Ernest Hornung.

At Large



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"It is a good turn to save a man's life."

"True; but you seem to think more of your money than your life!"

"I believe I did four years ago," said Dick, smiling, but he checked his smile when Flint looked at his watch and hastily rose.

Dick expostulated, almost to the extent of bluster, but quite in vain; Flint was already shaking hands with the ladies.

"My dear fellow," said he, "I leave these shores to-night; it's my annual holiday. I'm going to forget my peasants for a few weeks in Paris and Italy. If I lose this train I lose to-night's boat – I found out that before I came; so good-bye, my – "

"No, I'm coming to the station," said Dick; "at least I stickle for that last office."

Mrs. Edmonstone hoped that Mr. Flint – her boy's best friend, as she was assured – would see his way to calling on his way home and staying a day or two. Mr. Flint promised; then he and Dick left the house.

They were scarcely in the road before Flint stopped, turned, laid a hand on each of Dick's shoulders, and quickly delivered his mind:

"There's something wrong. I saw it at once. Tell me."

Dick lowered his eyes before his friend's searching gaze.

"Oh, Jack," he answered, sadly, "it is all wrong!"

And before they reached the station Flint knew all that there was to know – an abridged but unvarnished version – of the withering and dying of Dick's high hopes.

They talked softly together until the train steamed into the station; and then it was Dick who at the last moment returned to a matter just touched in passing:

"As to this dance to-night – you say I must go?"

"Of course you must go. It would never do to stay away. For one thing, your friend, the Colonel might be hurt and bothered, and he is now your best friend, mind. Then you must put a plucky face on it; she mustn't see you cave in after the first facer. I half think it isn't all up yet; you can't tell."

Dick shook his head.

"I would rather not go; it will be wormwood to me; you know what it will be: the two together. And I know it's all up. You don't understand women, Jack."

"Do you?" asked the other, keenly.

"She couldn't deny that – that – I can't say it, Jack."

"Ah, but you enraged her first! Anyway, you ought to go to-night for your people's sake. Your sister's looking forward to it tremendously; never been to a ball with you before; she told me so. By Jove! I wished I was going myself."

"I wish you were, instead of me."

"Nonsense! I say, stand clear. Good-bye!"

Away went the train and Jack Flint. And Dick stood alone on the platform – all the more alone because his hand still tingled from the pressure of that honest grip; because cheering tones still rang in his ears, while his heart turned sick, and very lonely.

XI
DRESSING, DANCING, LOOKING ON

The Bristos dined early that evening, and dressed afterwards; but only the Colonel and Miles sat down.

Mrs. Parish was far too busy, adding everywhere finishing touches from her own deft hand; while as for Alice, she took tea only, in her room.

When Mr. Miles went up-stairs to dress, the red sunlight still streamed in slanting rays through the open window. His room was large and pleasant, and faced the drive.

Mr. Miles appeared to be in excellent spirits. He whistled softly to himself – one of Alice's songs; a quiet smile lurked about the corners of his mouth; but since his yellow moustache was long and heavy, this smile was more apparent in the expression of the eyes. He moved about very softly for such a heavy man – almost noiselessly, in fact; but this practice was habitual with him.

His dress-clothes were already laid out on the bed; they seemed never to have been worn. His portmanteau, which stood in one corner, also appeared to have seen little service: it would have been hard to find a scratch on the leather, and the glossy surface bore but one porter's label. But, naturally enough, Miles's belongings were new: a fresh outfit from head to heel is no slight temptation to the Australian in London.

The first step towards dressing for a ball is to undress; the first step towards undressing is to empty one's pockets. With Miles this evening this was rather an interesting operation. It necessitated several niceties of manipulation, and occupied some little time. Miles carefully drew down the blinds as a preliminary, and bolted the door.

He then crossed to the mantel-piece, lit the gas, and felt in his breast-pocket.

The first thing to be removed from this pocket was an envelope – an envelope considerably thickened by its contents, which crackled between the fingers. Miles dropped the envelope into the fender after withdrawing the contents. These he smoothed out upon the mantel-piece; he fairly beamed upon them; they were ten Bank of England ten-pound notes. Then he counted them, folded them into small compass, and transferred them to the trousers-pocket of his evening dress. In doing this his smile became so broad that his whistling ended rather abruptly. It was a pleasant smile.

