MoboReader> Literature > At Large


At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 17439

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

"Sit down, boy, sit down," said Colonel Bristo, "and let us have a look at you. Mind, we don't know yet that you're not an impostor. You should have brought proofs."

"Here are five-foot-ten of them," said Dick, laughing.

"To believe that, we must put you through examination-and cross-examination," the Colonel added with a glance at his daughter; "although I half believe you really are the man you profess to be. What do you say, Alice?"

"I have a strong case-" Dick was beginning, but he was cut short.

"It is Dick," said the oracle sweetly.

"You take his word for it?" asked her father.

"No, I identify him," Alice answered with a quiet smile; "and he hasn't altered so very much, when one looks at him."

Dick turned his head and met her eyes; they were serene and friendly. "Thank you," he said to her, with gratitude in his voice. And, indeed, he felt grateful to them all; to the Colonel for his ponderous pleasantry, to Alice for her unembarrassed manner, to Mr. Miles for the good taste he showed in minding his own business. (He had strolled over to the window.)

"And when did you land?" inquired the Colonel.

"This morning."

"Only this morning!" exclaimed Alice; "then I think it was too good of you to come and see us so soon; don't you, papa?"

Very kind of him indeed, papa thought. Dick was pleased; but he thought they might have understood his eagerness. Alice, at any rate, should not have been surprised-and probably was not. "I couldn't put it off," he said, frankly.

There was a slight pause; then the Colonel spoke:

"That's kindly said, my boy; and if your mother knew how it does us good to see you here, she would scarcely grudge us an hour or two this evening-though grudge it you may depend she does. As for ourselves, Dick, we can hardly realise that you are back among us."

"I can't realise it at all," murmured Dick, aloud but to himself.

"I won't worry you by asking point-blank how you like Australia," the Colonel went on, "for that's a daily nuisance in store for you for the next six months. But I may tell you we expect some tough yarns of you; our taste has been tickled by Miles, who has some miraculous-why, where is Miles?"

Miles had vanished.

"What made him go, I wonder?" asked Alice, with the slightest perceptible annoyance. Dick did not perceive it, but he thought the question odd. To disappear seemed to him the only thing a stranger, who was also a gentleman, could have done; he was scarcely impartial on the point, however.

Alice took up the theme which her father had dropped.

"Oh, Mr. Miles has some wonderful stories," said she; "he has had some tremendous adventures."

"The deuce he has!" thought Dick, but he only said: "You should take travellers' tales with a grain of salt."

"Thanks," Alice instantly retorted; "I shall remember that when you tell yours."

They laughed over the retort. All three began to feel quite at ease.

"So you kept up your sketching out there, and drew bush scenes for our illustrated papers?" said the Colonel.

"Two or three times; more often for the Colonial papers."

"We saw them all," said Alice, graciously-"I mean the English ones. We cut them out and kept them." (She should have said that she did.)

"Did you, though?" said Dick, delighted.

"Yes," said Alice, "and I have a crow to pick with you about them. That 'Week in the Sandwich Islands'-it was yours, wasn't it?"

Dick admitted that it was.

"Oh, and pray when were you in the Sandwich Islands?"

He confessed that he had never seen them.

"So you not only cheated a popular journal-a nice thing to do!-but deceived the British public, which is a far more serious matter. What explanation have you to offer? What apology to 'One who was Deceived'-as I shall sign my 'Times' letter, when I write it?"

"Alice, you are an inquisitor," said Colonel Bristo. But Alice replied with such a mischievous, interested smile that Dick immediately ceased to feel ashamed of himself.

"The fact is," he owned, "your popular journal doesn't care a fig whether one has been to a place so long as one's sketches of it are attractive. I did them a thing once of a bullock-dray stuck up in the mud; and how did it appear? 'The War at the Cape: Difficulties in Reaching the Front.' And they had altered the horns of my bullocks, if you please, to make 'em into South African cattle! You see, just then Africa was of more interest to your British public than Australia. Surely you won't be so hard on me now? You see you have made me divulge professional secrets by your calumnies."

Alice said she forgave him, if all that was true; but she added, slyly: "One must take travellers' tales with a pinch of salt, you know!"

"Come, Alice," said her father, "if you insist on pitching into our artist, he shall have his fling at our photographer. Dick, she's taken to photography-it's lately become the fashion. Look on that table, under the lamp; you'll find some there that she was trimming, or something, when you dropped in our midst."

"May I look at them?" Dick asked, moving over to Alice.

"Certainly; but they're very bad, I'm afraid; and since you artists scorn photography-as so inartistic, you know-I suppose you will be a severe critic."

"Not when this is the subject," said Dick, in a low voice, picking up a print; "how did you manage to take yourself?"

He was sitting beside her at the little table, with the lamp between them and the Colonel; he instinctively lowered his voice, and a grain of the feeling he had so far successfully repressed escaped into his tone.

"Someone took off the cap for me."

"Oh. Who?"

