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At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 19414

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

A crowd of the usual dock order had gathered on the quay at Blackwall by the time the Hesper made her appearance, towed by two Channel tugs. Some time, however, passed before the vessel swung near enough to the quay for recognitions to begin; and by then the dingy line of dock loafers and watermen was enhanced by a second rank of silk hats and a slight leaven of bonnets. With intolerable sloth the big ship swung closer and closer, broadside on; greetings were excitedly exchanged, and at length the gangway was thrown across and held by a dozen eager hands.

Dick Edmonstone, at the break of the poop, bent forward to search among the faces on the quay, apparently without finding any he knew. But presently, as his eye glanced rapidly up and down the line, he became conscious of one gaze fixed steadily upon him; twice he overlooked this face; the third time, a mutual stare, a quick smile of delight, a bound across the gangway, and Dick was grasping his brother's hand.



Then they seemed to gasp in the same breath:

"Never should have known you!" "Nor I you-from Adam!"

And then they were silent for a whole minute, scrutinising one another from head to heels; until Maurice said simply that he had got away from the bank and needn't go back, and fell to asking about the voyage, and the weather, and the passengers, and had the cabin been comfortable? and what a stunning ship! To all of which Dick replied coherently; and for five minutes they talked as though they had parted last week. Only for such trifles could they find ready words; so much was inexpressible just at first.

They went into Dick's cabin; and there their tongues loosened a little. All were well at home, and happy, and comfortable; the news was good all round, as Dick phrased it, with thankfulness in his heart. That was the first delicious fact to be realised. After that, words flew with marvellous rapidity; the brothers were soon like two competitive human looms, turning them out one against the other. Fortunately the pace was too quick to last; in ten minutes both were breathless. Then they fastened upon stewards and Customs officials, and, by dint of some bullying and a little bribing, managed finally to get clear of the ship with Dick's luggage.

Dick was in tremendous spirits. He was back in old England at last, and testified his appreciation of the fact every minute.

Between Blackwall and Fenchurch Street he made odious comparisons touching Colonial travelling; in the four-wheeler across to Waterloo he revelled in the rattle and roar of the traffic; along the loop-line his eyes feasted on the verdant fields that had haunted his dreams in the wilderness.

The Edmonstones lived in a plain little house in a road at Teddington, in which all the houses were little, plain, and uniformly alike. They called their house "The Pill Box"; but that was a mere nickname, since all the houses in that plain little road were fearfully and wonderfully christened, and theirs no exception to the rule. Its name-blazoned on the little wooden gate-was Iris Lodge; and being sane people, and sufficiently familiar with suburban ideas, the Edmonstones had never attempted to discover the putative point of the appellation. They were satisfied to dub the house "The Pill Box," with malicious candour, among themselves. For the Edmonstones did not take kindly (much less at first) to road or house. And naturally, since five years ago, before Mr. Edmonstone's death, they had lived in a great, square, charming villa, with a garden-wall running a quarter of a mile along the towing-path, within sight of Kingston Bridge. But then Richard Edmonstone senior had dropped dead, at the height of his reputed success on the Stock Exchange and of his undoubted popularity in the clubs. To the surprise of all but those who knew him most intimately, he had left next to nothing behind him; the house by the river had been hurriedly sold, young Richard had as promptly emigrated, and the rest of them had bundled into as small a house as they could find in the neighbourhood.

But squat, snug, bourgeois as it was, Dick felt that the plain little house was nevertheless home, as the cab rattled over the railway bridge and along the road to the left, and so on towards "The Pill Box." It was raining (that June was not an ideal month), and the vehicle was the detestable kind of victoria so much affected by the honest cabmen of the Thames valley; still, Dick insisted on having the hood down to sniff the air of his native heath. Yet, though in sufficiently good spirits, his heart was beating quickly within him. These homecomings are no small things, unless the rover be old or loveless, and Dick was neither.

After all, the meeting was got over, as such meetings have been got over before, with a few tears and fewer words and melting looks and warm embraces. And so Dick Edmonstone was given back to the bosom of his family.

