hand stray from a certain sheath that hung from the belt under his coat: the two men had preserved these counter-precautions from the moment they quitted the lighted roads.
"It is soon told, though it makes me sweat to think of it Ц all but the end, and that was so mighty neat the rest's of no account," Pound began, with a low laugh. "Well, you turned me adrift, and I lived like a hunted dingo for very near a year. If I'd dared to risk it, I'd have blabbed on you quick enough; but there was no bait about Queen's evidence, and I daren't let on a word else Ц you may thank the devil for that, not me! Well, I had no money, but I got some work at the stations, though in such mortal terror that I daren't stay long in one place, until at last I got a shepherd's billet, with a hut where no one saw me from week's end to week's end. There I was safe, but in hell! I daren't lay down o' nights; when I did I couldn't sleep. I looked out o' the door twenty times a night to see if they were coming for me. I saw frightful things, and heard hellish sounds; I got the horrors without a drop o' liquor! You did all this, Ned Ryan Ц you did it all!"
Inflamed by the memory of his torments, Pound raised his voice in rage and hate that a single day had exalted from impotency to might. But rage red-hot only aggravates the composure of a cool antagonist, and the reply was cold as death:
"Blame yourself. If you had kept clean hands, you might have stuck to us to the end; as it was, you would have swung the lot of us in another month. No man can accuse me of spilling blood Ц nor poor Hickey either, for that matter; but you Ц I could dangle you to-morrow! Remember that, Jem Pound; and go on."
"I'll remember a bit more Ц you'll see!" returned Pound with a stifled gasp. He was silent for the next minute; then added in the tone of one who bides his time to laugh last and loudest: "Go on? Right! Well, then, after a long time I showed my nose in a town, and no harm came of it."
"Why Townsville?" Miles asked quickly.
"Your good lady was there; I knew she would give me Ц well, call it assistance."
"That was clever of you," said Miles after a moment's silence, but his calm utterance was less natural than before.
"I wanted a ship," Pound continued; "and could have got one too, through being at sea before at odd times, if I'd dared loaf about the quay by day. Well, one dark night I was casting my eyes over the Torres Straits mail boat, when a big man rushed by me and crept on board like a cat. I knew it was you that moment; I'd heard of your escape. You'd your swag with you; the gold was in it Ц I knew it! What's the use of shaking your head? Of course it was. Well, first I pushed forward to speak to you, then I drew back. Why? Because just then you'd have thought no more of knocking me on the head and watching me drown before your eyes than I'd think of Ц "
"Committing another murder! By heaven, I wish I had had the chance!" muttered Miles.
"Then, if I'd started the hue and cry, it would have meant killing the golden goose Ц and most likely me with it. I thought of something better: I saw you drop down into the hold Ц there was too much risk in showing your money for a passage or trying for a fo'c'stle berth; the boat was to sail at daylight. I rushed to your wife and told her; but her cottage was three miles out of the town, worse luck to it! and when I got her to the quay, you were under way and nearly out of sight Ц half-an-hour late in sailing, and you'd have had a friend among the passengers!"
"And what then?"
"Why, then your wife was mad! I soothed her: she told me that she had some money, and I told her if she gave me some of it I might still catch you for her. I showed her how the mail from Sydney, by changing at Brindisi, would land one in England before the Queensland boat. I knew it was an off-chance whether you ever meant to reach England at all, or whether you'd succeed if you tried; but," said Pound, lowering his voice unaccountably, "I was keen to be quit of the country myself. Here was my chance, and I took it; your wife shelled out, and I lost no time."
The man ceased speaking, and looked sharply about him. His eyes were become thoroughly used to the darkness, so that he could see some distance all round with accuracy and ease; but they were eyes no less keen than quick; and so sure-sighted that one glance was at all times enough for them, and corroboration by a second a thing unthought of.
They were walking, more slowly now, on a soft mossy path, and nearing a small plantation, chiefly of pines and firs, half-a-mile from the avenues. This path, as it approaches the trees, has beside it several saplings shielded by tall triangular fences, which even in daylight would afford very fair cover for a man's body. Miles and Pound had passed close to half-a-dozen or more of these triangles.
"Well?" said Miles; for Pound remained silent.
"I am looking to see where you have brought me."
"I have brought you to the best place of all, this plantation," Miles answered, leaving the path and picking his way over the uneven ground until there were trees all round them. "Here we should be neither seen nor heard if we stayed till daybreak. Are you going on?"
But Pound was not to be hurried until he had picked out a spot to his liking still deeper in the plantation; far from shaking his sense of security, the trees seemed to afford him unexpected satisfaction. The place was dark and silent as the tomb, though the eastern wall of the park was but three hundred yards distant. Looking towards this wall in winter, a long, unbroken row of gaslights marks the road beyond; but in summer the foliage of the lining trees only reveals a casual glimmer, which adds by contrast to the solitude of this sombre, isolated, apparently uncared-for coppice.
"I reached London just before you," resumed Pound, narrowly watching the effect of every word. "I waited for your boat at the docks. There were others waiting. I had to take care Ц they were detectives."