"Who? Oh, I get anybody to take the cap off when I am so vain as to take myself-anybody who is handy."

"Mr. Miles, for instance?" It was a stray question, suggested by no particular train of thought, and spoken carelessly; there was no trace of jealousy in the tone-it was too early for that; but Alice looked up, quick to suspect, and answered shortly:

"Yes, if you like."

Dick was genuinely interested, and noticed in her tone nothing amiss. Several of the photographs turned out to be of Alice, and they charmed him.

"Did Mr. Miles take all these?" he asked, lightly; he was forced to speak so before her father: the restraint was natural, though he marvelled afterwards that he had been able to maintain it so long.

Alice, however, read him wrong. She was prepared for pique in her old lover, and imagined it before it existed. She answered with marked coldness:

"A good many of them."

This time Dick detected the unpleasant ring in her words-he could not help but detect it. A pang shot to his heart. His first (and only) impression of Miles, which had fled from his mind (with all other impressions) while talking to her, swiftly returned. He had used the man's name, a minute ago, without its conveying anything to his mind; he used it now with a bitterness at heart which crept into his voice.

"And don't you return the compliment? I see no photographs of Mr. Miles here; and he would look so well in one."

"He has never been taken in his life-and never means to be. Now, Dick, you have seen them all," she added quite softly, her heart smiting her; and with that she rolled all the prints into one little cylinder. Dick was in that nervous state in which a kind word wipes out unkindness the moment it is spoken, and the cloud lifted at once from his face. They were silent for more than a minute. Colonel Bristo quietly left the room.

Then a strange change came over Dick. While others had been in the room, composure had sat naturally upon him; but now that they were alone together, and the dream of his exile so far realised, that armour fell from him, and left his heart bare. He gazed at his darling with unutterable emotion; he yearned to clasp her in his arms, yet dared not to profane her with his touch. There had been vows between them when they parted-vows out of number, and kisses and tears; but no betrothal, and never a letter. He could but gaze at her now-his soul in that gaze-and tremble; his lips moved, but until he had conquered his weakness no words came. As for Alice, her eyes were downcast, and neither did she speak. At length, and timidly, he took her hand. She suffered this, but drew ever so slightly away from him.

"Alice," he faltered, "this is the sweetest moment of my life. It is what I have dreamt of, Alice, but feared it might never come. I cannot speak; forgive me, dear."

She answered him cunningly:

"It is very nice to have you back again, Dick."

He continued without seeming to hear her, and his voice shook with tenderness: "Here-this moment-I can't believe the

se years have been; I think we have never been separated--"

"It certainly doesn't seem four years," said Alice sympathetically, but coolly.

Dick said nothing for a minute; his eyes hung on her downcast lids, waiting for an answering beam of love, but one never came.

"You remember," he said at last, in a calmer voice, "you remember the old days? and our promises? and how we parted?" He was going on, but Alice interrupted him by withdrawing her hand from his and rising from her chair.

"Dick," said she, kindly enough, "don't speak of them, especially not now-but don't speak of them at all. We can't have childhood over again; and I was a child then-of seventeen. I am grown up now, and altered; and you-of course you have altered too."

"Oh Alice!"-the turning of the door handle made him break off short, and add in a quick whisper, "I may speak to you to-morrow?"

"Very well," she answered indifferently, as there entered upon them a little old lady in rustling silk and jingling beads-an old lady with a sallow face and a piercing black eye, who welcomed Dick with a degree of fussy effusiveness, combined with a look and tone which discounted her words.

"Delighted to see you back, Mr. Richard-a pleasure I have often looked forward to. We don't welcome conquering heroes every day," were in themselves sufficiently kindly words, but they were accompanied by a flash of the beady eyes from Dick to Alice, and a scrutiny of the young fellow's appearance as searching as it was unsympathetic; and when a smile followed, overspreading her loose, leathery, wrinkled skin, the effect was full of uncanny suggestion.

"Yes, it is jolly to be back, and thanks very much," said Dick civilly; "and it is charming to find you still here, Mrs. Parish."

"Of course I am still here," said the leathery little lady brusquely: as if Colonel Bristo could live without his faithful domestic despot, as if Graysbrooke could stand without its immemorial housekeeper! This Mrs. Parish was ugly, vain, and old, and had appeared as old and as vain and as ugly when, more than twenty years ago, she first entered the Colonel's service. She had her good points, however, and a sense of duty according to her lights. Though it be no extravagant praise, she was a better person at heart than on the surface.

She now inquired with some condescension about Dick's Australian life, and how he liked it, and where he had been, and how he should like living altogether out there. She congratulated him on his success (she called it "luck"), which she declared was in the mouths of everybody. On that he felt annoyed, and wondered if she knew any details, and what figure she would bid for some-of, say, his first year-in the local gossip market.

