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At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 20529

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

If Mr. Miles was systematically "spoilt" by the Bristos, he was more or less entitled to the treatment, since it is not every guest who has had the privilege of saving his host from drowning. But Mr. Miles was in other ways an exceptional visitor. He contrived to create entertainment instead of requiring it. He was no anxiety to anybody; he upset no household routine; he might have remained for months, and not outstayed his welcome; from the first he made himself at home in the most agreeable fashion. In a word, he was a very charming man.

Moreover, he was unlike other men: he was far more independent, and far less conventional. It was impossible to measure him by a commonplace standard. He had little peculiarities which would not have recommended other men, but which in his case were considered virtues: he was quite artless in matters of etiquette. Indeed, he was a splendid specimen of free, ingenuous manhood-an ideal Australian, according to the notions of the old country.

The least breath against their guest on conventional grounds would have been indignantly resented by the Graysbrooke people. They put upon his peculiarities an interpretation which in Mrs. Parish's case resolved itself into a formula:

"They are so free-and-easy out there; they despise conventionality; they are natural. Oh that we were all Australians!" (Mr. Miles was the one Australian of her acquaintance.)

Thus when he swore unmistakably at a clumsy oarsman while piloting the ladies through a crowded lock, the offence was hushed up with a formula; and so were other offences, since formulas will cover anything.

One day Mrs. Parish, going into the drawing-room, paused on the threshold with an angry sniff.

"Smoke-in here! It is the very first time in all these years," severely to Alice, "that I have ever known your papa-"

"It was not papa, it was Mr. Miles," said Alice quietly. "He walked in with his pipe, and I really did not like to tell him. I believe he has gone for more tobacco."

"Why, how stupid of me! Of course, with Mr. Miles it is quite different." (Mrs. Parish assumed an indulgent tone.) "He is not used to such restraints. You were quite right to say nothing about it. He shall smoke where he likes."

Again the little old lady came to Alice, and said very gravely:

"My dear, did you notice the way our visitor refused the hock this evening? Of course they do not drink such stuff in the bush, and he must have what he is accustomed to. I will arrange with Tomlin to have the whisky decanter placed quietly in front of him for the future."

Alice, for her part, not only permitted but abetted this system of indulgence; for she agreed with Mrs. Parish that the guest was a noble creature, for whose personal comfort it was impossible to show too much solicitude-which, indeed, was the least they could do. He had saved her father's life.

That incident-which she had related to Dick with a wonderful absence of feminine exaggeration-had been in itself enough to plant in her heart a very real regard for Mr. Miles. That was but natural; but one or two other things which came to her knowledge furthered this regard.

One Saturday morning in Kingston market-place Alice met a bosom friend, who informed her that she had seen the Graysbrooke pleasure-boat being towed up-stream by a tall gentleman-("So handsome, my dear; who is he?")-while a miserable, half-starved wretch sat luxuriously in the stern-sheets. Rallied with this, the Australian's brick-dust complexion became a shade deeper. Then he made a clean breast of the affair, in his usual quiet tone, but with a nearer approach to diffidence than he had yet shown them. He had gone out for a solitary pull, and had no sooner started than a cadaverous creature with a tow-rope pestered him for a job. Miles had refused the man; doubted his strength to tow a flea with a silk thread; and observed that he, Miles, was more fit to tow the other, if it came to that. At this, Miles, being sworn at for making game of a starving man, had promptly landed, forced the man, speechless with amazement, into the boat, towed him to Kingston, and left him to a good dinner, with some wholesome advice touching immediate emigration.

A few days later, at dusk on a wet afternoon, Mrs. Parish, from her bedroom window, saw Mr. Miles walk quickly up the drive in his shirt-sleeves. It transpired that he had given his coat to a ragged, shivering tramp on the London road-plus the address of the Emigration Office.

"You see," he said, on both these occasions, "I never saw anything half so bad in my own country. If you aren't used to it, it knocks a man's heart to see a poor devil so far gone as all that."

In short, Mr. Miles exhibited to the Bristos, on several occasions, a propensity to odd and impulsive generosity; and the point told considerably in their general regard for the man, which day by day grew more profound.

