Ernest Hornung.

At Large



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"But what?"

"It is a strange affair."

"How?"

"Oh, I ought not to say; but of course you would never repeat – "

"Rather not; surely you can trust a fel – "

"Well, then, she used to be engaged – or perhaps it wasn't an absolute engagement – to someone else: he went out to Australia, and made money, and now that he has come back she's thrown him over for this Mr. Miles, who also comes from Australia. I know it for a fact, because Mrs. Parish told mamma as much."

"Poor chap! Who is he?"

"Mr. Edmonstone; one of the Edmonstones who lived in that big house across the river – surely you remember?"

"Oh, ah!"

"I believe he is here to-night – moping somewhere, I suppose."

"Poor chap! Hallo, there's the music! By Jove! I say, this is awful; we shall have to part!"

They went; and Dick rose up with a bitter smile. He would have given much, very much, for the privilege of wringing that young whippersnapper's neck. Yet it was not the boy's fault; some fate pursued him: there was no place for him – no peace for him – but in the open air.

A soft midsummer's night, and an evening breeze that cooled his heated temples with its first sweet breath. Oh, why had he not thought of coming out long ago! He walked up and down the drive, slowly at first, then at speed, as his misery grew upon him, and more times than he could count. The music stopped, began again, and again ceased; it came to him in gusts as he passed close to the front of the conservatory on his beat. At last, when near the house, he fancied he saw a dark motionless figure crouching in the shrubbery that edged the lawn at the eastern angle of the house.

Dick stopped short in his walk until fancy became certainty; then he crept cautiously towards the figure.

XII
"TO-MORROW, AND TO-MORROW, AND TO-MORROW"

Mr. Miles had written his name no fewer than six times on Alice's card. On finding this out Alice had resolved to recognise perhaps half these engagements – in any case, no more than should suit her convenience. After her dance with Dick she found it would suit her admirably to recognise them all.

For Dick had no word of apology or regret; in fact, he did not speak at all. He did not even look sorry; but only hard and cold and bitter. It was not in the power of woman to treat such a man too harshly.

Alice therefore threw herself into these dances with Miles with a zest which brought about one good result: the mere physical effort gradually allayed the fever of her spirit; with the even, rhythmical motion sufficient peace stole into the heart of the girl to subdue the passionate tumult of many hours. To this tranquillity there presently succeeded the animation inseparable from ardent exercise.

While the music lasted Alice could scarcely bring herself to pause; she seemed never to tire. Between the dances she spoke little to her partner, but filled her lungs with new breath, and waited impatiently for the striking of a new note; and when the new note sounded she turned to that partner with eyes that may have meant to fill with gratitude, yet seemed to him to glow with something else.

Once, when he led her from the heated room, she fancied many eyes were upon her.

She heard whispers; a murmur scarcely audible; a hum of wonder, of admiration, perhaps of envy. Well, was she not to be admired and envied? Could she not at least compare with the fairest there in looks? Was there one with a foot more light and nimble? And was not this, her partner, the manliest yet most godlike man that ever stooped to grace a ballroom? – and the best dancer into the bargain? – and the most admirable altogether? These questions were asked and answered in one proud upward glance as she swept on his arm through the throng.

"She never looked so well before," exclaimed Mrs. Parish, in an ecstatic aside to Colonel Bristo; "so brilliant, so animated, so happy!"

"I don't agree with you," the Colonel answered shortly; and he added, with strange insight in one usually so unobservant: "Alice is not herself to-night."

That seemed absurd on the face of it. Who that watched her dancing could have admitted it for a moment? Well, last of all, probably her partner.

The music burst forth again. The dancers flocked back to the room, Alice and Mr. Miles among them. It was the sixth dance, and their third together.

Again they were dancing together, the glassy floor seeming to pass beneath their feet without effort of theirs, the music beating like a pulse in the brain. As for Alice, she forgot her partner, she forgot Dick, she forgot the faces that fled before her eyes as she glided, and turned, and skimmed, and circled; she only knew that she was whirling, whirling, and that for awhile her heart was at rest.

Before the dance was fairly over, Miles led his partner into the conservatory, but said to her: "We will go right through into the open air; it will be so much pleasanter." And he did not wait her consent either – which was characteristic.