The next incumbrance of which he relieved himself came from that same breast-pocket; but it was less easily placed elsewhere – so much less that the whistling was dropped altogether, and, instead of smiling, Mr. Miles frowned. Nay, a discovery that his dress-coat had no breast-pocket was followed by quite a volley of oaths. Swearing, however, is a common failing of the most estimable bushmen; so that, coming from a man like Miles, the words meant simply nothing. Miles then tried the trousers-pocket which did not contain the bank-notes; but though the article was – of its kind – remarkably small, it was obviously too large for such a pocket, and for the tail-pockets it was too heavy. Mr. Miles looked seriously put out. His face wore just that expression which might be produced by the rupture of a habit or rule of life that has become second nature. In despair and disgust he dropped the thing into his travelling bag, which he was careful to lock at once, and placed the key in the pocket with the notes: the thing was a small revolver.

There followed, from the waistcoat, penknife, pencilcase, watch and chain, and, lastly, something that created a strange and instant change in the expression of Mr. Miles; and this, though it was the veriest trifle, lying in a twisted scrap of printed paper. He spread and smoothed out the paper just as he had done with the notes, and something was displayed on its surface: something – to judge by the greedy gaze that devoured it – of greater value than the bank-notes, and to be parted with less willingly than the revolver. It was a lock of light-coloured hair.

Mr. Miles again unlocked his travelling bag, and took from it a packet of oiled-silk, a pair of scissors, tape, a needle and thread. It is a habit of many travellers to have such things always about them. Miles, for one, was very handy in the use of them, so that in about ten minutes he produced a very neat little bag, shaped like an arc, and hung upon a piece of tape with ends sewn to the ends of the chord. Holding this bag in his left hand, he now took very carefully, between the thumb and finger of his right hand, the lock of light-coloured hair. He let it roll in his palm, he placed his finger tips in the mouth of the little bag, then paused, as if unwilling to let the hair escape his hand, and, as he paused, his face bent down until his beard touched his wrist. Had not the notion been wildly absurd, one who witnessed the action might have expected Mr. Miles to press his lips to the soft tress that nestled in his palm; but, indeed, he did nothing of the kind. He jerked up his head suddenly, slipped the tress into its little case, and began at once to stitch up the opening. As he did this, however, he might have been closing the tomb upon all he loved – his face was so sad. When the thread was secured and broken, he loosed his collar and shirt-band and hung the oiled-silk bag around his neck.

At that moment a clock on the landing, chiming the three-quarters after eight, bade him make haste. There was good reason, it seemed, why he should be downstairs before the guests began to arrive.

In the drawing-room he found Colonel Bristo and Mrs. Parish. In face benevolent rather than strong, there was little in Colonel Bristo to suggest at any time the Crimean hero; he might have been mistaken for a prosperous stockbroker, but for a certain shyness of manner incompatible with the part. To-night, indeed, the military aspect belonged rather to the lady housekeeper; for rustling impatiently in her handsome black silk gown, springing up repeatedly at the sound of imaginary wheels, Mrs. Parish resembled nothing so much as an old war horse scenting battle. She welcomed the entrance of Miles with effusion, but Miles paid her little attention, and as little to his host. He glanced quickly round the room, and bit his lip with vexation; Miss Bristo was as yet invisible. He crossed the hall by a kind of instinct, and looked into the ballroom, and there he found her. She had flitted down that moment.

Her dress was partly like a crystal fall, and partly like its silver spray; it was all creamy satin and tulle. Or so, at least, it seemed to her partners whose knowledge, of course, was not technical. One of them, who did not catch her name on introduction – being a stranger, brought under the wing of a lady with many daughters – described her on his card simply as "elbow sleeves;" and this must have been a young gentleman of observation, since the sleeves – an artful compromise between long and short – were rather a striking feature to those who knew. Others remembered her by her fan; but the callow ones saw nothing but her face, and that haunted them – until the next ball.

Mr. Miles, however, was the favoured man who was granted the first glimpse of this lovely apparition. He also looked only at her face. Was she so very indignant with him? Would she speak to him? Would she refuse him the dances he had set his heart on? If these questions were decided against him he was prepared to humble himself at her feet; but he soon found there was no necessity for that.

For, though Alice was deeply angry with Mr. Miles, she was ten times angrier with herself, and ten times ten with Dick. Her manner was certainly cold, but she seemed to have forgotten the gross liberty Miles had taken in the afternoon; at any rate, she made no allusion to it. She gave him dances – then and there – since he brought her a programme, but in doing so her thoughts were not of Miles. She gave him literal carte blanche, but not to gratify herself or him. There were too few ways open to her to punish the insults she had received that day; but here was one way – unless the object of her thoughts stayed away.