Among other peculiarities, so excellently appreciated, Mr. Miles had a singular manner of speaking. It was an eminently calm manner; but for the ring of quiet audacity in every tone, it might have been called a subdued manner. He never raised his voice; he never spoke with heat. When he said to Colonel Bristo, clinging to him in the sea, "If you hang on like that I must fell you," his tone was as smooth as when he afterwards apologised for the threat. When he paid Alice his first compliment he did so without the smallest hesitation, and in his ordinary tone; and his compliments were of the most direct order. They once heard him threaten to thrash a bargee for ill-treating a horse, and they were amazed when the man sulkily desisted; the threat was so gently and dispassionately uttered. As for his adventures, they were told with so much of detail and gravity that the manner carried conviction where the matter was most fantastic. Miles was the best of "good company." Apart from the supreme service rendered to him, Colonel Bristo was fully persuaded that he was entertaining the best fellow in the world. Add to this that Mrs. Parish adored the handsome Australian, while Alice meekly revered him, and it will be easily seen that a hostile opinion of their hero was well calculated to recoil on its advocate.

During the short period in which the hero was also the stranger, he spent all his time in the Colonel's society. Apparently the two men found many subjects of mutual interest. Once, when Alice interrupted them in the study, Mr. Miles seemed to be eloquently enumerating the resources and capabilities of some remote district of the Antipodes; for though she spent some minutes getting a book, he took no notice of her presence in the room. On another occasion Alice saw her father examining a kind of map or plan, while Mr. Miles bent over him in explanation. She afterwards learnt that this was a plan of the Queensland station of which Mr. Miles was part owner.

After the first day or two it seemed evident that Mr. Miles disliked the society of ladies.

On the third evening, however, the men patronised the drawing-room for half-an-hour, and the Colonel asked Alice to sing something. She sang, and Mr. Miles listened. When she had finished, Mr. Miles coolly asked her to sing again. The following night he extracted three songs from her. Then Mr. Miles began to spend less time in his host's sanctum. He cultivated Alice; he interested himself in her amusements-photography for one; he got her to sing to him in the daytime. He was civil to Mrs. Parish.

When the young lady sat down to the piano, this sun-burned Apollo did not hang over her, as other men did (when they got the chance); nor did he turn over a bar too soon or too late-like the others. He made no pretence of polite assistance, not he. But he flung himself in a chair, threw back his head, and drank in every note. At first it was generally with his back to the piano, and always with closed eyes. Then he found another chair-one a little further away, but so placed that the girl's profile was stamped like a silhouette on the sunlit window, directly in his line of vision. And he no longer listened with closed eyelids.

Mrs. Parish, a keen observer, hovered about during these performances, and noted these things. She had perceived at the time the impression Alice's first song made upon Mr. Miles: she saw that he had regarded the girl from that moment with a newly awakened interest. Thenceforth he had made himself agreeable to both ladies, whereas before he had ignored them both. Now, although she knew well enough that Miles's attentions, so far as she was concerned, could be but politic, yet such was the inveterate vanity of this elderly duenna that she derived therefrom no small personal gratification. An impudent compliment thrilled her as it might have thrilled a schoolgirl. But this did not prevent her seeing what was really going on, nor secretly rejoicing at what she saw.

She watched the pair together from the first. She watched the girl innocently betray her veneration for the man who had saved her father's life. She knew that it is perilous for a man to see that a girl thinks him a hero, and she awaited results. She soon fancied that she saw some. She thought that Miles's habitual insouciance was a trifle less apparent when he conversed with Alice; certainly his eyes began to follow her and rest upon her; for Mr. Miles did such things openly. But she detected no corresponding symptoms in Alice; so one day she told her bluntly: "Mr. Miles is falling in love with you, child."

Alice was startled, and coloured with simple annoyance.

"What nonsense!" she said indignantly.

Immediately she thought of the absent Dick, and her blush deepened-because she thought of him so seldom. Mrs. Parish replied that it was not nonsense, but, instead of urging proofs in support of her statement, contented herself with cataloguing Mr. Miles's kingly attributes. Here Alice could not contradict her. The old lady even spoke of the station in Queensland and the house at Sydney. Encouraged by the girl's silence, however, she overshot the mark with a parallel reference-and not a kind one-to Dick Edmonstone. She saw her mistake at once, but too late; without a word Alice turned coldly from her,

and they barely exchanged civilities during the rest of that day.

