Ernest Hornung.

At Large



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Deep in his heart, poor Dick had counted on being something of a lion (it was only human) on his return from Australia, at least on one hearth besides his own; and lo! a lion occupied that hearth before him – a lion, moreover, of the very same type. The Bristos didn't want to hear Australian experiences, because they had already heard such as could never be surpassed, from the lips of Miles; their palate for bush yarns was destroyed. Dick found himself cut out, in his own line, by Miles. His friends were very hospitable and very kind, but they had no wish to learn his adventures. And those adventures! How he had hoarded them in his mind! how he had dreamed in his vanity of enthralling the Colonel and thrilling Alice! He had hoped at least to interest them; and even in that he failed. Each little reminiscence yawned over, each comparison or allusion ignored – these were slight things with sharp edges. With Alice, it more than once happened that when he touched on his strange experiences she forgot to listen, which wounded him; or if she made him repeat it, it was to cite some far more wonderful story of Mr. Miles – which sowed salt in the wound. Of course vanity was its own cure, and he dropped the subject of Australia altogether; but he was very full of his romantic life, and this took him a day or two, and cost him some moments of bitterness.

So Dick's first fortnight in England passed, and on the whole he believed he had made some sort of progress with Alice. Moreover, he began rather to like wooing her on his merits. On consideration, it was more satisfactory, perhaps, than reviving the old boy-and-girl sentiment as if there had been no four years' hiatus; more satisfactory, because he never doubted that he would win her in the end. It is to be noted that his ideas about one or two things changed in a remarkable degree during those first days.

One morning, when they chanced to be particularly confidential together, Dick said suddenly:

"By the bye, how did you come to know this – Mr. Miles?" He had almost said "this fellow Miles."

"Has papa never told you?" Alice asked in surprise.

"No, never."

"Nor Mr. Miles himself? Ah, no: he would be the last person to speak of it. But I will tell you. Well, then, it was when we were down in Sussex. Papa was bathing (though I had forbidden it), when he was seized with cramp, out of his depth. He must certainly have been drowned; but a great handsome fellow, dressed like a fisherman, saw his distress, rushed into the sea, swam out, and rescued him with the help of a boat. Poor papa, when he came to himself, at once offered the man money; and here came the surprise. The man laughed, refused the money, dived his hand into his own pocket, and threw a sovereign to the boatman who had helped!"

Dick's interest was thoroughly aroused, and he showed it; but he thought to himself: "That was unnecessary. Why couldn't the fellow keep to the part he was playing?"

And Alice continued: "Then papa found out that he was a gentleman in disguise – a Mr.

Miles, from Sydney! He had been over some months, and was seeing England in thorough fashion. Indeed, he seemed a regular boatman, with his hands all hard and seamed with tar."

"And your father made friends with him?"

"Naturally; he brought him up to the hotel, where I heard all about the affair. You may imagine the state I was in! After that we saw a good deal of him down there, and papa got to like him very much, and asked him to come and stay with us when he grew tired of that kind of life and returned to London. And that's all."

"How long did you say it is since he saved your father's life?" Dick asked, after a short pause.

"Let me see, it's – yes, not quite a month ago."

Dick gave vent to a scarcely audible whistle.

"And he has no other friends in England?"

"Not that I know of."

"And writes no letters nor receives any?" (He was speaking from his own observation.)

"Not that I know of. But how should I know? or what does it matter?"

"In fact, he is a friendless adventurer, whom you don't know a thing about beyond what you have told me?"

Alice suddenly recoiled, and a dangerous light gleamed in her eyes.

"What do you mean? I don't understand you. Why all these questions?"

Dick regarded her unflinchingly. He knew what an honest answer would cost him, yet he was resolved to speak out.

"Because," said he, impressively and slowly, "because I don't believe Mr. Miles is what he makes himself out to be."

He knew that he had made some advance in her esteem, he knew that these words would lose him all that he had gained, and he was right. A flash of contempt lit up the girl's eyes and pierced to his soul. "Noble rival!" said she; and without another word swept haughtily past him – from the garden where they had been walking – into the house.

VII
SOUTH KENSINGTON

The first act of every Australian who landed in England that summer was, very naturally, to visit the Exhibition – their Exhibition – at South Kensington.

Dick was not an Australian, and it therefore did not consume him to put off South Kensington until he had been a week or so quietly at home. Nevertheless he was sufficiently eager to inspect the choice products of a land that he regarded with gratitude as indeed his alma mater; and still more eager to expatiate on all that was to be seen to insular friends, who believed that New Zealand was an inland colony, and who asked if Victoria was not the capital of Sydney. On that very first evening he had made a sort of offer to escort Colonel Bristo and Alice; but there he was too late; and he experienced the first of a series of petty mortifications – already mentioned – which originated from a common cause. Mr. Miles had already been with the Bristos to the Exhibition, and had proved a most entertaining showman. He had promised to accompany them again in a week or two; would not Dick join the party? For three visits would be more than impartial persons, such as the Colonel and his daughter, were likely to care about – even with so splendid a cicerone as Mr. Miles.