Miles uttered an ejaculation.
"I watched them go on board; I watched them come back Ц without you. They were white with disappointment. Ned Ryan, those men would sell their souls to lay hands on you now!"
"Go on!" said Miles between his teeth.
"Well, I got drinking with the crew, and found you'd fallen overboard coming up Channel Ц so they thought; it happened in the night. But you've swum swollen rivers, before my eyes, stronger than I ever see man swim before or since, and I was suspicious. Ships get so near the land coming up Channel. I went away and made sure you were alive, if I could find you. At last, by good luck, I did find you."
"At the Exhibition. I took to loafing about the places you were sure to go to, sooner or later, as a swell, thinking yourself safe as the Bank. And that's where I found you Ц the swell all over, sure enough. You stopped till the end, and that's how I lost you in the crowd going out; but before that I got so close I heard what you were saying to your swell friends: how you'd bring 'em again, if they liked; what you'd missed that day, but must see then. So I knew where to wait about for you. But you took your time about coming again. Every day I was waiting and watching Ц starving. A shilling a day to let me into the ching Ц and place; a quid in reserve for when the time came; and pence for my meals. Do you think a trifle'll pay for all that? When you did turn up again yesterday, you may lay your life I never lost sight of you."
"I should have known you any time; why you went about in that rig Ц "
"I had no others. I heard fools whisper that I was a detective, moreover, and that made me feel safe."
"You followed me down here yesterday, did you? Then why do nothing till to-night?"
The fellow hesitated, and again peered rapidly into every corner of the night.
"Why did you wait?" repeated Miles impatiently.
An evil grin overspread the countenance of Jem Pound. He seemed to be dallying with his answer Ц rolling the sweet morsel on his tongue Ц as though loth to part with the source of so much private satisfaction. Miles perceived something of this, and, for the first time that night, felt powerless to measure the extent of his danger. Up to this point he had realised and calculated to a nicety the strength of the hold of this man over him, and he had flattered himself that it was weak in comparison with his own counter-grip; but now he suspected, nay felt, the nearness of another and a stronger hand.
"Answer, man," he cried, with a scarcely perceptible tremor in his voice, "before I force you! Why did you wait?"
"I went back," said Pound slowly, slipping his hand beneath his coat, and comfortably grasping the haft of his sheath-knife, "to report progress."
"To Ц your wife!"
"You are lying, my man," said Miles, with a forced laugh. "She never came to England."
"She didn't, didn't she? Why, of course you ought to know best, even if you don't; but if you asked me, I should say maybe she isn't a hundred miles from you at this very instant!"
"Speak that lie again," cried Miles, his low voice now fairly quivering with passion and terror, "and I strike you dead where you stand! She is in Australia, and you know it!"
Jem Pound stepped two paces backward, and answered in a loud, harsh tone:
"You fool! she is here!"
Miles stepped forward as if to carry out his threat; but even as he moved he heard a rustle at his side, and felt a light hand laid on his arm. He started, turned, and looked round. There, by his side Ц poverty-stricken almost to rags, yet dark and comely as the summer's night Ц stood the woman whom years ago he had made his wife!
A low voice full of tears whispered his name: "Ned, Ned!" and "Ned, Ned!" again and again.
He made no answer, but stood like a granite pillar, staring at her. She pressed his arm with one hand, and laid the other caressingly on his breast; and as she stood thus, gazing up through a mist into his stern, cold face, this topmost hand rested heavily upon him. To him it seemed like lead; until suddenly Ц did it press a bruise or a wound, that such a hideous spasm should cross his face? that he should shake off the woman so savagely?
By the merest accident, the touch of one woman had conjured the vision of another; he saw before him two, not one; two as opposite in their impressions on the senses as the flower and the weed; as separate in their associations as the angels of light and darkness.
Yet this poor woman, the wife, could only creep near him again Ц forgetting her repulse, since he was calm the next moment Ц and press his hand to her lips, so humbly that now he stood and bore it, and repeat brokenly:
"I have found him! Oh, thank God! Now at last I have found him!"
While husband and wife stood thus, silenced Ц one by love, the other by sensations of a very different kind Ц the third person watched them with an expression which slowly changed from blank surprise to mortification and dumb rage. At last he seemed unable to stand it any longer, for he sprang forward and whispered hoarsely in the woman's ear:
"What are you doing? Are you mad? What are we here for? What have we crossed the sea for? Get to work, you fool, or Ц "
"To work to bleed me, between you!" cried Ned Ryan, shaking himself again clear of the woman. "By heaven, you shall find me a stone!"
Elizabeth Ryan turned and faced her ally, and waved him back with a commanding gesture.
"No, Jem Pound," said she, in a voice as clear and true as a clarion, "it is time to tell the truth: I did not come to England for that! O Ned, Ned! I have used this man as my tool Ц can't you see?†Ц to bring me to you. Ned, my husband, I am by your side; have you no word of welcome?"