From that moment Miss Bristo's manner towards Mr. Miles was changed. Mrs. Parish had put into her head a thought that had never once occurred to her. An innocent pleasure was poisoned for her. She did not quite give up the songs, and the rest, but she became self-conscious, and developed a sudden preference for that society which is said to be no company at all.

At this juncture the ship Hesper entered the Channel, and was duly reported in the newspapers. Alice saw the announcement, and knew that in two or three days she should see her lover. These days she spent in thought.

At seventeen she had been madly in love with young Edmonstone-what is called a "romantic" or "school-girl" affair-chiefly sentimental on her side, terribly earnest on his. At eighteen-parted many months from a sweetheart from whom she never heard, and beginning to think of him daily instead of hourly-she asked herself whether this was really love. At nineteen, it was possible to get through a day-days, even-without devoting sentimental minutes to the absent one. Alice was at least madly in love no longer. There remained a very real regard for Dick, a constant prayer for his welfare, a doubt as to whether he would ever come home again, a wondering (if he did) whether she could ever be the same to him again, or he to her; nothing more.

Mrs. Parish was in a great measure responsible for all this. That excellent woman had predicted from the first that Dick would never make his fortune (it was not done nowadays), and that he would never come back. Another factor was the ripening of her understanding, aided by a modicum of worldly experience which came to her at first-hand. Alice was honoured with two proposals of marriage, and in each case the rejected (both were wife-hunting) consoled himself elsewhere within three months. To this groundwork Mrs. Parish added some judicious facts from her own experience; and this old lady happened to be the girl's only confidante and adviser. Alice gathered that, though man's honour might be a steadfast rock, his love was but a shifting sand. Thus there were such things as men marrying where they had ceased to love; thus Dick might return and profess love for her which was no longer sincere.

In the end Miss Bristo was left, like many other young ladies, with an imperfect knowledge of her own mind, and attempted, unlike most young ladies, to mould her doubts into a definite and logical form. She did arrive at a conclusion-when she learned that Dick was nearly home. This conclusion was, that, whatever happened, there must be no immediate engagement: she did not know whether Dick loved her still-she was not absolutely sure that she still loved him.

We have seen how she communicated her decision to Dick. His manifest agony when he heard it sent a thrill through her heart-a thrill that recalled the old romance. The manly way in which he afterwards accepted his fate touched her still more. She began to think that she might after all have mistaken herself of late; and this notion would probably have become a conviction but for one circumstance-the presence of Mr. Miles.

Dick was jealous: she saw it, or thought she saw it, from the first. This vexed her, and she had not bargained to be vexed by Dick. It made her more than half-inclined to give him something to be jealous of. Accordingly she was once or twice so malicious as to throw Mr. Miles in his teeth in their conversations, and watch the effect. And the effect did not please her.

On the other hand, about Mr. Miles there was no particle of jealousy (one thing more to his credit). Why, he had asked with the greatest interest all about Dick, after he had gone that first evening; and her answers had been most circumspect: she had let him suppose that Dick was a squatter during his whole term in Australia. After that Mr. Miles had asked no more. But Dick had never asked one word about Mr. Miles until he had been in England a fortnight, and then he offended her deeply. Up to that point her interest in Dick had been gradually growing more tender; she felt him to be true and brave, and honoured him; and contrasted her own fickleness with his honest worth. Once or twice she felt a longing to make him happy. Even as she felt herself irresistibly bowed down before him her idol fell. From this man, whom she was learning to truly love, came a mean, unmanly suggestion. To further his progress with her he stooped to slander the man whom he was pleased to consider his rival, and that rival the noblest, the most generous of men.

She could not easily forgive this; she could never forget it, and never think quite the same of Dick afterwards. And then the conduct of the other one was so different! Her manner instinctively warmed towards Mr. Miles: she should be his champion through thick and thin. As for Dick, after that little scene, he did not come near Graysbrooke for a week.