When the first and worst of it was over, he could not rest in a chair and talk to them, but must needs roam about the room, examining everybody and everything as he answered their questions. How well his mother was looking! and how her dark eyes beamed upon him!-the more brightly, perhaps, from their slight moisture. Her hand was as smooth and white as ever, and her hair whiter; how well it suited her to wear no cap, and have the silver mass pushed back like that! He had declared to himself he had never seen so pretty a woman over five-and-thirty-and his mother was fifty, and looking every year of it. And Fanny-well, she, perhaps, was as far from beauty as ever; but her wavy chestnut hair was matchless still, and as for expression, had there ever been one so sweet and gentle in the world before? It was Maurice who had all the good looks, though. But Maurice was pale and slim and rather round-shouldered; and instantly the image of the lad bending all day over the desk rose in Dick's mind and made him sad. What a different man the bush would make of Maurice! Then he looked round at the old familiar objects; the Landseer engravings and Fanny's water-colour sketches; the cottage piano, the writing-table, old pieces of odd ware which he remembered from his cradle, the fancy ormolu clock, which he had hated from his earliest days of discernment. He looked no further-a telegram was stuck up in front of the clock, and flaunted in his face:

"Edmonstone, Iris Lodge, Teddington,-Ship Hesper signalled Start Point ten this morning.-Bone and Phillips."

He read it curiously.

"Why, that's three days old!" he said, laughing. "Do you mean to say you have been staring at that bit of paper ever since-a sort of deputy-me, eh?"

"It was the first we heard," said the mother simply; and a subtle something brought back her tears. "I half think I'll frame it!" she added, smiling at her own weakness.

"I found out your other signallings," said Maurice. "I was in Bone's office half-a-dozen times yesterday."

Dick continued his survey of the room.

"Well, I think I recognise everything," he said presently; "but, I say, Fanny, I've got a thing or two for you to arrange in your high-art fashion; some odds and ends you haven't seen the like of before, I expect."

"No!" said Fanny.

"Oh, but I have, though; and some of 'em expressly for you."

"No!-really?-then what?"

"Aha, you'll see," said Dick. "Maurice, we'll unpack them now-if that brute of a Customs functionary has left a whole thing in the box." And the two left the room.

"To think," said Fanny musingly, "that our Dick is back! Really back, and never going out again; and been through all kinds of fearful adventures; and sailed round the world, and been away four years and a half-one can scarcely realise any of it. But above all, to think that he has made his fortune!"

Mrs. Edmonstone started.

"Oh, Fanny," cried she, "I had forgotten that! He never once spoke of it, and I didn't think of it. Oh, my boy, my boy!" She burst fairly into sobs. Her joy had been too great to bear before she was reminded of this overwhelming fact; it had brought the tears again and again to her eyes; now it became akin to pain.

Yet she did nothing but smile after her sons returned, laden with treasures and curios which they laid out all over the room. There was a famous rug of Tasmanian opossum skins, a dozen emu eggs, the tail of a lyre-bird, the skin of an immense carpet-snake, a deadly collection of boomerangs and spears, and a necklace of quandong stones mounted with silver. Mrs. Edmonstone beheld in silent wonder. As for Fanny, she was in ecstasies ("It is as good as the Exhibition," she said). So the time slipped away, and before half the quaint things had been examined and described it was dinner-time. They were all so happy together that first afternoon!

Few and simple were the courses at Iris Lodge, but at dessert Maurice produced some particular old Benedictine (which had been in the family as long as he had), and Dick's health was drunk with unspeakable enthusiasm. Dick blushed; for it made what he burned to say more awkward; but at last he blurted out, apparently appealing to the mildewed Benedictine bottle:

"I say-will you all think me an awful brute if I clear out for an hour or two? Mother, will you? You know what I have still to do-whom to see-to complete my first day in old England."

"Why, of course!" from the younger ones; and Mrs. Edmonstone simply pronounced the question: "Graysbrooke?"

