Ernest Hornung.

At Large



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That day, the champion from Australia shot execrably, which was inexplicable; and he kept for ever casting sudden glances over his shoulders, and on all sides of him, which was absurd.

XXIV
THE EFFECT OF A SONG

Late that afternoon, in Robert Rutter's meadow at the back of the inn, a man and a woman stood in close conversation. The man was Jem Pound, the woman Elizabeth Ryan.

"Then you have not seen him yet?"

"No, not yet; I have had no chance."

"You mean that you have been drunk, Jem Pound!"

"Not to say drunk, missis. But I've been over to a town called Melmerbridge, and I went a long way round so as not to cross the moor. They're shooting up there all day. It'd be no sort o' use tackling him there."

"But surely they are back by now?" exclaimed Mrs. Ryan, impatiently. "I tell you he must be seen to-day – this evening – now."

"Ay, ay; I'm just going. Straight along this path it is, across a few fields, and there you are – opposite the house; and you may trust me – "

"I know; I have seen it for myself. But I am going too."

This was precisely what Pound did not want. He was treating the woman with unwonted civility, not to say respect, with a view to the more easily dissuading her from dangerous projects. And this was a dangerous project from Pound's point of view; but Mrs. Ryan had set her soul upon it. Argue as Jem would, she was bent upon seeing her husband with her own eyes, and at once. And there, with that thin white face of hers she might go and get him actually to pity her, and spoil everything – for Jem Pound.

"After finding him again, do you think I will endure this a moment longer?" asked Elizabeth scornfully.

Pound's reply was in the reflective manner.

"Well," said he, with slow deliberation, "I'm not sure but what it mightn't, after all, do good for you to see him."

"Good – do good! To whom? What do you mean? What have you to do with it?"

Pound ground his teeth; he had everything to do with it. It was the old story over again: this woman was using him as the guide to her own ends, yet would cut him adrift the very moment those ends were in sight. How he hated her! With his lips he cringed to her, in his heart he ground her to powder; but if he was not in the position to bully her to-day, he had lost few opportunities when he was; and he was at least forearmed against her.

He affected a bluff kindliness of manner that would not have deceived her had Mrs. Ryan been a little more composed.

"Look here, missis, you and me, we've been bound up in a ticklish job together. I don't say as I've always done by you as I should, but there is allowances to be made for a man that carries, as they say, his life in his hand, and that's staked his life on this here job. I don't say, either, as we're both on the exact same tack, but one thing's certain; we must work together now, and if you can't work my way, why, I must work yours.

Now, missis, you ain't fit for the strain of seeing him. If you could see your own face you'd know it, ma'am."

Her eyes had opened wide at his tone; she sighed deeply at his last words.

"No," she said sadly, "I know I'm not fit for much. But I must go – I must go."

"Then if you must, ma'am, take a teaspoonful of this first. It'll help you through, and anyway keep you from fainting, as you did last time. I got it in Melmerbridge this afternoon, after I see you look so sick."

He uncorked a small flask and held it to her lips.

"What is it?"

"Brandy – the best."

"And water?"

"Half and half. Remember that other night!"

"He is right," muttered the woman: "there must be no fainting this time."

She sipped from the bottle and felt revived.

"Now we will go," she said, sternly.

They crossed the meadow, and so over the stile into the potato-field that came next. Then Pound began to lag behind and watch his companion. When they reached the gate she was reeling; she clung to the gate-post, and waited for him to come up.

"You fiend!" she screamed, glaring impotently upon him. "Poisoner and fiend! You have – you – "

She fell senseless at his feet without finishing the sentence. Pound surveyed the helpless heap of clothes with complete satisfaction.

"Drugged you, eh? Is that what you'd say? Nay, hardly, my lass: p'r'aps the brandy was risky for a fool of a woman that won't eat – p'r'aps it was very near neat – p'r'aps there was more in it than that; anyway you took it beautiful – lovely, you devil in petticoats!"

He raised her easily enough in his strong arms, carried her through the gate into the next field, and dropped her upon a late heap of hay some distance from the track.

"Playing at triangles," said Pound, "it must be two to one, or all against all: one thing it sha'n't be – two to one, and Jem Pound the one! There you lie until you're wanted, my dear. So long to you!"

And with that this wretch strolled off.