The smooth lawn leading down to the river was illuminated, and now that it was quite dark it had a very effective appearance, and was a charming resort between the dances. The lawn was bounded on the right by the little inlet which has been mentioned. A rustic bridge crossed this inlet, leading into a meadow, where seven tall poplars, in rigid rank, fronted the river. Without a protest from the girl, Miles led her over the bridge, and across the meadow, and down to the river's brim, under the shadow of the stately poplars. Most likely she did not heed where they were going; at any rate, they had been there often enough together before – in daylight.

It was a heavenly night; the pale blue stars were reflected in the black still mirror of the Thames, the endless song of the weir was the only sound that broke the absolute stillness of the meadow. No voices reached them from the house, no strains of music. As though influenced by the night, the two were silent for some minutes; then Alice said lightly:

"I am glad you brought me out; I was beginning to stifle. What a lovely night! But I thought there would be a moon. When is there a moon, Mr. Miles?"

No answer but a deep breath, that was half a groan Alice thought. Perhaps she was mistaken. She could not see his face, unless she moved away from him, he was so tall. She repeated the question:

"I want to know when there will be a moon. It would be so delicious now, if it shot up right over there, to be reflected right down there – but why don't you speak, Mr. Miles?"

Still no answer. She drew back a step. He was standing like a monument, tall and rigid, with his hands clasped tightly in front of him and his face turned slightly upward. He seemed unconscious of her presence at his side. Something in his motionless attitude, and the ghastly pallor of his face in the starlight, sent a thrill of vague fear to the heart of Alice. She drew yet a little farther from him, and asked timidly if anything was the matter.

Slowly he turned and faced her. His head drooped, his shoulders sank forward. She could see little beads glistening on his forehead. His hands loosed each other, and his arms were lifted towards her, only to be snatched back, and folded with a thud upon the breast. There they seemed to sink and fall like logs upon a swollen sea.

"Matter?" he cried in a low, tremulous voice; then, pausing, "nothing is the matter!" Then in a whisper, "Nothing to tell you – now."

A strange coldness overcame Alice – the sense of an injury wrought in her carelessness on the man before her. She tried to speak to him, but could find no words. With a single glance of pity, she turned and fled to the house. He did not follow her.

So Mrs. Parish had been right, after all; and she, Alice – a dozen names occurred to her which she had heard fastened upon women who sport with men's hearts to while away an idle month.

She reached the conservatory, but paused on the stone steps, with a hand lightly laid on the iron balustrade – for the floor-level was some feet above that of the garden-path. The music was in full swing once more, but Alice's attention was directed to another sound – even, rapid, restless footsteps on the drive. She peered in that direction; for it was possible, from her position on these steps, to see both the river to the left and the lodge-gates far off on the right – in daylight. She had not long to wait. A figure crossed quickly before her, coming from the front of the house: a man – by his dress, one of the guests – and bare-headed. When he first appeared, his back was half-turned to her; as he followed the bend of the drive she saw nothing but his back! then she lost sight of him in the darkness and the shadows of the drive. Presently she heard his steps returning; he was perambulating a beat. Not to be seen by him as he neared the house, Alice softly opened the door and entered the conservatory. It was at that moment quite deserted. She moved noiselessly to the southern angle, hid herself among the plants, and peered through the glass. It was very dark in this corner, and the foliage so thick that there was small chance of her being seen from without. The solitary figure passed below her, on the other side of the glass; it was Dick: she had been sure of it.

She watched him cross and recross twice – thrice; then she trembled violently, and the next time she could not see him distinctly, because tears – tears of pity – had started to her eyes. If a face – haggard, drawn, white as death, hopeless as the grave – if such a face is a sight for tears, then no wonder Alice wept. Was it possible that this was he who landed in England less than a month ago – so gay, so successful, so boyish? He looked years older. The eager light had gone out of his eyes. His step, so buoyant then, was heavy now, though swift with the fever of unrest. He bent forward as he walked, as though under a burden: a month ago he had borne no burden. Was this the man she had loved so wildly long ago – this wreck? Was this the result of trying to rule her heart by her head? Was this, then, her handiwork?

Her cup to-night was to be filled to overflowing. Even now her heart had gone out in pity to another whom also she had wronged – in pity, but not in love. For here, at last – at this moment – she could see before her but one: the man who had loved her so long and so well; the man who had once held her perfect sun of love – Heaven help her, who held it still!

A faintness overcame this frail girl. Her frame shook with sobs. She could not see. She leant heavily against the framework of the glass. She must have fallen, but a gentle hand at that moment was thrust under her arm.

