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The two went whirling round the empty room. Before they were half-way round, Alice exclaimed:
"You have cheated; never danced, indeed!"
He murmured that it was so many years ago, he thought he had forgotten. Having thus discovered that she could teach her pupil nothing, it was Alice's plain duty to stop; but this she forgot to do. Mr. Miles, for his part, said not a word, but held her firmly. He, in fact, waltzed better than any man she had ever danced with. Two rounds Ц three Ц six Ц without a word.
Even if they had not been dancing they might have failed to hear a buoyant footstep that entered the conservatory at this time; for the worst of an india-rubber sole is the catlike tread that it gives the most artless wearer. But it was an unfortunate circumstance that they did just then happen to be dancing.
There is no excuse for Miss Bristo, that I know of. Pleas of faulty training or simplicity within her years would, one feels, be futile. Without doubt she behaved as the girl of this period is not intended to behave; let her be blamed accordingly. She did not go unpunished.
After waltzing for no less a space than five minutes Ц in a ballroom bare as a crypt, in broad daylight, and in silence Ц Alice, happening to look up, saw a look on her partner's face which made her tremble. She had never seen a similar expression.
It was pale and resolute Ц stern, terrible. She disengaged herself with little ado, and sank quietly into a chair by the window.
"A fine 'one round'!" she said demurely; "but it shall be deducted from your allowance this evening."
She could not see him; he was behind her. His eyes were devouring the shapely little head dipped in the gold of the afternoon sun. Her face he could not see Ц only the tips of two dainty ears and they were pink. But a single lock of hair Ц a wilful lock that had got astray in the dance, and lay on her shoulder like a wisp of sunlit hay Ц attracted his attention, and held it. When he managed to release his eyes, they roved swiftly round the room, and finally rested upon another chair within his reach, on which lay two wax-candles, two dinner-knives, and a pair of scissors.
A click of steel an inch from her ear caused Alice to start from her chair and turn round. Mr. Miles Ц pale, but otherwise undisturbed Ц stood holding the scissors in his right hand, and in his left was a lock of her hair. For one moment Miss Bristo was dumb with indignation. Then her lips parted; but before she could say a word the door-handle turned, Mr. Miles dropped the scissors upon the chair and put his left hand in his pocket, and the head and shoulders of Colonel Bristo were thrust into the room.
"Ah, I have found you at last!" the old gentleman cried with an indulgent smile. "If you are at liberty, and Alice don't mind, we will speak of Ц that matter Ц in my study."
"My lesson is just over," said Miles, bowing to Alice. He moved towards the door; with his fingers upon the handle, he turned, and for an instant regarded Alice with a calm, insolent, yet tender gaze; then the door closed, and Alice was alone.
She heard the footsteps echo down the passage; she heard another door open and shut.
The next sound that reached her ears was at the other side of the room in which she sat. She glanced quickly toward the curtained door: a man stood between it and her. It was Dick.
Alice recoiled in her chair. She saw before her a face pale with passion; for the first time in her life she encountered the eyes of an angry man. She quailed; a strange thrill crept through her frame; she could only look and listen. It seemed an age before Dick spoke. When he did speak, it was in a voice far calmer than she expected. She did not know that the calm was forced, and therefore the more ominous.
"I have only one thing to ask," he began hurriedly, in a low tone: "was this a plot? If it was, do say so, and so far as I am concerned its effect shall be quick enough: I will go at once. Only I want to know the worst, to begin with."
Alice sat like a stone. She gave no sign that she had so much as heard him. Poor girl, the irony of Fate seemed directed against her! She had invited Dick on purpose to consult him about Mr. Miles, and now Ц and now Ч
"You don't speak," pursued Dick, less steadily; "but you must. I mean to have my answer before either of us leaves this room. I mean to know all there is to know. There shall be an end to this fooling between us two!"
"What right have you to speak to me like this?"
"The right of a true lover Ц hopeless of late, yet still that! Answer me: had you planned this?"
"You know that is absurd."
How coldly, how evenly she spoke! Was her heart of ice? But Dick Ц there was little of the "true lover" in his looks, and much of the true hater. Yet even now, one gentle word, one tender look from him, and tears of pity and penitence might still have flowed. His next words froze them.
"No conspiracy, then! Merely artless, honest, downright love-making; dancing Ц alone Ц and giving locks of hair and (though only by coincidence!) the man you loved once and enslaved for ever Ц this man of all others asked by you to come at this very hour, and, in fact, turning up in the middle of it! And this was chance. I am glad to hear it!"