"Yes," said Dick. "I must go and see them, you know. You know why, too," he added simply.

No one said anything. There was a rather awkward pause, which it fell to Fanny to break.

"By the bye," she said

tentatively, "they have a visitor there."

She was prepared to add further information, but Dick looked at her blankly, and clearly was not listening. They rose from the table, and almost directly the three who went into the drawing-room heard the front door open and shut.

Dick was thankful to be out in the cool and the twilight, and alone. The day had been showery and dull, but late in the afternoon the clouds had broken up, and now they floated serenely in the still air, just touched with a pale pink rim to westward. The gravelly ground was wet enough to sound crisply underfoot-nothing more. Drip-drip fell the drops from the laburnums in the gardens all down the road; drip-drip all round, from tree, shrub, and flower; every leaf distilling perfume every minute. Dick appreciated the evidence of his nostrils with the relish of a man who has smelt nothing but brine for four months, nothing like this for four years. Nevertheless, he walked on briskly, down into the London road, that here lies parallel with the river, then down a curve to the left, as the highroad bends away from the river to form the High Street of Teddington; then to a full stop at a corner opposite the old churchyard. He had intended to walk along the lower road towards Kingston, straight to the gates of Graysbrooke, which fronted the river. But now the thought occurred to him (prompted by the sweetness of the evening, and backed up by the fact that it was as yet rather early to drop in casually for the evening anywhere-even at the house of one's sweetheart whom one hadn't seen for over four years). How about hiring a boat and rowing to Graysbrooke? It was no distance; and then, only to be afloat again on the dear old Thames! Dick did not hesitate at the corner long, but turned sharp down to the left, and hired his shallop at the ferry landing.

Down with the stream a hundred yards, and he was level with the lock; a few strong strokes against the stream, and the way already on the boat, and her nose grounded on the rollers; a minute's exertion, a minute's fumbling for coppers, and he floated out into the narrow reach beyond the lock. He paddled slowly along, bestowing friendly glances on the banks. The cottages on the left, close to the lock, he remembered just as he saw them; but the poplars on the island, inverted in the glassy water-he felt convinced they had grown. With each stroke of the oars the voice of the weir grew louder; it seemed to be roaring its rough welcome to him, just as yonder alders, right across the stream, through the danger-posts, were bowing theirs. How glorious it was, this first row on the Thames!

But now the house was almost in sight, and he could think no longer of the river. Slowly, as he sculled on, Graysbrooke discovered itself: a gray, stone, turreted building, set in leafy trees. There were battlements along the coping, which might have looked venerable but for the slates that peeped between them; yet the stone was mellowed by time; and altogether there was nothing either offensively new or unwholesomely ancient in the appearance of the house. Dick saw it all in his mind even before he stopped rowing to satisfy the cravings of his hungry eyes. Still twilight, and the river here a mirror without flaw, every stone had its duplicate in the clear depths below; that parallelogram of ruddy light that fastened Dick's attention showed with especial sharpness in the reflection. The light was in the drawing-room. They had finished dinner. He could storm them now-at once.

A little inlet entered one end of the lawn; in here he sculled and moored his boat. Then he sprang upon the close-cropped grass and stood transfixed.

The light in the dining-room was turned low; but that in the room to the right of the hall-door-the room with the French window-was shining brightly. And through the open window there burst, as Dick's feet touched the grass, the sound of a girl's song. The voice was low and clear, and full of youth and tenderness; it rose, and fell, and trembled, for the singer possessed feeling; it hastened here and lingered there, and abused none of these tricks, for she sang with what is rarer than feeling-taste. Dick trembled violently; he wanted to rush into the room then and there, but he was thrilled, and rooted to the ground; and after a bar or two the voice soothed him and set his spirit at rest, like the touch of a true friend's hand in the hour of pain. Then he stood quite humbly, hoping it would never, never end. What the song was he didn't know, and never thought of finding out afterwards; he might have heard it a hundred times or never before; he knew nothing during these few transported minutes-nothing, except that he was listening to her voice.