"Of course you will go back," said the old woman with conviction; "all lucky Colonists do. You will find England far too dull and slow for you." At this point Colonel Bristo and Mr. Miles came back, chatting. "I was saying," Mrs. Parish repeated for their benefit, "that of course Mr. Richard will soon return to Australia; he will tire of England in six weeks; it is always the way. Mr. Miles is the happy exception!" with a smile upon that gentleman which strove to be arch-with doubtful success.

"I never said I meant to make 'Home' my home," said the Australian, with the drawl of his race, but in tones mellow and musical. His long frame sank with graceful freedom into a chair beside Mrs. Parish, and his clear blue eyes beamed upon them all-all except Dick, whom he forgot to notice just then.

"I don't think Dick means to go back," said the Colonel cheerily. "That would be treating us all abominably; in fact, we could never allow it-eh, Dick?"

Dick looked gravely at the carpet.

"I mean to settle down in England now," said he; and he could not refrain from a sly glance at Alice. Her eyes, bent thoughtfully upon him, instantly filled with mischief.

"You mean to stay at home, yet sketch the ends of the earth; is that it?" Her tone changed swiftly to one of extreme kindness. "Well, it would be dreadful if you didn't stop at home now. Whatever you do" (he changed colour; she added calmly), "think of Mrs. Edmonstone and Fanny!"

A little later, Alice and her father told Dick all the news of themselves that they could think of-how they had been in Italy last year, and in Scotland the year before, and how they had taken a shooting-box in Yorkshire for this year. And Alice's manner was very courteous and kindly, for she was beginning to reproach herself for having been cruel to him on this his first evening, and to wonder how she could have had the heart. She asked him if he had forgotten how to dance, and said he must begin learning over again at once, in order to dance at her ball-her very own party-on the second of July.

Poor Dick's spirits once more rose high, though this time an uneasy sediment remained deep in his heart. Without the least intention in the world, Alice was beginning a very pretty game of coquetry with her sweetheart-alas! her quondam sweetheart. While they talked, Mr. Miles, at the other side of the room, kept up an entertaining conversation with Mrs. Parish. At the same time he observed Dick Edmonstone very narrowly-perhaps more anxiously than he need have regarded an old friend of his friends'; though perhaps with no more than a social lion's innate suspicion of his kind. At last Dick rose to go.

Colonel Bristo went out with him, and thrust his arm affectionately through the young man's as they crossed the lawn.

"Dick," said he, very kindly, "I thought I would wait till I saw you alone to congratulate you most heartily on having made your way so splendidly. Nay, don't interrupt me; your way in the world is already made, and nobly made. I think you showed your sense-and more-in stopping short, and coming home to follow up the career you love. That was the intention expressed in your letter, I think?"

"Yes, sir. And that letter?" said Dick anxiously. He had felt misgivings about it ever since the heat of triumph in which it was written and posted in Melbourne.

"I liked it," said the Colonel simply; "it was manly and frank, and to the point. You shall have my answer now; and I, too, will be frank. Four years ago, more or less, I was forced to answer in a certain way a certain question-there was no alternative. Dick, think seriously-you are both four years older; are you, for one, still of the same mind?"

"I am; indeed I am," said Dick, earnestly.

"Then take your chance!" said Colonel Bristo. "I cannot say more; I don't understand women; I find it bitter to say this much, I that am to lose her. But you deserve her; come here as often as you will; you will be very welcome. And if you both wish now-both, mind!-what you both wished then, when for obvious reasons I could not hear of it--"

"You were right enough, sir," Dick murmured sadly.

"Then," continued the Colonel, "I frankly tell you, I shall like it. That's all; good-night!"

Dick looked up from the dewy grass, and his lips formed a grateful sentence, though no words could express his feeling just then. He looked up, but the honest, simple-hearted soldier was gone. He who had faced the Russian shot and shell had retreated cowardly before honest English thanks!

The young man stepped into his boat, undid the painter, and floated out upon the broad moonlit river. Ah, how kind of Colonel Bristo! But only to think what those words would have been to them four years ago! Yes, to them; for then Alice besought the consent that had just been given; besought it as wildly as himself. And now did she even desire it? He had found her so passionless, so different from all he had fancied, or hoped, or feared. Once she had been cruel, but anon so kind; and then she had ridiculed him in pure friendliness. Alas, fatal friendliness! Had she but been awkward or shown him downright coldness-anything but that. As to this Miles, no need to think about him yet. The question was whether Alice Bristo still loved Dick Edmonstone, not whether there was another man in the case; time enough for that afterwards. Yet a few short hours ago the question-faced so calmly now-would have stunned or maddened this ardent lover.

Down with the stream came peace and hope, with the soft, soothing touch of the moonbeams; they stole into the heart of Dick Edmonstone; they held it for one brief moment. For a sound broke on his ears which made him stare and tremble, and drove out the sweet influences almost before their presence was felt. Yet the sound of itself was sweet; the very same sound had thrilled poor Dick as he leapt ashore; it was the voice of Alice-singing to Mr. Miles!

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top