Men have been called hard names for speaking to women less harshly than this Ц even on greater provocation; but let it be remembered that he had loved her long years better than his life; that he had wrenched himself from England and from her Ц for her sake; that during all that time her image had been graven on his soul. And, further, that he had led a rough life in rough places, where men lose their shallower refinements, and whence only the stout spirits emerge at all.
When recrimination becomes insult a woman is no longer defenceless; right or wrong in the beginning, she is right now; she needs no more than the consciousness of this to quicken her wit and whet her tongue.
"I do not understand you," exclaimed Alice, looking him splendidly in the face. "Have the goodness to explain yourself before I say the last word that shall ever pass between you and me."
"Yes, I will explain," cried Dick, beside himself Ц "I will explain your treatment of me! While you knew I was on my way to you Ц while I was on the very sea Ц you took away your love from me, and gave it to another man. Since then see how you have treated me! Well, that man Ц the man you flatter, and pet, and coquette with; the man who kennels here like a tame dog Ц is a rogue: a rogue and a villain, mark my words!"
In the midst of passion that gathered before his eyes a marble statue, pure and cold, seemed to rise out of the ground in front of him.
"One word," said Alice Bristo, in the kind of voice that might come from marble: "the last one. You spoke of putting an end to something existing between us Ц 'fooling' was the word you used. Well, there was something between us long ago, though you might have found a prettier word for it; but it also ended long ago; and you have known that some weeks. There has since been friendship; yes, you shall have an end put to that too, though you might have asked it differently. Stay, I have not finished. You spoke of Mr. Miles; most of what you said was beneath notice; indeed, you have so far lost self-control that I think you cannot know now what you said a minute ago. But you spoke of Mr. Miles in a cruel, wicked way. You have said behind his back what you dare not say to his face. He at least is generous and good; he at least never forgets that he is a gentleman; but then, you see, he is so infinitely nobler, and truer, and greater than you Ц this man you dare to call a villain!"
"You love him!" cried Dick fiercely.
Instead of answering, Alice lowered her eyes. Stung to the quick Ц sick and sore at heart Ц revenge came within her reach in too sweet a form to be resisted.
Never was lie better acted. Dick was staggered. He approached her unsteadily.
"It is a villain that you love!" he gasped. "I know it Ц a villain and an impostor! But I will unmask him with my own hands Ц so help me God!"
He raised his pale face upward as he spoke, smiting his palms together with a dull dead thud. Next moment he had vaulted through the open window by which Miles had entered so short a time before Ц and was gone.
Meanwhile an interview of a very different character took place in Colonel Bristo's sanctum. It ended thus:
"Then you are quite sure that this hundred will be enough for you to go on with?"
"More than enough; fifty would have done. Another Queensland mail is due a month hence; and they can never fail me twice running."
"But you say you are so far up country that you do not send down to meet every mail. Your partner may not have thought you likely to run short."
"I wired him some weeks ago that I had miscalculated damages. I should have had my draft by this mail but for the floods. I feel confident they have prevented him sending down in time; there has been mention of these floods several times in the papers."
"Well, my dear Miles, if you want more, there is more where this came from. I cashed the cheque myself this morning, by the way; I happened to be in the bank, and I thought you would like it better. Here they are Ц ten tens."
"Colonel Bristo, I can never express Ц "
"Don't try, sir. You saved my life."
AN OLD FRIEND AND AN OLD MEMORY
When Dick Edmonstone opened the garden gate of Iris Lodge he was no longer excited. The storm that had so lately shaken his frame and lashed his spirit had spent its frenzy; no such traces as heaving breast or quickened pulse remained to tell of it. The man was calm Ц despair had calmed him; the stillness of settled gloom had entered his soul. His step was firm but heavy; the eye was vacant; lips like blanched iron; the whole face pale and rigid.
These are hall-marks graven by misery on the face of man; they are universal and obvious enough, though not always at the first glance. For instance, if prepared with a pleasant surprise for another, one is naturally slow to detect his dismal mood. Thus, no sooner had Dick set foot upon the garden path than the front door was flung open, and there stood Fanny, beaming with good-humour, good news on the tip of her tongue. It was like sunrise facing a leaden bank of western clouds.
"Oh, Dick, there is someone waiting to see you! You will never guess; it is a bush friend of yours. Such an amusing creature!" she added sotto voce.
Dick stood still on the path and groaned. "Biggs!" he muttered in despair.
Nothing directs attention to the face so surely as the voice. There was such utter weariness in this one word that Fanny glanced keenly at her brother, saw the dulness of his eyes, read for apathy agony, and knew that instant that there had been a cruel crisis in his affair with Alice Bristo.