The gap in the hedge dividing the last of these few fields from the road, and ending the path, occurred a few yards below the shooting-box. Pound crept along the ditch between hedge and field until he judged he was opposite the gate of the shooting-box. Then he stood up, parted the hedge where it was thinnest, and peered through. The room to the right of the porch was lit up within; though the blinds were drawn, the windows were wide open. Pound could hear a low continuous murmur of voices and other sounds, which informed him that the party were still dining. He waited patiently. At last he heard a pushing back of chairs: it must be over now, he thought; but no, the voices recommenced, pitched in a slightly louder key. The windows on the left of the porch shone out as brightly as their neighbours on the right of it. Light fingers ran nimbly over the keys of a piano – only once – no tune came of it.

Pound, too, had fingers that could not long be idle: thick, knotty, broad-nailed, supple-jointed; fingers that showed the working of the mind. They were busy now. In a little while all the hedge within their reach was stripped of its simple charms – its bluebells, its pink foxgloves, its very few wild roses. Even the little leaves of the hedge were plucked away by the handful; and on the grass, had it been lighter, you might have discovered in the torn and mutilated shreds of leaf and petal some index to the watcher's thoughts. At last there was a general movement inside. Dark forms appeared on the steps. Two or three came down the steps, and turned the corner of the house. One sauntered to the gate and peered up and down the road. There was no mistaking this figure.

Pound uttered in a low key a cry that is as common in the Australian bush as it is uncommon elsewhere. He expected his man to start as though shot, but he was disappointed. Ryan gave one sharp glance towards the hedge, then passed through the gate, and on to the gap.

"Lord! how he takes it!" murmured Pound. "Did he expect me? Has he been on the look-out night and day all this while?"

At the gap they met. Pound could restrain his exultation no longer.

"At last!"

"Yes," said the other, stepping quietly through the gap. He had given the whole day to preparation for this interview; but he had expected it to be an interview of three. Where was his wife? "Yes, and the fewer words the better. How you got here I neither know nor care; tell me what you want now that you are here."

"You know very well what I want."

"I may make a rough guess."

"I want money!"

"I thought so. It is a pity. You must go somewhere else for it: I have none."

"What!" cried Pound, savagely, "is it all gone? All that you landed with? Never! You have never got through all that!"

"'All that' is under a gum-tree somewhere in Queensland, unless some one has found it lately. I told you so before, didn't I? How could I clear out with the gold? How could I risk going back for it when once I got away? All I brought with me was what never left my body: the notes and some gold. It didn't come to much; the last of it went long since."

"Then how have you lived – what on?"

"My wits."

Jem Pound was in a towering passion.

"If I believed you," he hissed out, among his oaths, "I'd make a clean breast of everything – every blessed job – though I swung for it! No; I'd swing merrily, knowing they'd got you snug for the rest of your days, for you'd be worse off than me, Ned Ryan! But I don't believe a word of it; it's a lie – a lie – a lie!"

The utterance was that of a choking man. Miles wondered whether the man had the spirit to carry out what he threatened; he seemed desperate, and such confessions had been made before by desperate men. That the five hundred ounces of gold had been abandoned by Sundown in his flight was the simple truth. Yet if Pound realised this, he was capable of any lengths of vengeance – even to putting his own neck in the noose, as he said. Better, perhaps, leave him his delusion, and let him still think that the gold had been brought over; better give a sop to Cerberus – even though it were only a promise to-day and a few pounds to-morrow; for the next day – well, the next day Cerberus might growl in vain. But a fair round sum for Pound, if only it could be raised and handed over immediately, would raise high hopes of "the share" he coveted; would make him believe that the stronger man had given way at last; would pacify him for the time being – which was all that was necessary. For in two days Ned Ryan meant to fly from that place – in three, the shores of England should fade from his sight for ever. Pound must be put off his guard, like the rest; a fair round sum might do it – say fifty pounds. Fifty pounds, then, must be raised that night.

"Jem Pound," said Sundown, in tones of capitulation, "there is no getting over you! I throw up my hand, for the game's up. I thought I could get the best of you, Jem, but, Lord! I didn't know my man, and that's the fact. But listen to sense: you don't suppose I've got that money here, do you? It's in London; you shall have five hundred of it in hard cash, if you swear to stand by me, next week. I go up next week; you go before me and wait. You refuse? Stay, then; hear me out: you shall have fifty down, on this very spot, at this very hour, to-morrow night!"

"Do you mean it?" asked Pound, suspiciously, his breath coming quick and rapid with the excitement of the moment – his moment of victory.

"Every word of it."

"Fifty pounds – to-morrow night?"