"Oh, fancy finding you here! Your father sent me – " the pleasant voice broke off suddenly, and Alice felt herself caught in strong and tender arms. She looked up and saw Dick's sister. Her poor beating heart gave one bound, and then her head sank on Fanny's shoulder.

Presently she was able to whisper:

"Take me up-stairs; I am ill. It has been a terrible day for me!"

Mr. Miles still stood by the river, erect, motionless; his powerful hands joined in front of him in an iron knot, his fine head thrown slightly backward, as though in defiance. At first the thoughts in his mind were vague. Then, very slowly, they began to take shape. A little later his expression was soft and full of hope, and his lips kept repeating inaudibly one word: the word "to-morrow."

Then in a moment his mind was chaos.

There is nothing more confusing to the brain than memory. Often there is nothing so agonising and unsparing in its torture, when memory preys upon the present, consuming all its peace and promise like some foul vampire. Miles was now in the clutch of memory in its form of monster. His teeth were clenched, his face livid, the veins on his forehead standing out like the spreading roots of an oak. Spots of blood stood under the nails of his clenched fingers.

The stars blinked high overhead, and the stars deep down in the tranquil water answered them. The voice of the weir seemed nearer and louder. A gentle breeze stirred the line of poplars by the river's brink in the meadow, and fanned the temples of the motionless man at their feet. A bat passed close over him, lightly touching his hair with its wing. Miles did not stir.

Slowly – as it were, limb by limb – he was freeing himself from the grip of the hideous past. At last, with a sudden gesture, he flung back his head, and his eyes gazed upward to the zenith. It was an awful gaze: a vision of honour and happiness beyond a narrow neck of crime – a glimpse of heaven across the gulf of hell.

His tongue articulated the word that had trembled on his lips before: now it embodied a fixed resolve – "To-morrow! to-morrow!"

Mr. Miles became suddenly aware that his name was being spoken somewhere in the distance by a voice he knew – young Edmonstone's. A moment later the speaker was with him, and had added:

"There is someone who wants to speak to you, standing outside the gate."

There was a gleam of triumph in the younger man's eyes that shot out from the misery of his face like lightning from a cloud, throwing that misery into stronger relief. Miles noted this swift gleam, and it struck terror into his heart – at this moment, more than terror. He was as a general who, on the eve of the brilliant stroke that is to leave him conqueror, hears the alarm sounded in his own rearguard. He stared Dick up and down for some moments. When he spoke, it was – to the ear – with perfect coolness:

"Thanks. I half-expected something of the kind; but it is an infernal nuisance to-night. I must get a coat and hat, for I may have to go up to town at once." And he strode away.

Dick watched him out of sight, admiring more than anything he had seen in this man his readiness and resource at this moment. He would have liked to follow Miles, and keep him within reach or sight; but those were not his directions. Instead, he crossed the bridge, at once bore to the left, and crept into the shrubbery. Keeping close to the wall, without stirring a single leaf, he gained a spot within ten paces of the gate, whence he could command most of the drive and a fair slice of the road. In a minute Miles approached at a swinging walk. He passed close to Dick, and so through the gate. At that moment a man emerged from the shadows at the other side of the road; it was the man Dick had discovered in the shrubbery, though he had seen him before – in the Settler's Hut!

The two men were now but a few paces apart; with little more than a yard between them, they stopped. A low chuckle escaped one of them; but without another sound they turned – passed slowly down the road, side by side, and so out of sight.

Dick gasped: it was so very unlike his preconceived notions of arrest!

XIII
IN BUSHEY PARK

"So boss, you know me?"

"I have not forgotten you, you scoundrel!"

Such was the interchange of greetings between the man from the Exhibition and Mr. Miles, the Australian. They had halted at a lamp-post some distance down the road, and stood facing each other in the gaslight.

"That's right. I'm glad you don't forget old mates," said the stout, round-shouldered man. "That's one good thing, anyway; but it's a bad'un to go calling them names first set-off, especially when – "

"Look here," interrupted Miles, with an admirable imitation of his ordinary tone; "I haven't much time to give you, my man. How the deuce did you get here? And what the deuce do you want with me?"

"Oh, so you're in a hurry, are you?" sneered the man. "And you want to get back to the music, and the wine, and the women, do you?"

"Listen!" said Miles smoothly; "do you hear that step in the distance? It's coming nearer; it's the policeman, for certain; and if you don't get your business stated and done with before he reaches us, I'll give you in charge. Nothing simpler: I know the men on this beat, and they know me."

