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   Chapter 6 SISYPHUS

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 15295

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Dick Edmonstone slept badly, his first night in England; and no wonder, since already a sense of grievous disappointment weighed him down. When he reached home and his own room, this feeling grew upon him; it distracted him, it denied him rest. Where his faith had been surest, disillusion came slowly home to him; in the purest spot of the vision the reality was dim and blurred. What a fool he had been to make sure of anything! Above all, to build his peace of mind on the shifting sand of a woman's love; to imagine-simply because his love for Alice had never wavered-that Alice's love for him must perforce remain equally unchanged. And all that night her voice, as he had last heard it, rang cruelly in his ear, and a light remark, about what she had called her "childhood," lay like lead at his heart.

At breakfast he could not quite conceal his trouble; he looked somewhat haggard. He knew that he was expected to be in high spirits, and did his best to feign them, but his mirth was perfunctory. This was obvious to his sister, and not unnoticed by Mrs. Edmonstone. They spoke about it afterwards, for they knew something of the circumstances at Graysbrooke, and had their own opinion of the guest there.

Dick fidgeted all the morning, and passed some of the time in unpacking his belongings. In the afternoon he left the house full of conflicting emotions. As he walked up the drive, Dick could not tell how he had waited until the afternoon, such a wild elation took possession of him at the thought of again seeing his beloved. Miss Bristo was in the garden, the butler told him-yes, alone; and Dick walked through the house and on to the top of the shaven lawn that sloped to the river.

He found her deep in a magazine and in the stern sheets of the boat, which was moored in the inlet. She was all in white, for the day was sunny; and she smiled sweetly from under the broad brim of her straw hat as Dick stepped gravely into the boat, and sat down on the thwart facing her.

She looked so careless and so bright that he could not find it in his heart to vex her straight away; so they talked lightly of this and that for a full quarter of an hour, while Dick basked recklessly in her smiles, and almost persuaded himself that this was happiness. But at last came a pause; and then he nerved himself to speak.

"Alice," he began gravely, "you know our few words last night? You said I might speak to you today."

"Well," said Alice, carelessly.

"You know very well what I want to speak about," rather warmly.

Alice turned down her leaf, shut up her magazine, leant back, and surveyed him calmly.

"I wish I didn't, Dick," she answered, half in annoyance, half in pity. But her look added: "Say on; let us have it out-and over."

"Last night," said Dick smoothly, "I asked you if you remembered old days, and what there was between us, and so on. You said you didn't want to remember them, and talked about your 'childhood.' You said you were altered, and that, of course, I must be altered." He paused.

So far he had been cool and fluent; but he had rehearsed all this. His next words came hot from the heart, and fell unsteadily from the lips.

"Oh, Alice," cried he, "did you mean that? Say that you didn't! I have never changed, never can. Oh, say that you are the same. Say that you only meant to tease me, or try me, or anything you like-anything but that you meant all that about our being altered, and forgetting the past-" his voice was piteous in its appeal; "say that you didn't mean it!" he repeated in a whisper.

"I did mean it," Alice replied; not harshly or coldly, but with due deliberation.

Dick turned pale. He grasped the gunwale nervously with each hand, and leaned forward.

"Then I-no longer-have your love?" he asked in a hollow voice.

Alice looked at him reproachfully; there was even indignation in her glance.

"How can you force such things from me? Have you no pride?" He winced. "But, since you press for an explanation, you shall have one. Before you went away I knew no one. I was a child; I had always been fond of you; my head was full of nonsense; and, when you asked me, I said I loved you. It was true, too, in a childish way."

"Go on," said Dick, in a low voice.

Alice was flushed, and her eyes sparkled, but her self-possession was complete.

"Well, you come back after four years, and, it seems, expect to find me still a child. Instead of that, I am a woman-a sensible woman," with a good humoured twinkle of the eyes, "disinclined to go on with the old nonsense just where it left off-you must admit that that would be absurd? But for the rest, I am as fond of you, Dick, as I was then-only without the childish nonsense. No one is more delighted to see you back, and welcome you, than I am; no one is more your friend. Dear Dick," she added in a tone of earnest entreaty, "cannot we be friends still?"

"No!" exclaimed Dick, hoarsely.

The flush died away from the girl's face, to return two-fold.