She clung to him, with supplication in her white face and drooping, nerveless figure; and Pound looked on speechless. So he had been fooled by this smooth-tongued, fair-faced trash; and all his plans and schemes, and hungry longings and golden expectations, were to crumble into dust before treachery such as this! So, after all, he had been but a dupe Ц a ladder to be used and kicked aside! A burning desire came over him to plunge his knife into this false demon's heart, and end all.
But Ryan pushed back his wife a third time, gently but very firmly.
"Come, Liz," said he, coldly enough, yet with the edge off his voice and manner, "don't give us any of this. This was all over between us long ago. If it's money you want, name a sum; though I have little enough, you shall have what I can spare, for I swear to you I got away with my life and little else. But if it's sentiment, why, it's nonsense; and you know that well enough."
Elizabeth Ryan stood as one stabbed, who must fall the moment the blade is withdrawn from the wound; which office was promptly performed by one who missed few opportunities.
"Why, of course!" exclaimed Pound, with affected sympathy with the wife and indignation against the husband. "To be sure you see how the wind lies, missis?"
"What do you mean?" cried Elizabeth Ryan fiercely.
"Can't you see?" pursued Pound in the same tone, adding a strong dash of vulgar familiarity; "can't you see that you're out of the running, Liz, my lass? You may be Mrs. Ryan, but Mrs. Ryan is a widow; there's no Ned Ryan now. There's a Mr. Miles, an Australian gentleman, in his skin, and, mark me, there'll be a Mrs.†Ц "
He stopped, for Liz Ryan turned on him so fiercely that it looked as though she was gathering herself to spring at his throat.
"You liar!" she shrieked. "Tell him, Ned! Give him the lie yourself! Quickly Ц speak, or I shall go mad!"
Her husband uttered no sound.
"He can't, you see," sneered Pound. "Why, if you'd only come in with me into the garden, you'd have seen the two together sweethearting in the starlight!"
"If I had," said Mrs. Ryan, trembling violently, "I pity both. But no, I don't believe it! O Ned! Ned! answer, unless you want to break my heart!"
"Well, well, what does it matter?" put in Pound hastily, speaking to her in a fatherly, protective tone, which hit the mark aimed at. "Liz, my dear, you and I have been good friends all this time; then why not let him go his ways?†Ц after we've got our rights, I mean."
Ned Ryan glanced sharply from his wife to the man who had brought her from Australia; and then he spoke:
"My good woman, why not be frank? What's the use of acting a part to me? Anyway, it's a bit too thin this time. Only let me alone, and you two can go on Ц as you are. Come now, I don't think I'm hard on you; considering everything I might be a deal harder."
His wife sprang before him, her black eyes flashing, her whole frame quivering.
"Edward Ryan, you shall answer for these foul, cruel words before Him who knows them to be false. What do you think me, I wonder? That vile thing there Ц can't you see how I have used him?†Ц he has been the bridge between me and you, yet you make him the barrier! Oh, you know me better than that, Ned Ryan! You know me for the woman who sacrificed all for you Ц who stood by you through thick and thin, and good and bad, while you would let her Ц who would not have forsaken you for twenty murders!†Ц who loved you better than life Ц God help me!" cried the poor woman, wildly, "for I love you still!"
She rose the next moment, and continued in a low, hard, changed voice:
"But love and hate lie close together; take care, and do not make me hate you, for if you do I shall be pitiless as I have been pitiful, cruel as I have been fond. I, who have been ready all these years to shield you with my life Ц I shall be the first to betray you to the laws you have cheated, if you turn my love to hate. Ned! Ned! stop and think before it is too late!"
She pressed both hands upon her heart, as if to stay by main force its tumultuous beating. Her limbs tottered beneath her. Her face was like death. Her life's blood might have mingled with the torrent of her eloquence!
"You are beside yourself," said her husband, who had listened like a stone; "otherwise you would remember that tall talk never yet answered with me. And yet Ц yet I am sorry for you Ц so poor, so ragged, so thin Ц " His voice suddenly softened, and he felt with his hand in his pocket. "See here! take these twenty pounds. It's a big lump of all I have; but 'twill buy you a new dress and some good food, and make you decent for a bit, and if I had more to spare, upon my soul you should have it!"
Elizabeth Ryan snatched the notes from her husband's hand, crumpled them savagely, and flung them at his feet; with a wild sweep of her arm she tore off her bonnet, as though it nursed the fire within her brain, and coils of dark, disordered hair fell down about her shoulders. For one moment she stood glaring fixedly at her husband, and then fell heavily to the ground.
"She has fainted," said Miles, not without pity, and bending over her. "Bring her to, then lead her away. Take her back; she must not see me again."
Pound knelt down, and quietly pocketed the crumpled notes; then he raised the senseless head and fanned the ashy face, looking up meanwhile and saying:
"Meet me here to-morrow night at ten; I will come alone."
"For the last time, then."
"I am agreeable; but it will rest with you."
Miles drew away into the shadows. He waited, and presently he heard a faint, hollow, passionate voice calling his name:
"Ned Ryan! I will come back, Ned Ryan! Come back, never fear, and see you Ц see you alone! And if you are as hard then Ц as hard and cruel Ц Heaven help us both!†Ц Heaven help us both!"
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