Of course, Dick was not going to play second fiddle to the Australian deliberately and with his eyes open. He made his excuses, and never alluded to the matter again. But one day, after a morning's business in the City, he went alone.

When he was once in the vast place, and had found his way to the Australian section, his interest speedily rose to a high pitch. It is one thing to go to an exhibition to be instructed, or to wonder what on earth half the things are; it is something quite different to find yourself among familiar objects and signs which are not Greek to you, to thread corridors lined with curios which you hail as the household gods of your exile. Instead of the bored outsider, with his shallow appreciation of everything, you become at once a discriminate observer and intelligent critic, and sightseeing for once loses its tedium. Dick wandered from aisle to aisle, from stand to stand, in rapt attention. At every turn he found something of peculiar interest to him: here it was a view of some township whose every stick he knew by heart; there a sample of wood bearing on the printed label under the glass the name of a sheep station where he had stayed time out of number.

The golden arch at the entrance to the Victorian Court arrested him, as it arrested all the world; but even more fascinating in his eyes was the case of model nuggets close at hand. He heard a small boy asking his mamma if they were all real, and he heard mamma reply with bated breath that she supposed so; then the small boy smacked his lips, and uttered awed (though slangy) ejaculations, and the enlightened parent led him on to wonders new. But Dick still gazed at the nuggets; he was wondering – if he could have it all over again – whether he would rather pick up one of these fellows than win again their equivalent through toil and enterprise, step by step, when a smart slap on the back caused him to turn sharp round with an exclamation.

A short, stout, red-faced man stood at his elbow with arms akimbo, and grinned familiarly in his face. Dick looked him up and down with a stare of indignation; he could not for the life of him recognise the fellow; yet there he stood, his red-stubbled chin thrust forward, and a broad, good-humoured grin on his apish face, and dressed gorgeously. He wore a high white hat tilted backward, a snowy waistcoat, a dazzling tie, and a black frock-coat, with an enormous red rose in the button hole. His legs, which now formed two sides of an equilateral triangle with the floor for its base, were encased in startling checks, and his feet, which were small, in the glossiest patent leather. His left hand rested gloved upon his hip, and four fingers of his ungloved right hand were thrust into his waistcoat pocket, leaving the little one in the cold with a diamond of magnitude flashing from its lowest joint.

"Euchred?" this gentleman simply asked, in a nasal tone of immense mirth.

"If you mean do I know you, I don't," said Dick, only a degree less haughtily than if he had come straight from Oxford instead of from the bush.

"What! you don't remember me?" exclaimed the man more explicitly, his fingers itching to leap from the waistcoat-pocket.

Dick stared an uncompromising denial.

The diamond flashed in his eyes, and a small piece of pasteboard was held in front of him, on which were engraved these words:

"The Hon. Stephen Biggs."

Dick repressed an insane impulse to explode with laughter.

"What! of Marshall's Creek?"

"The same."

Dick stretched out his hand.

"A thousand pardons, my dear fellow; but how could I expect to see you here? And – the Honourable?"

"Ah!" said Mr. Biggs, with legitimate pride, "that knocks you, old man! It was only the Legislative Assembly when you and me was mates; it's the Legislative Council now. I'm in the Upper 'Ouse, my son!"

"I'm sure I congratulate you," said Dick.

"But 'ang the 'andle," continued the senator magnanimously; "call me Steve just the same."

"Well, it's like the whiff of the gum leaves to see you again, Steve. When did you arrive?"

"Last week. You see," confidentially, "I'm in my noo rig out – the best your London can do; though, after all, this Colony'll do as good any day in the week. I can't see where it is you do things better than we do. However, come and have a drink, old man."

In vain Dick protested that he was not thirsty; Mr. Biggs was. Besides, bushmen are not to be denied or trifled with on such points. The little man seized Dick's arm, marched him to the nearest bar, and called for beer.

"Ah!" sighed Mr. Biggs, setting down his tankard, "this is the one point where the Old Country licks us. This Colony can't come within a cooee of you with the beer, and I'm the first to own it! We kep' nothing like this at my place on the Murray, now did we?"

Dick was forced to shake his head, for, in fact, the Honourable Stephen had formerly kept a flourishing "hotel" on the Murray, where the Colonial beer had been no better than – other Colonial beer – a brew with a bad name. Dick observed an odd habit Mr. Biggs had of referring to his native heath as though he were still on it, speaking of his country as he would have spoken of it out there – as "this Colony."

