Ernest Hornung.

At Large



скачать книгу бесплатно

Dick made no reply, but it all seemed clear and intelligible to him; Pound's hold upon Mrs. Ryan, and the false position in which that fiend placed the woman at the meeting of husband and wife, which accounted for Ryan's misunderstanding and heartless treatment of his wife on that occasion; the reconciliation of husband and wife; their projected departure for America; the necessity of deceiving Pound meanwhile, and getting away without his knowledge. All these things seemed natural enough; and, told in the desperately earnest tones of a strong man humbled, they carried conviction with them. Nor were they pleaded in vain.

The way in which Dick finally put the matter was this: —

"Remember," he said, "that it is for my friends' sake as much as for yours; that this is our second treaty; and that if you break one particle of it there are always four men in the house here, and villagers in plenty within a cooee of us."

"I know all these things," said Miles, very humbly, "and will forget none of them."

And so the interview ended.

When Miles was gone, Dick lifted his gun, which had lain long upon the counterpane, pressed the lever, bent down the barrels, and aimed them at the glimmering window-blind. The early morning light shone right through the gleaming bores – the gun had been empty all the time! Dick felt ashamed of the part that it had played in the interview.

XXI
AN ALTERED MAN

Colonel Bristo was rambling about the place, according to habit, for a good hour the next morning before the early breakfast, but he saw nothing of Dick until the bell rang for that meal.

"I thought you meant turning out early?" said the old fellow to the young one, with a smile. "I've been looking for you in vain; but I'm glad you followed my advice and took it easy. Did you sleep well, though? That's the main thing; and 'pon my soul, you look as though you had been awake all night!"

"Oh, I was all right, thanks, sir; I slept pretty well," said Dick, with awkward haste.

The Colonel felt pretty sure that Dick had been all wrong, and slept not at all. There was a haggard look about him that put the fact beyond the contradiction of words.

"You didn't see Miles, I suppose?" said the Colonel after a moment's thought. "His room is close to yours, you know."

"I did see him. We – we exchanged a few words."

Dick's tone and manner were strange.

"Confound them both!" thought the Colonel. "They have clashed already. Yes, that is it. I wonder how it came about? I didn't think they were such implacable foes. Mrs. Parish hinted to me long ago that they were, and that it would be best not to have them here together. Is it all on Alice's account, I wonder? Anyway, it is by no scheme of mine that they are here together. Why, I wrote Miles a list of our little party without a word about Dick. I never thought Dick was coming. Yet I am glad now he is come."

"It was really kind of you," said Colonel Bristo aloud, "to give in and come after all."

"No," said Dick, with sudden fire.

"I'm thankful I came! I am grateful to you for refusing to take my first refusal. Now that I am here, I would not be elsewhere at this moment for the whole world!"

The Colonel was pleased, if a little puzzled, by this vehement outburst.

"Are you really going out again – back to the bush?" he said presently.

"Yes," said Dick, the fire within him quickly quenched. "I have quite settled that point – though I have told no one but you, Colonel Bristo."

"Well, well – I think you are making a sad mistake; but of course every man decides for himself."

That was all Colonel Bristo said just then, for he knew that the young people had barely seen one another as yet. But up on the moor, an hour or two later, when the guns divided, he felt inclined to say something sharp, for the manner in which Dick avoided shooting with Miles was rather too pointed, and a good deal too ridiculous and childish for the Colonel's fancy.

That evening the conversation at the Colonel's dinner, and that around the beer-stained board – dedicated of an evening to the engrossing domino – in the inn at Gateby, were principally upon the selfsame topic – to wit, the excellence of Miles's shooting.

"I can't conceive," said the Colonel, "seeing that you have never shot grouse in your life before, how you do it."

"If I couldn't shoot straight," said the hero of the evening (for the bag that day was the biggest yet, thanks to Miles), "I ought to be shot myself. I was reared on gunpowder. In the bush – instead of the silver spoon in your mouth – you are born with a fire-arm in your hand!"

Dick smiled grimly to himself. And yet this was the longest speech the Australian had made all the evening. Miles was strangely subdued, compared with what he had been at Graysbrooke. The Colonel and his daughter had each noticed this already; and as for Mrs. Parish, she was resolved to "speak up" on the subject to Alice, whom she blamed for it entirely.

"Yon yoong man – him 't coomed las' night – t' long wan, I mean," declared Andy Garbutt in the pot-house, banging down his fourth glass (empty) upon the table, which upset several dominoes and led to "language" – "yon yoong man's t'bes' shot I iver seed. The way he picked off t'ould cocks, an' let be t'yoongsters an' all, was sumthink clever. I niver seed owt like it. They do say 'tis his first taast o' t'mowers – but we isn't the lads to swaller yon! Bob Rutter, y' ould divle – fill oop t' glasses."