"No!" he repeated. "You give me your love, and then, after years of separation, you offer me your friendship instead. What is that to me? How can I make that do-a lamp instead of the sun? It is too much to ask of any man: you know it. Who has taught you to play with men's hearts like this?"

"I have been too kind," said Alice, coldly. She had stifled her humiliation, and was preparing to leave the boat.

"Say rather too cruel!" returned Dick very bitterly. "Nay, not on my account. I will save you the trouble of going."

He sprang from the boat as he spoke. One moment he stood on the bank with a blight on his brave eyes; the next, he raised his hat proudly, turned on his heel and was gone.

No sooner had he disappeared than the young lady produced a little lace handkerchief, and rained her tears upon its wholly inadequate area. She sobbed for nearly five minutes; and, after that, dipped her pink fingers in the water, and made assiduous efforts to expunge the most tell-tale symptoms. Then she took up the magazine and tried to revive her interest in the story she had been reading, but she could remember nothing about it. Finally she was about to quit the boat in despair, when, looking up, whom should she see but Dick Edmonstone towering above her on the bank, hat in hand.

"I want you to forgive me," he said very humbly. She affected not to understand him, and intimated as much by raising her eyebrows.

"For what I said just now" (rapidly)-"for everything I have said since I saw you first, last night. And I want to say-if you will still have it-let us be-friends."

Her face instantly brightened; every trace of affectation vanished; she smiled gratefully upon him.

"Ah, that is sense!" said she.

"But," said Dick, still more earnestly, "there are two questions I do think I may ask, though whether you will answer them-"

"I will," the girl exclaimed rashly.

"Well, then, the first is, have you taken a dislike to me-a new one? Don't laugh," he said, colouring; "I mean it. It is so possible, you know. I have led a rough life; you might easily be ashamed of the things I had to do, to make my way at first; you might easily think me less polished, less gentlemanly: if it is that, I implore you to say so."

She could scarcely keep grave; even he might have smiled, but for the question he had still to ask.

"No, it is not that; to my mind you are just the same."

Dick drew a deep breath of relief.

"The second question may offend you; if it does-well, it can't be helped. I think my old footing-even though you were a child then-is sufficient excuse for it. It is, then-and,

indeed, you must grant me an honest answer-do you love another man?"

"And it is not that," said Alice shortly, nevertheless looking him full in the face.

A great load was removed from his heart.

"Then it is only," he said eagerly-"only that you wish to cancel the past? really only that?"

"Really only that," she repeated with a smile.

"Then," added Dick, hope rekindling in his heart, "may I never-that is, won't you hold out to me the least faint spark?"

"I think you had better leave well alone," said Alice; and she stepped lightly from the boat as she spoke. "Now I must go in. Will you come, too?"

"No; I must say good-bye."

"Really? Then good-bye, Dick." Another sweet smile as she stretched out her hand. "And come as often as ever you can; you will always be welcome."

He watched her slim form tripping daintily across the grass.

"Ay, I will come!" he muttered between his teeth; "and I shall win you yet, Miss Caprice, though I have to begin all over again. To start afresh! How could I have borne the thought yesterday? Yet to-day it must be faced. This minute I give up looking back, and begin to look forward. And it may be better so; for when I win you, as win you I shall, you will be all the dearer to me. I might not have valued you as I ought-who knows? You do not deny me hope; I shan't deny it to myself. You shall be mine, never fear. For the present, have your wish-we are only friends."

His resolution taken, Dick Edmonstone threw up vain regrets; "friendly relations" with Alice were duly established, and at first the plan worked tolerably well. They had one or two common interests, fortunately. Alice dabbled in water-colours; in which Dick could help her, and did. In return, Alice took a lively interest in his sketches; and they would sometimes talk of the career to which he was to devote himself. Then there was the river; they were both good oars, and, with Alice, rowing was a passion.

Beyond these things there was little enough to bring them together. In everything else Mr. Miles either stepped in or enjoyed a previous pre-eminence. At first Dick tried hard to hate this man for his own sake, without being jealous of him; but under the circumstances it was impossible for jealousy not to creep in. He certainly distrusted Miles; the man struck him from the first as an adventurer, who had wormed himself by mysterious means into the friendship of the guileless, single-hearted Colonel Bristo; and observation deepened this impression. On the other hand, the pair saw very little of each other. Dick naturally avoided Miles, and Miles-for some good reason of his own-shunned Dick. In fact, the jealous feeling did not arise from anything he saw or heard: the flame was promoted and fed, as it were, at second-hand.