Instead of betraying her insight, she went quickly to him with a bright smile, laid her hand on his arm, and said:
"His name is not Biggs, Dick dear. It is Ц but you will be very glad to see him! Come in at once."
A flash of interest lit up Dick's clouded face; he followed Fanny into the hall, and there, darkening the nearest doorway, stood a burly figure. The light of the room being behind this man, Dick could not at once distinguish his features. While he hesitated, a well-remembered falsetto asked if he had forgotten his old mate. Then Dick sprang forward with outstretched hand.
"Dear old Jack, as I live!"
"Dear old humbug! Let me tell you you've done your level best to miss me. An hour and a half have I been here, a nuisance to these ladies Ц "
"No, no, Dick; Mr. Flint has done nothing but entertain us," put in Mrs. Edmonstone.
"A charitable version," said Flint, bowing clumsily. "But I tell you, my boy, in half-an-hour my train goes."
"Don't delude yourself," said Dick; "you won't get off so easily to-night, let alone half-an-hour."
"Must, sir," Jack Flint replied. "Leave Dover by to-night's boat Ц holiday. If you'd only come in sooner! I wonder now where he's been?" Flint added, with a comic expression on his good-natured face.
"No place that I wouldn't have left for an hour or two with you, old chap," said Dick in a strange tone; "nowhere very pleasant."
Nothing better could have happened to Dick just then than seeing the chum from whom he had parted nearly three years ago. It was as though his good angel had stored up for him a sovereign simple, and administered it at the moment it was most needed. In the presence of Flint he had escaped for a few minutes from the full sense of his anguish. But now, by an unlucky remark, Jack had undone his good work as unconsciously as he had effected it. Dick remembered bitterly that long ago he had told his friend all about his love Ц as it then stood.
"Mr. Flint has been telling us some of your adventures, which it seems we should never have heard from you," observed Fanny, reproachfully.
This was quite true. Once snubbed at Graysbrooke, his system of silence on that subject had been extended to Iris Lodge. One set of people had voted his experiences tiresome; that was enough for him. This was doubtless unfair to his family, but it was not unnatural in Dick. He was almost morbid on the point.
"Indeed!" he replied; "but suppose he gives us some of his Irish adventures instead? How many times have they tried to pot you, my unjust landlord? You must know, mother, that this is not only my ex-partner in an honourable commercial enterprise Ц not only 'our Mr. Flint' that used to be Ц but John Flint, Esq., J.P., of Castle Flint, county Kerry; certainly a landholder, and of course Ц it goes without saying Ц a tyrant."
"Really?" said Mrs. Edmonstone. "He did not tell us that."
"It's the unhappy fact," said Flint, gloomily. "A few hundred acres of hills and heather, and a barn called by courtesy 'Castle'; those are my feudal possessions. The scenery is gorgeous, but the land Ц is a caution!"
"Barren?" asked Dick.
"As Riverina in a drought."
"And the tenants?"
"Oh, as to the tenants, we hit it off pretty well. It's in North Kerry they're lively. I'm in the south, you see, and there they're peaceable enough. Laziness is their worst crime. I do all I can for 'em, but I don't see how I can hold on much longer."
"No," said Flint, warmly; "I'd rather emigrate, and take the whole boiling of them with me; take up new country, and let them select on it. Dick, you savage, don't laugh; I'm not joking. I've thought about it often."
"Would you really like to go back to Australia, Mr. Flint?" Mrs. Edmonstone asked, glancing at the same time rather anxiously at her son.
"Shouldn't mind, madam," returned Flint.
"No more should I!" broke in Dick, in a harsh voice.
Flint looked anxiously at his friend, and made a mental note that Dick had not found all things quite as he expected. For a minute no one spoke; then Fanny took the opportunity of returning to her former charge.
"We have heard some of your adventures which you seemed determined to keep to yourself. I think it was very mean of you, and so does mamma. Oh, Dick, why Ц why did you never tell us about the bush-ranger?"
Mrs. Edmonstone gazed fondly at her son Ц and shivered.
"Has he told you that?" Dick asked quickly. "Jack, old chap" Ц rather reproachfully Ц "it was a thing I never spoke of."
"Nonsense, my dear fellow!"
"No, it's a fact. I never cared to talk about it, I felt it so strongly."
"Too strongly," said Flint; "I said so at the time."
For a little while Dick was silent; then he said:
"Since he has told you, it doesn't matter. I can only say it nearly drove me out of my mind; it was the bitterest hour of my life!"
A little earlier that day this would have been true.
His mother's eyes filled with tears. "I can understand your feeling, dear Dick," she murmured; "yet I wish you had told us Ц though, indeed, it would have made me miserable if you had written it. But now Mr. Flint has given us a graphic account of the whole incident. Thank Heaven you were spared, my boy!"