And though perhaps, hyperbole ran riot upon the heels of intoxication, still in Robert Rutter's genial hostelry "t' long chap's" reputation was there and then established.

But the marked change in Miles's manner was, to those who had known him best before, inexplicable. Never had a shooting-party a more modest, mild, and unassuming member, even among the worst of shots; and Miles was, if anything, better than Captain Awdry. His quiet boastfulness was missing. He might have passed the weeks since the beginning of July in some school of manners, where the Colonial angles had been effectually rounded off, and the old free-and-easy habits toned down. Not that he was shy or awkward – Miles was not the man to become either the one or the other; but his manner had now – towards the Colonel, for instance, and Alice – a certain deference-with-dignity, the lack of which had been its worst fault before. Dick, who scarcely spoke three words to him in as many days, suddenly awoke to a sense of relief and security.

"Poor fellow!" he thought, "he is keeping his word this time, I must own. Well, I am glad I didn't make a scene; and the week is half over. When it is quite over, I shall be still more glad that I let him off. For, after all, I owe him my life. I am sorry I threatened him during our interview, and perhaps I need not have avoided him so studiously since. Yet I am watching him, and he knows it. I watch him sometimes when he cannot possibly know it, and for the life of me I can see nothing crooked. My belief is that he's only too thankful to get off on the terms, and that he wouldn't break them for as much as his life is worth; besides which, his remorse the other night was genuine."

Mrs. Parish, for her part, was quite sure that it was love unrequited with Mr. Miles, and nothing else. She fumed secretly for two days, and then "spoke up" according to her intention. What she said was not well received, and a little assault-at-words was the result.

Dr. Robson told Mr. Pinckney that he found Miles a less interesting man to talk to than he had been led to expect from his conversation the first evening. Mr. Pinckney replied that if all the Australians were as unsociable, he was glad he didn't live out there. Though Miles, he said, might be a fine sportsman and a devilish handsome dog, there was evidently "nothing in him;" by which it was meant that he was not intellectual and literary – like L. P.

Colonel Bristo was fairly puzzled, but, on the whole, he liked the new Miles rather less than the old.

As for Alice, though she did her best to exclude her personal feelings from the pages of her diary, she could not help just touching on this matter.

"I never," she wrote, "saw anybody so much changed as Mr. Miles, and in so short a time. Though he is certainly less amusing than we used to think him, I can't help admitting that the change is an improvement. His audacity, I remember, carried him a little too far once or twice before he left us. But he was a hero all the time, in spite of his faults, and now he is one all the more. Oh, I can never forget what we owe to him! To me he is most polite, and not in the least (as he sometimes used to be) familiar, I am thankful to say. The more I think of it the less I can account for his strange behaviour that night of our dance – because it was so unlike what he had been up till then, and what he is now."

Of Dick this diary contained no mention save the bald fact of his arrival. There was, indeed, a sentence later on that began with his name, but the few words that followed his name were scored out so carefully as to be illegible. The fact was that the estrangement between the pair was well-nigh hopeless. They conversed together, when they did converse, with mutual effort. Dick found himself longing to speak – to ask her forgiveness before he went – but without opportunity or encouragement. Alice, on the other hand, even if ready to meet an overture half-way, was the last person in the world to invite one. Under the conditions of the first few days, meeting only at breakfast and dinner, and for an hour or so in the drawing-room afterwards, these two might have been under one roof for weeks without understanding one another a whit the better.

But meanwhile, Alice seemed to benefit very little by her change from the relaxing Thames valley to the bracing Yorkshire moors; and as for Dick – except when the Colonel was present, for whose sake he did make an effort to be hearty – he was poor company, and desperately moody. He was also short-tempered, as Philip Robson found out one morning when they were tramping over the moor together. For Cousin Philip was sufficiently ill-advised to inform his companion that he, Dr. Robson, thought him looking far from well – at a moment when no good sportsman would have opened his mouth, unless in businesslike reference to the work in hand.

"I'm all right, thanks," Dick answered shortly, and with some contempt.

"Ah!" said Philip, compassionately, "perhaps you are not a very good judge of your own health; nor can you know how you look. Now, as a medical man – "

"Spare me, my dear fellow. Go and look at all the tongues of the village, if you must keep your eye in. They'll be charmed. As for me, I tell you I don't want – I mean, I'm all right."