She hurried from the ballroom at the sound of wheels. In a few minutes she was standing at her father's side shaking hands with the people. She seemed jubilant. She had a sunny smile and a word or two for all. She was like a tinkling brook at summer noon. Everyone spoke of her prettiness, and her dress (the ladies whispered of this), and above all, her splendid spirits. She found out, when it was over, that she had shaken hands with the Edmonstones among the rest. She had done so unconsciously, and Dick, like everybody else, had probably received a charming welcome from her lips.

If that was the case he must have taken the greeting for what it was worth, for he seized the first opportunity to escape from Fanny and Maurice, who were bent upon enjoying themselves thoroughly in unsentimental fashion. He saw one or two men whom he had known before he went to Australia, staring hard at him, but he avoided them; he shrank into a corner and called himself a fool for coming.

He wanted to be alone, yet was painfully conscious of the wretched figure cut by a companionless man in a room full of people. If he talked to nobody people would point at him. Thus perhaps: "The man who made a fool of himself about Miss Bristo, don't you know; went to Australia, made his fortune, and all the rest of it, and now she won't look at him, poor dog!" He was growing morbid. He made a pretence of studying the water-colours on the wall, and wished in his soul that he could make himself invisible.

A slight rustle behind him caused him to turn round. His heart rose in his throat; it was Alice.

"You must dance with me," she said coldly; and her voice was the voice of command.

Dick was electrified; he gazed at her without speaking. Then a scornful light waxed in his eyes, and his lips formed themselves into a sneer.

"You can hardly refuse," she continued cuttingly. "I do not wish to be questioned about you; there has been a little too much of that. Therefore, please to give me your arm. They have already begun."

That was so; the room in which they stood was almost empty. Without a word Dick gave her his arm.

The crowd about the doorway of the ballroom made way for them to pass, and a grim conceit which suggested itself to Dick nearly made him laugh aloud.

As they began to waltz Alice looked up at him with flashing eyes.

"If you hate this," she whispered between her teeth, "imagine my feelings!"

He knew that his touch must be like heated irons to her; he wanted her to stop, but she would not let him. As the couples thinned after the first few rounds she seemed the more eager to dance on. One moment, indeed, they had the floor entirely to themselves. Thus everyone in the room had an opportunity of noticing that Alice Bristo had given her first dance to Dick Edmonstone.

The Colonel saw it, and was glad; but he said to himself, "The boy doesn't look happy enough; and as for Alice – that's a strange expression of hers; I'll tell her I don't admire it. Well, well, if they only get their quarrels over first, it's all right, I suppose."

Fanny noted it with delight. The one bar to her complete happiness for the rest of the evening was now removed. The best of dancers herself, she was sought out by the best. To her a ball was a thing of intrinsic delight, in no way connected with sentiment or nonsense.

Mrs. Parish also saw it, but from a very different point of view. She bustled over to Mr. Miles, who was standing near the piano, and asked him confidentially if he had not secured some dances with Alice? He showed her his card, and the old schemer returned triumphant to her niche among the dowagers.

He followed her, and wrote his name on her empty card opposite the first square dance; a subtle man, this Mr. Miles.

At the end of the waltz Miss Bristo thanked her partner coldly, observed below her breath that she should not trouble him again, bowed – and left him.

Dick was done with dancing; he had not wished to dance at all; but this one waltz was more than enough for him – being with her. Love is responsible for strange paradoxes.

He found two men to talk to: men who gloried in dancing, without greater aptitude for the art (for it is one) than elephants shod with lead. Being notorious, these men never got partners, save occasional ladies from remote districts, spending seasons with suburban relatives. These men now greeted Dick more than civilly, though they were accustomed to cut his brother, the bank-clerk, every morning of their lives. They remembered him from his infancy; they heard he had done awfully well abroad, and congratulated him floridly. They were anxious to hear all about Australia. Dick corrected one or two notions entertained by them respecting that country. He assured them that the natives were frequently as white as they were. He informed them, in reply to a question, that lions and tigers did not prowl around people's premises in the majority of Australian towns; nor, indeed, were those animals to be found in the Colonies, except in cages. He set them right on the usual points of elementary geography. He explained the comprehensive meaning of the term, "the bush."