"Not so well as I do, I reckon!" returned the other dryly, and with the quiet insolence of confident security. "And so you're the fine gentleman now, are you?"

"If you like – and for all you can prove to the contrary."

"The Australian gentleman on a trip home, eh? Good; very good! And your name is Miles!"

"It's worth your neck to make it anything else?"

The other thrust forward his face, and the beady eyes glittered with a malignant fire. "You don't lose much time about coming to threats, mate," he snarled. "P'r'aps it'ud be better if you waited a bit; p'r'aps I'm harder to funk than you think! Because I dare prove to the contrary, and I dare give you your right name. Have you forgotten it? Then I'll remind you; and your friend the bobby shall hear too, now he's come so close. How's this, then? – Edward Ryan, otherwise Ned the Ranger; otherwise – and known all over the world, this is – otherwise – "

Miles stopped him with a rapid, fierce gesture, at the same time quietly sliding his left hand within his overcoat. He felt for his revolver. It was not there. He recalled the circumstance which had compelled him to lay it aside. It seemed like Fate: for months that weapon had never been beyond the reach of his hand; now, for the first time, he required it, and was crippled for want of it. He recovered his composure in a moment, but not before his discomfiture had been noticed, and its cause shrewdly guessed. Laying a heavy hand on the other's broad, rounded shoulder, he said simply and impressively:

"Hush!"

"Then let's move on."

"Where?"

"Where we can talk."

The man pointed across the road to a broad opening directly opposite the lamp-post. It was the beginning of another road; the spot where they stood was indeed the junction of the cross and down-stroke of a capital letter T, of which the cross was the road that ran parallel with the river.

"Very well," said Miles, with suspicious alacrity; "but I must go back first to make some excuse, or they will be sending after me."

"Then, while you are gone, I shall confide in your friend the policeman."

Miles uttered a curse, and led the way across the road and straight on. There were no lamps in the road they entered now – no houses, no lights of any kind – but on the right a tall hedge, and on the left trim posts and rails, with fields beyond. They walked on for some minutes in silence, which was at length broken by Miles's unwelcome visitor.

"It's no sort o' use you being in a hurry," said he. "I've found you out; why not make the best of it?"

"What am I to do for you?" asked Miles, as smoothly as though the man by his side were an ordinary highway beggar.

"You'll see in good time. Sorry I've put you to inconvenience, but if you weren't passing for what you ain't you wouldn't feel it so; so you see, Ned Ryan, playing the gent has its drawbacks. Now, after me having crossed the whole blessed world to speak to you, it would be roughish if you refused me your best ear; now wouldn't it?"

"You have just landed, then?" said Miles; and added, after a pause, "I hoped you were dead."

"Thanks," returned the other, in the tone of coarse irony that he had employed from the beginning. "Being one as returns good for evil, I don't mind saying I was never so glad as when I clapped eyes on you yesterday – alive and safe."

"Yesterday! Where?"

"Never mind where. But I ain't just landed – Oh, no!"

Suddenly Miles stopped short in his walk. They had entered again the region of lights and houses; the road was no longer dark and lonely; it had intersected the highroad that leads to Kingston, and afterwards bent in curves to the right; now its left boundary was the white picket-fence of the railway, and, a hundred yards beyond, a cluster of bright lights indicated Teddington station.

"Not a step further," said Miles.

"What! not to the station? How can we talk – "

"You are a greater fool than I took you for," said Miles scornfully.

"Yes? Well, anyway, I mean to say what I've got to say, wherever it is," was the dogged reply. "If you came to town to my lodging, not a soul could disturb us. We can't talk here."

Miles hesitated.

"There is a place, five minutes' walk from here, that I would trust before any room," he said presently. "Only be reasonable, my good fellow, and I'll hear what you have to say there."

The man turned his head and glanced sharply in the direction whence they had come. Then he assented.

Miles led the way over the wooden footbridge that spans the line a little way above the station. In three minutes they walked in the shadow of great trees. The high wall in front of them bent inwards, opening a wide mouth. Here were iron gates and lamps; and beyond, black forms and deep shadows, and the silence of sleeping trees. Without a word they passed through the gates into Bushey Park.

Miles chose the left side of the avenue, and led on under the spreading branches of the horse-chestnuts. Perhaps a furlong from the gates he stopped short, and confronted his companion.

"Here I will settle with you," he said, sternly. "Tell me what you want; or first, if you like, how you found me. For the last thing I remember of you, Jem Pound, is that I sacked you from our little concern – for murder."



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