"As a medical man," pursued Philip, "I beg to dif – "

"Hang it!" cried Dick, now fairly irritated. "We didn't come out for a consultation, did we? When I want your advice, Robson, you'll hear from me."

With such men as Robson, if they don't feel the first gentle snub (and the chances are all against it), anything short of an insult is waste of breath. Yet, having driven you into being downright offensive, they at once turn sensitive, and out with their indignation as though they had said nothing to provoke you. Witness the doctor:

"I thought," he cried, beginning to tremble violently, "I came out with a gentleman! I meant what I said for your good – it was pure kindness on my part, nothing else. I thought – I thought – "

At that point he was cut short; for Edmonstone had lost his temper, turned on his heel with a short, sharp oath, and made Philip Robson his enemy from that minute.

XXII
EXTREMITIES

That same evening (it was on the Thursday), on his return from shooting, Dick Edmonstone found, among the other letters on the table in the passage, one addressed to himself in a strange hand. The writing was bad, but characteristic in its way; Dick had certainly never seen it before. The envelope bore a London postmark. He took the letter into the little back room, the gunroom, and sat down to read it alone.

Twilight was deep in this room, for the window was in an angle of the house, facing eastward, and was overshadowed by the foliage of a fair-sized oak. Some out-lying small branches of this tree beat gently against the upper pane; the lower sash was thrown up. The window was several feet above the ground. The corner below was a delightful spot, shaded all day from the sun; a basket-work table and chair were always there, for the nook was much affected by Mrs. Parish, and even by Alice, in the hot, long, sleepy afternoons.

Edmonstone had read to the end of his letter, when the door opened and Miles entered the room. Dick looked up and greeted him: "This is lucky. I was just coming to look for you. I want to speak to you."

The other's astonishment was unconcealed. Since the small hours of Tuesday the two had not exchanged a dozen words. Edmonstone had avoided Miles on the moor, and elsewhere watched him as a terrier watches a rat in a trap. Miles could not guess what was coming.

"I have a letter here that will interest you," said Dick. "Listen to this:

"'Dear Edmonstone, – I thought I'd look you up yesterday, as I had nothing on, but, like my luck, I found you away. Your people, however, treated me handsomely, and I stayed all the afternoon. We talked Australia; and this brings me to the reason of my writing to you. Your people told me of a rather mysterious Australian who stayed some time with the people you are with now, and went out again very suddenly at the beginning of last month. His name was Miles; your sister described him to me, and the description struck me as uncommon like that of a well-known gentleman at present wanted by the police of the Colony. The fact is, I have stumbled across an old mate of mine (a sergeant in the mounted police), who is over here after this very gent, and who I am helping a bit in the ready-money line. As he is working on the strict q.t., I must not tell you whom he's after. In fact, it's all on my own account I am writing you. I haven't told him anything about it. It's my own idea entirely, and I want you to tell me just this: Have your friends heard anything of this Miles since he left them? because I've been making inquiries, and found that no such name as Miles has been booked for a passage out at any of the London offices during the past two months! Of course I may have got hold of a wild-goose notion; but Miss Edmonstone told me that your friends made this Miles's acquaintance in an offhand kind of a way, and nobody else knew anything about him. Anyway, I'll wait till I hear from you before telling Compton, who's down at the seaside on a fresh clue. – Yours faithfully, Stephen Biggs.'"

"What name was that?" asked Miles quickly. He had listened calmly to the end. But at the very end the colour had suddenly fled from his face.

"Biggs – the Hon. Stephen, M. L. C. A warm man for a campaign, rich as Cr?sus. If he's set his heart upon having you, he'll chase you round and round the world – "

"No. I mean the other man – the name of the sergeant."

Dick referred to the letter.

"Compton," he said.

"Compton!" repeated Miles in a whisper. "The only 'trap' in Australia I ever feared – the only man in the world, bar Pound, I have still to fear! Compton! my bitterest enemy!"

Edmonstone rose from the armchair in which he had been sitting, sat down at the table, opened a blotter, and found a sheet of notepaper.

"Must you answer now?" cried Miles.

"Yes; on the spot."

"What do you mean to say?"

"I have not decided. What would you say in my place? I am a poor liar."

"If we changed places, and I had treated you as you have treated me these two days – since our compact – I should write them the worst, and have done with it," said Miles, in a low tone of intense bitterness. "You professed to trust me. Yet you won't trust yourself near me on the moors; you fear foul play at my hands. You watch me like a lynx here at the house; yet I swear man never kept promise as I am keeping mine now! You do things by halves, Edmonstone. You had better end the farce, and wire the truth to your friend."