Now, during that week, the words that had offended her recurred many times to Alice. The pale, earnest, honest face with which Dick had uttered them also rose in her mind. Was it possible that his suspicion could be absolutely groundless? Was it not credible that he might have reasons for speaking-mistaken ones, of course-which he could not reveal to her? In any case, his words rankled; and so much sting is seldom left by words which we have already dismissed, once and for all, as utterly and entirely false.

During that week, moreover, there occurred a frivolous incident, of which Alice would have thought nothing before the expression of Dick's suspicions but which now puzzled her sorely. One brilliant afternoon she found herself completely indolent. She wandered idly into the garden, and presently came upon a rather droll sight: her father and Mr. Miles, sound asleep, side by side, in a couple of basket-chairs under the shade of a weeping willow. The girl conceived a happy roguery: what a subject for a photograph! She stole into the house for her camera. When she returned, her father was gone. She was disappointed, hesitated a few moments, and then coolly photographed the still unconscious Mr. Miles. An hour later she greeted him with the negative-an excellent one.

"You said you had never been taken," said she mischievously. "Well, here is your first portrait. It will be capital."

He asked to look at it, in his quiet way. Alice handed him the dripping glass. He had no sooner held it up to the light than it slipped through his fingers, and broke into a dozen fragments upon the gravel path.

Mr. Miles apologised coldly, and proceeded to pick up the pieces with a provoking smile. Alice was irate, and accused him of breaking her negative purposely. Mr. Miles replied with charming candour that he had never been photographed in his life, and never meant to be. Already blaming herself for having yielded to a silly impulse, and one which was even open to wrong construction, Alice said no more; and presently, when the Australian gravely begged her forgiveness, it was granted with equal gravity. Nevertheless she was puzzled. Why should Mr. Miles so dread a photograph of himself? What had he to fear? Would Dick add this to his little list of suspicious circumstances? If he did, it would be the first item not utterly absurd. What if she were to tell him, and see!

As it happened, Dick called the very next day, a Wednesday, and the last day in June. Alice received him coldly. There was a natural restraint on both sides, but she thawed before he went. As he was saying good-bye, she asked him (casually) if he would come on Friday afternoon-the day of her dance-and help with the floor and things. She really wished him to come very much, for she foresaw an opportunity for explanation, without which the evening would be a misery to her; besides, they could talk over Mr. Miles fairly and confidentially. Dick jumped at it, poor fellow, brightened up at once, and walked home a happier man.

The following day Alice accompanied her father to town, on pleasure bent. The little jaunt had been long arranged, and Mr. Miles was their efficient escort.

That was on Thursday, July 1st.

Unfortunately for Mr. Biggs, M.L.C., he could not spend all his days at the Exhibition, so that a certain little drama, not widely differing from that astute legislator's preconception, was at last played to an altogether unappreciative house. The facts are these:

About four in the afternoon, an old gentleman, with snowy whiskers and hair, and with a very charming girl upon his arm, looked into the Settler's Hut. They did not remain within above ten seconds; but during those ten seconds the genus loci-who was in his customary place on the bunk-heard a voice without which caused him to start, pull the brim of his cabbage-tree hat further over his eyes, and draw a long breath through his teeth.

"I won't come in," said this voice, which was low and unconcerned; "I've seen it before; besides, I know the kind of thing rather too well."

The shadows of the old gentleman and the girl had hardly disappeared from the threshold when the man in the cabbage-tree hat and side-spring boots rose swiftly, and peered stealthily after them. What he saw caused him to smile with malignant triumph. A tall, well-dressed man walked beside the old gentleman and his daughter.

The watcher allowed them to pass almost out of sight, then followed warily. He followed them all the afternoon, keeping so far behind, and dodging so cleverly, that they never saw him. When the trio at length quitted the building and took a cab, this man followed through the streets at a double. He followed them to Waterloo. He got into the same train with them. They got out at a station on the loop line; he got out also, paid his fare to the ticket collector, and once more dogged his quarry. An hour later the cabbage-tree hat was attracting attention on that same suburban platform; later still the occupants of a third-class smoking carriage in an up train thought that they had never before seen such an evil expression as that which the broad brim of the cabbage-tree hat only partially concealed.

This also was on the 1st of July.

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