As Dick could at a pinch be fluent – when Australia was the subject – and as his mood to-night was sufficiently bitter, his intelligent questioners shortly sheered off. They left him at least better-informed men. Thereupon Dick returned to the ballroom with some slight access of briskness, and buried himself in a little knot of wall-flowers of both sexes.

A dance had just begun – scarcely necessary to add, a waltz. Every man blessed with a partner hastened to fling his unit and hers into the whirling throng. After a round or two, half the couples would pause, and probably look on for the rest of the time; but it seems to be a point of honour to begin with the music. As Dick stood watching, his sister passed quite close to him; she happened to be dancing with Maurice, her very creditable pupil, but neither of them saw Dick. Close behind them came a pair of even better dancers, who threaded the moving maze without a pause or a jar or a single false step; they steered so faultlessly that a little path seemed always to open before them; human teetotums, obstacles to every one else, seemed mysteriously to melt at the graceful approach of these two. But, in fact, it was impossible to follow any other pair at the same time, so great were the ease, and beauty, and harmony of this pair. They seemed to need no rest; they seemed to yield themselves completely – no, not to each other – but to the sweet influence of the dreamy waltz.

Dick watched the pair whose exquisite dancing attracted so much attention; his face was blank, but the iron was in his soul. The other wallflowers also watched them, and commented in whispers. Dick overheard part of a conversation between a young lady whose hair was red (but elaborately arranged), and a still younger lady with hair (of the same warm tint) hanging in a plait, who was presumably a sister, not yet thoroughly "out." Here is as much of it as he listened to:

"Oh, how beautifully they dance!"

"Nonsense, child! No better than many others."

"Well, of course, I don't know much about it. But I thought they danced better than anyone in the room. Who are they?"

"Don't speak so loud. You know very well that is Miss Bristo herself; the man is – must be – Mr. Edmonstone."

"Are they engaged?"

"Well, I believe they used to be. He went out to Australia because he couldn't afford to marry (his family were left as poor as mice!), but now he has come back with a fortune, and of course it will be on again now. I used to know him – to bow to – when they lived on the river; I never saw anyone so much altered, but still, that must be he."

"Oh, it must! See how sweet they – "

"Hush, child! You will be heard. But you are quite right; didn't you see how – "

That was as much as Dick could stand. He walked away with a pale face and twitching fingers. He escaped into the conservatory, and found a solitary chair in the darkest corner. In three minutes the waltz ended, and the move to the conservatory was so general that for some minutes the double doors were all too narrow. Before Dick could get away, a yellow-haired youth with a pretty partner, less young than himself, invaded the dark corner, and by their pretty arrangement of two chairs effectually blocked Dick's egress. They were somewhat breathless, having evidently outstripped competitors for this nook only after considerable exertion. The yellow-haired youth proceeded to enter into a desperate flirtation – according to his lights – with the pretty girl his senior: that is to say, he breathed hard, sought and received permission to manipulate the lady's fan, wielded it execrably, and uttered commonplaces in tones of ingenuous pathos. The conservatory, the plashing fountain, and the Chinese lantern are indeed the accepted concomitants of this kind of business, to judge by that class of modern drawing-room songs which is its expositor. At length, on being snubbed by the lady (he had hinted that she should cut her remaining partners in his favour), the young gentleman relapsed with many sighs into personal history, which may have been cunningly intended as an attack on her sympathy, but more probably arose from the egotism of eighteen. He inveighed against the barbarous system of superannuation that had removed him from his public school; inquired repeatedly, Wasn't it awfully hard lines? but finally extolled the freedom of his present asylum, a neighbouring Army crammer's, where (he declared) a fellow was treated like a gentleman, not like a baby. He was plainly in the confidential stage.

All this mildly amused Dick, if anything; but presently the victim of an evil system abruptly asked his partner if she knew Miss Bristo very well.

"Not so very well," was the reply; "but why do you ask?"

"Because – between you and me, you know – I don't like her. She doesn't treat a fellow half civilly. You ask for a waltz, and she gives you a square. Now I know she'd waltzes to spare, 'cause I heard her give one – "

"Oh, so she snubbed you, eh?"

"Well, I suppose it does almost amount to that. By the bye, is she engaged to that long chap who's been dancing with her all the evening?"

"I believe she is; but – "

It was a promising "but;" a "but" that would become entre nous with very little pressing.



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