Reproach mingled with resignation in the last quiet words. Edmonstone experienced a twinge of compunction.

"Nonsense!" he said. "I should be a fool if I didn't watch you – worse than a fool to trust you. But betraying you is another matter. I don't think of doing that, unless – "

"I can keep my word, Edmonstone, bad as I may be! Besides, I am not a fool."

"And you are going on Monday?"

"Yes – to sail on Tuesday; you have seen my ticket."

"Then you shall see my answer to this letter."

Dick then dashed off a few lines. He handed the sheet, with the ink still wet, to Miles, who read these words:

"Dear Biggs, – A false scent, I am afraid. Ladies are never accurate; you have been misinformed about Miles. I knew him in Australia! He cannot be the man you want. – Yours sincerely,

"R. Edmonstone."

The sheet of writing paper fluttered in Miles's hand. For one moment an emotion of gratitude as fierce as that which he himself had once inspired in the breast of Edmonstone, swelled within his own.

"You are a friend indeed," he murmured, handing back the letter. "And yet your friendship seems like madness!"

"My old mate swears that I am mad on the subject!"

Dick folded and enclosed his note in an envelope, directed it, and got up to go. Miles followed him to the door and wrung his hand in silence.

When the door was closed upon Edmonstone, Miles sank into the armchair, and closed his eyes.

His expression was human then; it quickly hardened, and his face underwent complete transformation. A moment later it was not a pleasant face to look upon. The ugliness of crime had disfigured it in a flash. The devils within him were unchained for once, and his looks were as ugly as his thoughts.

"Curse it!" – he was thinking – "I must be losing my nerve: I get heated and flurried as I never did before. Yet it was not altogether put on, my gratitude to this young fellow: I do feel some of it. Nor were they all lies that I told him the other night; I am altered in some ways. I believe it was that spice of truth that saved me – for saved I am so far as he is concerned. Anyway, I have fooled him rather successfully, and he'll know it before he has done with me! True, I did not bargain to meet him here, after what the Colonel wrote; but I flatter myself I made the best of it – I can congratulate myself upon every step. No; one was a false step: I was an idiot to show him the passage-money receipt; it was telling him the name and line of the steamer and opening up the track for pursuit when we are gone. And yet, and yet – I could not have laid a cleverer false scent if I had tried! Instead of money flung away, that passage-money will turn out a glorious investment; we'll show a clean pair of heels in the opposite direction, while our good friends here think of nothing but that one steamer! And so, once more, everything is turning out well, if only I can keep this up three days longer; if only Jem Pound and Frank Compton do not trouble me; if only – if only I am not mistaken and misled as to the ease with which I may carry off – my prize!"

And strange to say, as he thought of that final coup, the villainy faded out of his face – though the act contemplated was bad enough, in all conscience!

All at once a creaking noise startled Miles. He rose from his chair, and crossed with swift noiseless steps over to the window. A man was lifting himself gingerly from the basket-work chair – the man was Philip Robson.

Miles leant out of the window, seized him by the collar, and drew him backward with a thud against the wall below the window.

"Eavesdropper! listener!" hissed Miles; and quick as lightning he changed his hold from the doctor's collar to the doctor's wrists, which he grabbed with each iron hand and drew upward over the sill.

The sill was more than six feet from the ground. The doctor stood on tiptoe – helpless – in a trap. The doctor's face was white and guilty. The doctor's tongue was for the moment useless.

"What were you doing there?" Miles demanded quietly, but with a nasty look about the eyes.

"I – I had been asleep. I came back early from the moors because Edmonstone insulted me. I was just awake. Let go my hands, will you? I heard something – a very little – I could not help it. What do you mean by holding my wrists like this? Leave loose of them, I say!"

"Then tell me what you heard."

"Something that I could not understand. If you don't let me go this instant, I'll sing out!"

"Will you stand and talk sensibly, and listen to what I tell you?"

"Yes, I swear I will."

"There, then, you're free. Now I'll just tell you, in effect, what you did hear," said Miles, whose inventive brain had been busy from the moment he had discovered Robson. "You heard Edmonstone speak to me as though I was a villain: well, he firmly believes I am one. You heard him read me a letter from some one 'wanting' me: he has read me many such letters. I believe you heard me asking him in effect not to tell any one, and thanking him: this is what I make a point of doing. The fact is, Edmonstone is under the delusion that I am a man who robbed him in Australia. This is what's the matter!"



скачать книгу бесплатно

страницы: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25