As the last low note was borne out upon the air, and voices within the room murmured the conventional grace after song, Dick stepped forward, meaning to boldly enter. Two yards from the window, however, he silently halted; it was so dark that he could see into the room without himself being seen from within. The temptation to avail himself of so obvious an advantage was too strong to be resisted.

There were three persons in the room, but for the eyes of Dick only one-the two men made no immediate impression on his physical perception. It was a supreme moment in his life. He had left England for the sake of a young girl, to make his way in the world so that he might return and proudly claim her: for he had won her heart. And now he had made his way through toil and privation to a small fortune, and had come back to woo her hand. She was here-this girl for whom he had given his early manhood's strength, his brain's essence, the best drops of his life's blood; this girl whose image had beckoned him onward when he grew faint, and urged him still further in the hour of success; whose name had risen to his lips in despair and in peril, inspiring new courage-here, within ten feet of him; he striving to realise it, and to grow cool before going into her presence, yet yearning to fling himself at her feet.

It was good that she was ignorant of his approach, for it showed her to him in a fair light straight away-completely natural and unconscious of herself. She had seated herself after her song at a low table, and was making an indolent attack on some trifling work with her scissors. The lamplight, from under its crimson shade, fell upon her hair and face and neck with marvellous results, for it made her beautiful. She was not at all beautiful. She had a peerless complexion, a good nose, matchless teeth; otherwise her features were of no account. But she was exceedingly pretty; and as she sat there with the warm lamplight changing her ordinary light-coloured hair into a ruddy gold fit for any goddess, a much less prejudiced person than Dick Edmonstone might have been pardoned the notion that she was lovely, though she was not.

When at last he managed to raise his eyes from her they rested upon a face that was entirely strange. A tall, massive man, in evening dress, leaned with an elbow on the chimneypiece, his head lightly resting on his hand, one foot on the edge of the fender. There could be no two opinions as to the beauty of this face-it was handsome and striking to the last degree. Burnt, like Dick's, to the colour of brick-dust, it was framed in dark curly hair, with beard and whiskers of a fairer hue, while the mouth was hidden by a still fairer, almost golden, moustache. The effect was leonine. Dick caught his profile, and saw that the steady, downward gaze was bent upon the dainty little head that glowed in the lamplight. From his vantage-post outside the window he glanced from observer to observed. They were a sufficiently good-looking pair, yet he overrated the one and underrated the other. He was by no means attracted to this unknown exquisite; there was an ease about his pose which bespoke freedom also; and his scrutiny of the unconscious girl was of a kind that would at least have irritated any man in Dick's position.

Dick allowed his attention to rest but briefly upon the third occupant of the room-a man with snowy hair and whiskers, who was apparently dropping off to sleep in a big armchair. Somehow or other, the sight of the men-but particularly of the stranger-acted on his heart like a shower-bath on a man's head; his pulse slackened, he regained with interest the self-possession with which he had first approached the window. He took three steps forward, and stood in the middle of the room.

A startled cry escaped the old man and the girl. The man by the fireplace dropped his forearm and turned his head three inches.

Dick strode forward and grasped an outstretched hand.

"Colonel Bristo!"

"Dick Edmonstone!-is it really Dick?" a well-remembered voice repeated a dozen times. "We knew you were on your way home, but-bless my soul! bless my soul!"

The old soldier could think of nothing else to say; nor did it matter, for Dick's salute was over and his back turned; he was already clasping the hand of the fair young girl, who had risen, flushed and breathless, to greet him.

He was speechless. He tried to say "Alice," but the sound was inarticulate. Their eyes met.

A clatter in the fender. The tall man's heel had come down heavily among the fire-irons.

"Let me introduce you," said Colonel Bristo to this man and Dick. "You will like to know each other, since you both come from the same country: Mr. Edmonstone, from Australia; Mr. Miles, from Australia! Mr. Miles was born and bred there, Dick, and has never been in England before. So you will be able to compare notes."

The two men stared at each other and shook hands.

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