"Thank Sundown," said Dick dryly.
"Oh, yes!" cried Fanny. "Noble fellow! Poor, wicked, generous man! I didn't think such robbers existed; I thought they went out with wigs and patches, a hundred years ago."
"So they did," muttered Flint. "They're extinct as the dodo. I never could make this one out Ц a deep dog."
"Oh, sir," exclaimed Mrs. Edmonstone, "do you think there is no spark of goodness in the worst natures? of truth in the falsest? of generosity in the most selfish?"
Jack Flint looked quaintly solemn; his face was in shadow, luckily.
"Yes," said Dick, gravely, "my mother is right; there was a good impulse left in that poor fellow, and if you find gold in an outlaw and a thief, you may look for it anywhere. But in my opinion there was more than a remnant of good in that man. Think of it. He saved me from being knifed, to begin with; well, it was to his own interest to do that. But after that he took pity, and left us our money. That needed more than a good impulse; it needed a force of character which few honest men have. Try and realise his position Ц a price upon him, his hand against the world and the world's hand against him, a villain by profession, not credited with a single virtue except courage, not bound by a single law of God or man; a man you would have thought incapable of compassion; and yet Ц well, you know what he did."
There was a manly fervour in his voice which went straight to the hearts of his mother and sister. They could not speak. Even Flint forgot to look sceptical.
"If it had not meant so much to me, that hundred pounds," Dick continued, as though arguing with himself, "it is possible that I might think less of the fellow. I don't know, but I doubt it, for we had no notion then what that hundred would turn to. As it is, I have thought of it very often. You remember, Jack, how much more that hundred seemed to me at that time than it really was, and how much less to you?"
"It was a hundred and thirty," said Flint; "I remember that you didn't forget the odd thirty then."
"Dick," Fanny presently exclaimed, out of a brown study, "what do you think you would do if Ц you ever met that bushranger again. I mean, if he was at your mercy, you know?"
Flint sighed, and prepared his spirit for heroics.
"No use thinking," Dick answered. "By this time he's a life Ц if they didn't hang him."
Flint became suddenly animated.
"What?" he cried, sharply.
"Why, the last I heard of him Ц the day I sailed from Melbourne Ц was, that he was captured somewhere up in Queensland."
"If you had sailed a day later you would have heard more."
"What?" asked Dick, in his turn.
"The same night. He got clean away from the police-barracks at Mount Clarence Ц that was the little Queensland township. They never caught him. They believe he managed to clear out of the country Ц to America, probably."
"By Jove, I'm not sorry!" exclaimed Dick.
"Here are some newspaper cuttings about him," continued Flint, taking the scraps from his pocketbook and handing them to Dick. "Read them afterwards; they will interest you. He was taken along with another fellow, but the other fellow was taken dead Ц shot through the heart. That must have been the one he called Ben; for the big brute who tried to knife you had disappeared some time before. When they were taken they were known to have a lot of gold somewhere Ц I mean, Sundown was Ц for they had just stuck up the Mount Clarence bank."
"Yes, I heard that when I heard of the capture."
"Well, it was believed that Sundown feared an attack from the police, and planted the swag, went back to it after his escape, and got clear away with the lot. But nothing is known; for neither Sundown nor the gold was ever seen again."
"Mamma, aren't you glad he escaped," cried Fanny, with glowing cheeks. "It may be wicked, but I know I am! Now, what would you do, Dick?"
"What's the good of talking about it?" said Dick.
"Then I'll tell you what I'd do; I'd hide this poor Sundown from justice; I'd give him a chance of trying honesty, for a change Ц that's what I should do! And if I were you, I should long and long and long to do it!"
Flint could not help smiling. Dick's sentiment on the subject was sufficiently exaggerated; but this young lady! Did this absurd romanticism run in the family? If so, was it the father, or the grandfather, or the great-grandfather that died in a madhouse?
But Dick gazed earnestly at his sister. Her eyes shone like living coals in the twilight of the shaded room. She was imaginative; and the story of Dick and the bushranger appealed at once to her sensibilities and her sympathy. She could see the night attack in the silent forest, and a face of wild, picturesque beauty Ц the ideal highwayman Ц was painted in vivid colour on the canvas of her brain.
"Fanny, I half think I might be tempted to do something like that," said Dick gently. "I have precious few maxims, but one is that he who does me a good turn gets paid with interest Ц though I have a parallel one for the man who works me a mischief."
"So it is a good turn not to rob a man whom you've already assaulted!" observed Flint ironically.скачать книгу бесплатно