The Honourable Steve now insisted on tacking himself on to Dick, and they roamed the Exhibition together. Biggs talked volubly of his impressions of England and the English (he had crowded a great deal into his first few days, and had already "done" half London), of the Exhibition, of being f?ted by the flower of Britain and fed on the fat of the land; and though his English was scarcely impeccable a vein of shrewd common sense ran through his observations which was as admirable in the man (he had risen very rapidly even for Australia) as it was characteristic of his class.

"By-the-bye," said Mr. Biggs, after they had freely criticised the romantic group of blacks and fauna in the South Australian Court, "have you seen the Hut?"

"No," said Dick.

"Then come on; it's the best thing in the whole show; and," dropping his voice mysteriously, "there's the rummest go there you ever saw in your life."

Everybody remembers the Settler's Hut. It was a most realistic property, with its strips of bark and its bench and wash-basin, though some bushmen were heard to deny below their breath the existence of any hut so spick and span "where they come from."

"Good!" said Dick, as soon as he saw the Hut. "That's the real thing, if you like."

"Half a shake," said Mr. Biggs, "and I'll show you something realler." He drew Dick to the window of the hut. "Look there!" he whispered, pointing within.

Three or four persons were inspecting the interior, and debating aloud as to how they personally should care to live in such a place; and each, as he surveyed the rude walls, the huge fireplace, the primitive cooking utensils, reserved his most inquisitive scrutiny for an oddly-dressed man who sat motionless and silent on the low bank, as though the Hut belonged to him. A more colourable inference would have been that the man belonged to the Hut; and in that case he must have been admitted the most picturesque exhibit in the Colonial Courts, as he looked the most genuine; for the man was dressed in the simple mode of an Australian stockman, and looked the part from the thin soles of his plain side-spring boots to the crown of his cabbage-tree hat. From under the broad brim of the latter a pair of quick, dark eyes played restlessly among the people who passed in and out, or thronged the door of the hut. His shoulders were bent, and his head habitually thrust forward, so that it was impossible, in the half-light, to clearly make out the features; but long, iron-gray locks fell over the collar of his coarse tweed coat, and a bushy, pepper-and-salt beard hid the throat and the upper portion of the chest. Old though the man undoubtedly was, his massive frame suggested muscularity that must once have been enormous, and must still be considerable.

"Now, what do you think of that cove?" inquired the Hon. Stephen Biggs in a stage whisper.

"Why," said Dick, who was frowning in a puzzled manner, "he looks the real thing too. I suppose that's what he's there for. Now, I wonder where – "

"Ah, but it ain't that," broke in Biggs, "I've been here every day, almost, and when I see him here every day, too, I soon found out he don't belong to the place. No; he's an ordinary customer, who pays his bob every morning when the show opens, and stays till closing-time. He's to be seen all over the Exhibition, but generally at the Hut – most always about the Hut."

"Well, if he isn't paid for it, what on earth is his object?" said Dick, as they moved away.

"Ah," said Mr. Biggs darkly, "I have a notion of my own about that, though some of the people that belong to this here place share it with me."

"And?" said Dick.

"And," said Mr. Biggs with emphasis, "in my opinion the fellow's the dead spit of a detective; what's more, you may take your Colonial oath he is one!"

"Well," said Dick coolly, "I've seen him before, though I can't tell where. I remember his bulk and shape better than his face."

"Yes? By Jove, my boy, you may be the very man he's after!"

Mr. Biggs burst into a loud guffaw; then turned grave in a moment, and repeated impressively: "A detective – my oath!"

"But he looks a genuine Australian, if ever I saw one," objected Dick.

"Well, maybe he's what he looks."

"Then do you think he's come over on purpose? It must be a big job."

"I think he has. It must."

"Ah," said Dick, "then I have seen him out there somewhere; probably in Melbourne."

"Quite likely," said Mr. Biggs. "There are plenty of his sort in this Colony, and as sharp as you'll find anywhere else, my word!"

A little later they left the Exhibition, and spent the evening together.

VIII
THE ADMIRABLE MILES

If Mr. Miles was systematically "spoilt" by the Bristos, he was more or less entitled to the treatment, since it is not every guest who has had the privilege of saving his host from drowning. But Mr. Miles was in other ways an exceptional visitor. He contrived to create entertainment instead of requiring it. He was no anxiety to anybody; he upset no household routine; he might have remained for months, and not outstayed his welcome; from the first he made himself at home in the most agreeable fashion. In a word, he was a very charming man.

