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At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 11125

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The first act of every Australian who landed in England that summer was, very naturally, to visit the Exhibition-their Exhibition-at South Kensington.

Dick was not an Australian, and it therefore did not consume him to put off South Kensington until he had been a week or so quietly at home. Nevertheless he was sufficiently eager to inspect the choice products of a land that he regarded with gratitude as indeed his alma mater; and still more eager to expatiate on all that was to be seen to insular friends, who believed that New Zealand was an inland colony, and who asked if Victoria was not the capital of Sydney. On that very first evening he had made a sort of offer to escort Colonel Bristo and Alice; but there he was too late; and he experienced the first of a series of petty mortifications-already mentioned-which originated from a common cause. Mr. Miles had already been with the Bristos to the Exhibition, and had proved a most entertaining showman. He had promised to accompany them again in a week or two; would not Dick join the party? For three visits would be more than impartial persons, such as the Colonel and his daughter, were likely to care about-even with so splendid a cicerone as Mr. Miles.

Of course, Dick was not going to play second fiddle to the Australian deliberately and with his eyes open. He made his excuses, and never alluded to the matter again. But one day, after a morning's business in the City, he went alone.

When he was once in the vast place, and had found his way to the Australian section, his interest speedily rose to a high pitch. It is one thing to go to an exhibition to be instructed, or to wonder what on earth half the things are; it is something quite different to find yourself among familiar objects and signs which are not Greek to you, to thread corridors lined with curios which you hail as the household gods of your exile. Instead of the bored outsider, with his shallow appreciation of everything, you become at once a discriminate observer and intelligent critic, and sightseeing for once loses its tedium. Dick wandered from aisle to aisle, from stand to stand, in rapt attention. At every turn he found something of peculiar interest to him: here it was a view of some township whose every stick he knew by heart; there a sample of wood bearing on the printed label under the glass the name of a sheep station where he had stayed time out of number.

The golden arch at the entrance to the Victorian Court arrested him, as it arrested all the world; but even more fascinating in his eyes was the case of model nuggets close at hand. He heard a small boy asking his mamma if they were all real, and he heard mamma reply with bated breath that she supposed so; then the small boy smacked his lips, and uttered awed (though slangy) ejaculations, and the enlightened parent led him on to wonders new. But Dick still gazed at the nuggets; he was wondering-if he could have it all over again-whether he would rather pick up one of these fellows than win again their equivalent through toil and enterprise, step by step, when a smart slap on the back caused him to turn sharp round with an exclamation.

A short, stout, red-faced man stood at his elbow with arms akimbo, and grinned familiarly in his face. Dick looked him up and down with a stare of indignation; he could not for the life of him recognise the fellow; yet there he stood, his red-stubbled chin thrust forward, and a broad, good-humoured grin on his apish face, and dressed gorgeously. He wore a high white hat tilted backward, a snowy waistcoat, a dazzling tie, and a black frock-coat, with an enormous red rose in the button hole. His legs, which now formed two sides of an equilateral triangle with the floor for its base, were encased in startling checks, and his feet, which were small, in the glossiest patent leather. His left hand rested gloved upon his hip, and four fingers of his ungloved right hand were thrust into his waistcoat pocket, leaving the little one in the cold with a diamond of magnitude flashing from its lowest joint.

"Euchred?" this gentleman simply asked, in a nasal tone of immense mirth.

"If you mean do I know you, I don't," said Dick, only a degree less haughtily than if he had come straight from Oxford instead of from the bush.

"What! you don't remember me?" exclaimed the man more explicitly, his fingers itching to leap from the waistcoat-pocket.

Dick stared an uncompromising denial.

The diamond flashed in his eyes, and a small piece of pasteboard was held in front of him, on which were engraved these words:

"The Hon. Stephen Biggs."

Dick repressed an insane impulse to explode with laughter.

"What! of Marshall's Creek?"

"The same."

Dick stretched out his hand.

"A thousand pardons, my dear fellow; but how could I expect to see you here? And-the Honourable?"

"Ah!" said Mr. Biggs, with legitimate pride, "that knocks you, old man! It was only the Legislative Assembly when you and me was mates; it's the Legislative Council now. I'm in the Upper 'Ouse, my son!"

"I'm sure I congratulate you," said Dick.

"But 'ang the 'andle," continued the senator magnanimously; "call me Steve just the same."

"Well, it's like the whiff of the gum leaves to see you again, Steve. When did you arrive?"

"Last week. You see," confidentially, "I'm in my noo rig out-the best your London can do; though, after all, this Colony'll do as good any day in the week. I can't see where it is you do things better than we do. However, come and have a dr

ink, old man."