"Every penny of it. Oh, there's no use in disguising it; you've got the better of me, Jem, and I must stump up."

Pound looked at him doubtfully, wishing to believe, yet finding it difficult.

"You gave us the slip before," he said; "how do we know you won't do it again?"

"Watch me – watch me," he said.

"Ay, we must and we will!"

"You need not remind me of – of her!" cried Ryan, fiercely, all in a moment.

"Ah, poor thing, poor thing!" said Pound.

"Why, has anything happened?"

"Poor soul!"

"Speak, man, for God's sake! Is she – is she – "

Ryan could not get out the word, trembling as he was with intense excitement. Pound broke into a brutal laugh.

"No, Ned Ryan, she isn't dead, if that's what you want. I am sorry for you. Now that you're going to behave handsome, I should have liked to bring you good news. Yet, though she hangs on still, she's going down the hill pretty quick – her own way. But she's waiting for us three fields off; we'd better go to her before she comes to us. Come this way."

Pound led the way to the hay-field. Miles followed him, filled with foreboding. What had happened to Elizabeth? Was the woman ill? Was she dying? Bad as he was – bad as she was – could he go coldly on his way and let her die? He thought of her as he had seen her last, two months ago; and then strangely enough, he figured her as he had first seen her, many, many years ago. Poor thing! poor Liz!

"She is not here," said Pound, when he came to the gate that Elizabeth Ryan had clung to. "Now I wonder – stay! what is that over there? Come, let's look. It may be – by Heaven, it is your wife!"

He had pointed to a dark object among the mounds of hay. Now the two men stood looking down on the insensible form of Elizabeth Ryan.

"No, not death," said Pound; "only brandy!"

The husband looked down upon his wretched wife without speaking or moving. Oh, that it were death! His muscles were rigid – repugnance and loathing froze him to the bone. How white her face was in the faint moonshine! how white that hand under the white cheek! and the other hand stretched helplessly out – good God! the wedding-ring he had placed there, she dared to wear it still! Oh, that this were death!

And a minute ago he had thought of her – for some seconds together – not unkindly!

At last Ryan spoke.

"I dare swear," he murmured, as though speaking to himself, "that she has not got our certificate! A ring is no proof."

Pound knelt down and shook some sense into the woman's head.

"Eh? What is it? Where am I?"

He whispered hurriedly in her ear: "He is here – your husband. He says something about your having no proof that you are his wife. Give me the certificate!"

Without grasping the meaning of any but the last word, Elizabeth Ryan mechanically drew forth from her bosom a folded square of paper. Pound took it from her, and unfolded it with his back to Ryan. When he faced about, Pound held the certificate in his left hand and a revolver in his right.

Ryan paid no heed to the pistol, beyond recognising it as one of his own – the fellow, in fact, to the one he at that moment carried in his own pocket; Pound's last transaction, as a member of Sundown's gang, having been to help himself to this and other trifles as keepsakes. The production of the weapon Ryan treated, or affected to treat, with contempt. The certificate took up his whole attention. Yet one glance, even in the moonlight, was sufficient to show him that the certificate was genuine.

"You may put them both away," was all he said. "But remember: to-morrow night, same spot and hour. Or let us say here, at this gate: it is farther from the house."

He turned to go, but suddenly recoiled, being face to face with his wife, who had struggled to her feet. With a strange wild cry the woman flung herself into his arms. Ryan caught her, held her one instant, then dashed her heavily to the ground, and fled like a murderer from the place.

The poor thing lay groaning, yet sobered.

"Ah, I remember," she moaned at last, gathering up her bruised and aching limbs. "I was drugged – by you!"

The look of terrible hatred which she darted at Jem Pound was ineffable but calm. He answered her with a stout denial:

"I gave you nothing but brandy, and that I gave you for the best. I didn't mean it to knock you over, but I'm not sorry it did. Bad as it was, it would have been worse if you had seen much more of him."

"Why? What did he say?"

"He said he wouldn't give us a farthing. No, not if you were starving. He said you were less than nothing to him now. He said we might do our worst, and the sooner hell swallowed both of us the better he'd like it."

Mrs. Ryan gave a little cry of pain and anger. She staggered across the dewy grass, and confronted Pound at arm's length. She was shaking and shivering like a withered leaf.

"Jem Pound," said she, "I will tell you what I have known for many weeks, but hidden from you. I will tell you where he has that money, or some of it."

"Where?" cried Pound.