Deep in his heart, poor Dick had counted on being something of a lion (it was only human) on his return from Australia, at least on one hearth besides his own; and lo! a lion occupied that hearth before him-a lion, moreover, of the very same type. The Bristos didn't want to hear Australian experiences, because they had already heard such as could never be surpassed, from the lips of Miles; their palate for bush yarns was destroyed. Dick found himself cut out, in his own line, by Miles. His friends were very hospitable and very kind, but they had no wish to learn his adventures. And those adventures! How he had hoarded them in his mind! how he had dreamed in his vanity of enthralling the Colonel and thrilling Alice! He had hoped at least to interest them; and even in that he failed. Each little reminiscence yawned over, each comparison or allusion ignored-these were slight things with sharp edges. With Alice, it more than once happened that when he touched on his strange experiences she forgot to listen, which wounded him; or if she made him repeat it, it was to cite some far more wonderful story of Mr. Miles-which sowed salt in the wound. Of course vanity was its own cure, and he dropped the subject of Australia altogether; but he was very full of his romantic life, and this took him a day or two, and cost him some moments of bitterness.

So Dick's first fortnight in England passed, and on the whole he believed he had made some sort of progress with Alice. Moreover, he began rather to like wooing her on his merits. On consideration, it was more satisfactory, perhaps, than reviving the old boy-and-girl sentiment as if there had been no four years' hiatus; more satisfactory, because he never doubted that he would win her in the end. It is to be noted that his ideas about one or two things changed in a remarkable degree during those first days.

One morning, when they chanced to be particularly confidential together, Dick said suddenly:

"By the bye, how did you come to know this-Mr. Miles?" He had almost said "this fellow Miles."

"Has papa never told you?" Alice asked in surprise.

"No, never."

"Nor Mr. Miles himself? Ah, no: he would be the last person to speak of it. But I will tell you. Well, then, it was when we were down in Sussex. Papa was bathing (though I had forbidden it), when he was seized with cramp, out of his depth. He must certainly have been drowned; but a great handsome fellow, dressed like a fisherman, saw his distress, rushed into the sea, swam out, and rescued him with the help of a boat. Poor papa, when he came to himself, at once offered the man money; and here came the surprise. The man laughed, refused the money, dived his hand into his own pocket, and threw a sovereign to the boatman who had helped!"

Dick's interest was thoroughly aroused, and he showed it; but he thought to himself: "That was unnecessary. Why couldn't the fellow keep to the part he was playing?"

And Alice continued: "Then papa found out that he was a gentleman in disguise-a Mr. Miles, from Sydney! He had been over some months, and was seeing England in thorough fashion. Indeed, he seemed a regular boatman, with his hands all hard and seamed with tar."

"And your father made friends with him?"

"Naturally; he brought him up to the hotel, where I heard all about the affair. You may imagine the state I was in! After that we saw a good deal of him down there, and papa got to like him very much, and asked him to come and stay with us when he grew tired of that kind of life and returned to London. And that's all."

"How long did you say it is since he saved your father's life?" Dick asked, after a short pause.

"Let me see, it's-yes, not quite a month ago."

Dick gave vent to a scarcely audible whistle.

"And he has no other friends in England?"

"Not that I know of."

"And writes no letters nor receives any?" (He was speaking from his own observation.)

"Not that I know of. But how should I know? or what does it matter?"

"In fact, he is a friendless adventurer, whom you don't know a thing about beyond what you have told me?"

Alice suddenly recoiled, and a dangerous light gleamed in her eyes.

"What do you mean? I don't understand you. Why all these questions?"

Dick regarded her unflinchingly. He knew what an honest answer would cost him, yet he was resolved to speak out.

"Because," said he, impressively and slowly, "because I don't believe Mr. Miles is what he makes himself out to be."

He knew that he had made some advance in her esteem, he knew that these words would lose him all that he had gained, and he was right. A flash of contempt lit up the girl's eyes and pierced to his soul. "Noble rival!" said she; and without another word swept haughtily past him-from the garden where they had been walking-into the house.

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