In vain Dick protested that he was not thirsty; Mr. Biggs was. Besides, bushmen are not to be denied or trifled with on such points. The little man seized Dick's arm, marched him to the nearest bar, and called for beer.

"Ah!" sighed Mr. Biggs, setting down his tankard, "this is the one point where the Old Country licks us. This Colony can't come within a cooee of you with the beer, and I'm the first to own it! We kep' nothing like this at my place on the Murray, now did we?"

Dick was forced to shake his head, for, in fact, the Honourable Stephen had formerly kept a flourishing "hotel" on the Murray, where the Colonial beer had been no better than-other Colonial beer-a brew with a bad name. Dick observed an odd habit Mr. Biggs had of referring to his native heath as though he were still on it, speaking of his country as he would have spoken of it out there-as "this Colony."

The Honourable Steve now insisted on tacking himself on to Dick, and they roamed the Exhibition together. Biggs talked volubly of his impressions of England and the English (he had crowded a great deal into his first few days, and had already "done" half London), of the Exhibition, of being fêted by the flower of Britain and fed on the fat of the land; and though his English was scarcely impeccable a vein of shrewd common sense ran through his observations which was as admirable in the man (he had risen very rapidly even for Australia) as it was characteristic of his class.

"By-the-bye," said Mr. Biggs, after they had freely criticised the romantic group of blacks and fauna in the South Australian Court, "have you seen the Hut?"

"No," said Dick.

"Then come on; it's the best thing in the whole show; and," dropping his voice mysteriously, "there's the rummest go there you ever saw in your life."

Everybody remembers the Settler's Hut. It was a most realistic property, with its strips of bark and its bench and wash-basin, though some bushmen were heard to deny below their breath the existence of any hut so spick and span "where they come from."

"Good!" said Dick, as soon as he saw the Hut. "That's the real thing, if you like."

"Half a shake," said Mr. Biggs, "and I'll show you something realler." He drew Dick to the window of the hut. "Look there!" he whispered, pointing within.

Three or four persons were inspecting the interior, and debating aloud as to how they personally should care to live in such a place; and each, as he surveyed the rude walls, the huge fireplace, the primitive cooking utensils, reserved his most inquisitive scrutiny for an oddly-dressed man who sat motionless and silent on the low bank, as though the Hut belonged to him. A more colourable inference would have been that the man belonged to the Hut; and in that case he must have been admitted the most picturesque exhibit in the Colonial Courts, as he looked the most genuine; for the man was dressed in the simple mode of an Australian stockman, and looked the part from the thin soles of his plain side-spring boots to the crown of his cabbage-tree hat. From under the broad brim of the latter a pair of quick, dark eyes played restlessly among the people who passed in and out, or thronged the door of the hut. His shoulders were bent, and his head habitually thrust forward, so that it was impossible, in the half-light, to clearly make out the features; but long, iron-gray locks fell over the collar of his coarse tweed coat, and a bushy, pepper-and-salt beard hid the throat and the upper portion of the chest. Old though the man undoubtedly was, his massive frame suggested muscularity that must once have been enormous, and must still be considerable.

"Now, what do you think of that cove?" inquired the Hon. Stephen Biggs in a stage whisper.

"Why," said Dick, who was frowning in a puzzled manner, "he looks the real thing too. I suppose that's what he's there for. Now, I wonder where--"

"Ah, but it ain't that," broke in Biggs, "I've been here every day, almost, and when I see him here every day, too, I soon found out he don't belong to the place. No; he's an ordinary customer, who pays his bob every morning when the show opens, and stays till closing-time. He's to be seen all over the Exhibition, but generally at the Hut-most always about the Hut."

"Well, if he isn't paid for it, what on earth is his object?" said Dick, as they moved away.

"Ah," said Mr. Biggs darkly, "I have a notion of my own about that, though some of the people that belong to this here place share it with me."

"And?" said Dick.

"And," said Mr. Biggs with emphasis, "in my opinion the fellow's the dead spit of a detective; what's more, you may take your Colonial oath he is one!"

"Well," said Dick coolly, "I've seen him before, though I can't tell where. I remember his bulk and shape better than his face."

"Yes? By Jove, my boy, you may be the very man he's after!"

Mr. Biggs burst into a loud guffaw; then turned grave in a moment, and repeated impressively: "A detective-my oath!"

"But he looks a genuine Australian, if ever I saw one," objected Dick.

"Well, maybe he's what he looks."

"Then do you think he's come over on purpose? It must be a big job."

"I think he has. It must."

"Ah," said Dick, "then I have seen him out there somewhere; probably in Melbourne."

"Quite likely," said Mr. Biggs. "There are plenty of his sort in this Colony, and as sharp as you'll find anywhere else, my word!"

A little later they left the Exhibition, and spent the evening together.

* * *

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