Moreover, he was unlike other men: he was far more independent, and far less conventional. It was impossible to measure him by a commonplace standard. He had little peculiarities which would not have recommended other men, but which in his case were considered virtues: he was quite artless in matters of etiquette. Indeed, he was a splendid specimen of free, ingenuous manhood – an ideal Australian, according to the notions of the old country.

The least breath against their guest on conventional grounds would have been indignantly resented by the Graysbrooke people. They put upon his peculiarities an interpretation which in Mrs. Parish's case resolved itself into a formula:

"They are so free-and-easy out there; they despise conventionality; they are natural. Oh that we were all Australians!" (Mr. Miles was the one Australian of her acquaintance.)

Thus when he swore unmistakably at a clumsy oarsman while piloting the ladies through a crowded lock, the offence was hushed up with a formula; and so were other offences, since formulas will cover anything.

One day Mrs. Parish, going into the drawing-room, paused on the threshold with an angry sniff.

"Smoke – in here! It is the very first time in all these years," severely to Alice, "that I have ever known your papa – "

"It was not papa, it was Mr. Miles," said Alice quietly. "He walked in with his pipe, and I really did not like to tell him. I believe he has gone for more tobacco."

"Why, how stupid of me! Of course, with Mr. Miles it is quite different." (Mrs. Parish assumed an indulgent tone.) "He is not used to such restraints. You were quite right to say nothing about it. He shall smoke where he likes."

Again the little old lady came to Alice, and said very gravely:

"My dear, did you notice the way our visitor refused the hock this evening? Of course they do not drink such stuff in the bush, and he must have what he is accustomed to. I will arrange with Tomlin to have the whisky decanter placed quietly in front of him for the future."

Alice, for her part, not only permitted but abetted this system of indulgence; for she agreed with Mrs. Parish that the guest was a noble creature, for whose personal comfort it was impossible to show too much solicitude – which, indeed, was the least they could do. He had saved her father's life.

That incident – which she had related to Dick with a wonderful absence of feminine exaggeration – had been in itself enough to plant in her heart a very real regard for Mr. Miles. That was but natural; but one or two other things which came to her knowledge furthered this regard.

One Saturday morning in Kingston market-place Alice met a bosom friend, who informed her that she had seen the Graysbrooke pleasure-boat being towed up-stream by a tall gentleman – ("So handsome, my dear; who is he?") – while a miserable, half-starved wretch sat luxuriously in the stern-sheets. Rallied with this, the Australian's brick-dust complexion became a shade deeper. Then he made a clean breast of the affair, in his usual quiet tone, but with a nearer approach to diffidence than he had yet shown them. He had gone out for a solitary pull, and had no sooner started than a cadaverous creature with a tow-rope pestered him for a job. Miles had refused the man; doubted his strength to tow a flea with a silk thread; and observed that he, Miles, was more fit to tow the other, if it came to that. At this, Miles, being sworn at for making game of a starving man, had promptly landed, forced the man, speechless with amazement, into the boat, towed him to Kingston, and left him to a good dinner, with some wholesome advice touching immediate emigration.

A few days later, at dusk on a wet afternoon, Mrs. Parish, from her bedroom window, saw Mr. Miles walk quickly up the drive in his shirt-sleeves. It transpired that he had given his coat to a ragged, shivering tramp on the London road – plus the address of the Emigration Office.

"You see," he said, on both these occasions, "I never saw anything half so bad in my own country. If you aren't used to it, it knocks a man's heart to see a poor devil so far gone as all that."

In short, Mr. Miles exhibited to the Bristos, on several occasions, a propensity to odd and impulsive generosity; and the point told considerably in their general regard for the man, which day by day grew more profound.

Among other peculiarities, so excellently appreciated, Mr. Miles had a singular manner of speaking. It was an eminently calm manner; but for the ring of quiet audacity in every tone, it might have been called a subdued manner. He never raised his voice; he never spoke with heat. When he said to Colonel Bristo, clinging to him in the sea, "If you hang on like that I must fell you," his tone was as smooth as when he afterwards apologised for the threat. When he paid Alice his first compliment he did so without the smallest hesitation, and in his ordinary tone; and his compliments were of the most direct order. They once heard him threaten to thrash a bargee for ill-treating a horse, and they were amazed when the man sulkily desisted; the threat was so gently and dispassionately uttered. As for his adventures, they were told with so much of detail and gravity that the manner carried conviction where the matter was most fantastic. Miles was the best of "good company." Apart from the supreme service rendered to him, Colonel Bristo was fully persuaded that he was entertaining the best fellow in the world. Add to this that Mrs. Parish adored the handsome Australian, while Alice meekly revered him, and it will be easily seen that a hostile opinion of their hero was well calculated to recoil on its advocate.



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