She tapped him lightly on the chest.

"There!" said Mrs. Ryan.

"How the devil do you know?"

"By woman's wit. On that night, when my hand rested there on his breast for one moment, he pushed me from him. I remembered afterwards that he started from my hand as though I touched a wound. I did the same thing to-night, only on purpose, and you know how he took it: he flung me to the ground this time. Mark my words, there is that which he values more than anything else hung round his neck and resting there! Whatever it is, take it, Jem Pound! Do you hear? You are bad enough for anything: then take it – even if you have to take his life with it!"

Her voice was hoarse and horrible, yet so low that it could scarcely be heard. Without waiting for an answer, she turned swiftly away and disappeared in the darkness.

Jem Pound drew a long deep breath.

"This," said he, "is the best night's work I've done since I came back to the Old Country. This morning I didn't dream of anything so good. Now I see a better night's work not far ahead!"

He proceeded to carve a cake of black tobacco slowly and deliberately, then filled his pipe. As he did this, leaning with his broad back against the gate, a sound came to his ears across the silent sleeping meadows – a strange sound to him – the sound, in fact, of a woman's song. His pipe was by this time loaded, and the mouthpiece between his teeth. Moreover, the match-box was in his left hand and a match in his right. Yet Jem Pound actually did not strike that match until the strange sound had died away!

I know not what spirit was abroad that night to invest a simple, well-known drawing-room song with the sinews of Fate; yet not only in the fields, but far up the road, where Colonel Bristo was wandering alone in the faint light of the sickle moon, the low clear notes were borne out on the wings of the evening. The Colonel faced about at the first note, and walked back quite quickly. His solitary wanderings at all times of the day were a great weakness of the old fellow, but his daughter's singing was a greater; and she sang so seldom now. He walked on the wet grass at the roadside rather than lose a note through the noise of his own footsteps; and lo! when he came near the house, he descried a tall figure standing motionless in the very middle of the road.

Surely some spirit was abroad that night, that all the waking world drew near and listened to that song of Alice's! It should have been a greater song – noble poetry wedded to music such as the angels make in heaven and have sometimes – in golden ages gone by – breathed into the souls of men, who have found the secret too wondrous sweet and terrible to keep. To touch the sensibilities of the different unknown listeners, it should have been a mighty song indeed! But, you see, Alice herself knew nothing of what was happening; she was aware of only one listener, who was humbly standing by her side; and out of the pitiful fulness of her heart she sang the sad and simple words that you have heard often enough, no doubt:

 
Falling leaf and fading tree,
Lines of white in a sullen sea,
Shadows rising on you and me;
The swallows are making them ready to fly,
Wheeling out on a windy sky.
Good-bye, summer! good-bye, good-bye!
 

A thin film floated over the eyes of Colonel Bristo. The same thing had occasionally happened before when his daughter sang. But lately she had been singing so little, and the song was so sad, and the voice more plaintive than it had ever been formerly.

As for Miles, the other listener in the road, he stood like one entranced. Her singing had haunted his soul now many weeks; it was many weeks since he had heard it last – save in his dreams; besides, the words put the match to a desperate train of thought.

The last bars of the song, then, came as a shock to the audience of two outside in the road, who had not realised that the song would ever stop:

 
"What are we waiting for, you and I?"
A pleading look, a stifled cry;
"Good-bye for ever! good-bye, good-bye!"
 

The last notes of all were low, and the singer's best. They were charged with wild grief; they seemed to end in a half-sob of anguish. But the voice had caught all the passion of the words, and something more besides. For whom was this passion?

It all died away. The world outside was tamer than before; the sickle moon dipped down to rest below the hill beyond the village, and those lanes and meadows knew no such singing any more.

The tall listener in the road still gazed at the holland blind that flapped against the sash of the open window. It was all the sound that came from the room now. He was repeating the last words of the song, and weighing them.

"No, no," he was thinking, "if I may not live for her, what else is there to live for? God, let me die for her!"

A glowing red spot approached him through the darkness that had fallen upon the land; it was the Colonel's cigarette. It brought him back to the world as it was – his world, and a vile one.

"I was taking a little stroll," said Colonel Bristo. "Will you join me? I think Alice will sing no more to-night."

Meanwhile, in the room, the singer had risen. She meant to quietly put away the music, but it slipped from her fingers. She turned with wet gentle eyes to one who was speaking to her, then fled at his words from the room.

Yet Dick had only asked her: "Will you never, never forgive me?"



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