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At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 16296

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

To enter a cricket-field in mid-winter and a ballroom at midday are analogous trials, and serious ones to enthusiasts in either arena; but the former is a less depressing sight in January than in December, while there is something even inspiriting about a ballroom the day before the dance.

When, quite early in the afternoon, Alice slipped unobserved into the cool and empty dining-room, her cheeks glowed, her eyes sparkled, and the hard boards yielded like air beneath her airy feet. She shut the door quietly, though with an elbow; her hands were full. She carried two long wax candles that knew no flame, two gleaming dinner-knives, and a pair of scissors. These were deposited on a chair-provisionally-while the young lady inspected the floor with critical gaze.

She frowned-the floor was far from perfect. She slid out one small foot, as if trying dubious ice-yes, most imperfect. The other foot followed; it would be impossible to dance on a floor like this. Next instant the lie was given to this verdict by the judge herself, for Miss Bristo was skimming like a swallow round the room.

Would you see a graceful maiden at her best? Then watch her dancing. Would you behold her most sweet? Then catch her unawares-if you can. Most graceful and most sweet, then-I admit that the combination is a rare one, but she should be dancing all alone; for, alas! the ballroom has its mask, and the dual dance its trammels.

In this instance it was only that Alice desired to try the floor, and to assure herself that her feet had lost none of their cunning; and only once round. No, twice; for, after all, the floor was not so very bad, while the practice was very good, and-the sensation was delicious. Yet a third round-a last one-with quickened breath and heightened colour, and supple curves and feet more nimble, and a summer gown like a silver cloud, now floating in the wake of the pliant form, now clinging tenderly as she swiftly turned. And none to see her!

What, none?

As Alice came to an abrupt pause in front of her cutlery and candles, a deep soft voice said, "Bravo!"

She looked quickly up, and the base of a narrow open window at the end of the room was filled by a pair of broad shoulders; and well set up on the shoulders was a handsome, leonine face, with a blond beard and a pair of bold, smiling eyes.

"Bravo, Miss Bristo!"

"Well, really, Mr. Miles-"

"Now don't be angry-you can't be so unreasonable. I was out here; I saw something white and dazzling pass the window twice; and the third time I thought I'd see what it was. I came and looked, and thought it was an angel turned deserter, and dancing for joy to be on earth again! There was no harm in that, was there?"

"There is a great deal of harm in compliments," said Alice severely; "especially when they are wicked as well as rude."

Mr. Miles smiled up at her through the window, completely unabashed.

"I forgot. Of course it was rude to liken you to gods I never saw, and never hope to see. Forgive me!"

But Alice was thinking that her freak required a word of explanation.

"I was only just trying the floor," she said. "I never dreamt that anyone would be so mean as to watch me."

"Unfortunately one can't learn from merely watching," Mr. Miles replied, quietly raising himself upon the sill. "You surely haven't forgotten the lesson you promised to give me?"-swinging his legs into the room-"I claim that lesson now." He towered above her, a column of gray tweed, his arms folded lightly across his massive chest.

The window by which Miles entered was five feet above the river lawn, and one of three at that end of the room-the other walls had none. Standing with one's back to these windows, the door was on the right hand side, and, facing it, a double door communicating with the conservatory. Before this double door, which was ajar, hung a heavy curtain, awaiting adjustment for the evening.

"I did not ask you in," remarked Alice with some indignation. It was just like Mr. Miles, this; and for once he really was not wanted.

"Unfortunately, no; you forced me to ask myself. But about the lesson? You know I never danced in my life; am I to disgrace my country to-night?"

"You should have come to me this morning."

"You were-cooking, I believe."

"Thank you, Mr. Miles! Then yesterday."

"We were all in town. Now do be the angel you looked a minute since, Miss Bristo, and show me the ropes. It won't take you ten minutes; I assure you I'm a quick learner. Why, if it's time you grudge, we have wasted ten minutes already, talking about it."

Impudence could no higher climb; but Mr. Miles was not as other men are-at least, not in this house. There was nothing for it but to give in, show him the rudiments, and get rid of them as quickly as possible; for Dick might arrive at any moment.

"Ten minutes is all I shall give you, then. Attention! One, two, three; one, two, three; so! Can you do it?"

Of course he could not, after a niggardly example of half-a-dozen steps: he did not try; he insisted on her waltzing once right round the room very slowly.

"Then it is your last chance," exclaimed Alice. "Now watch: you begin so: one-a long one, remember-then two, three-little quick ones. Now try. No, you needn't lift your feet; you are not stamping for an encore, Mr. Miles. It is all done by sliding, like this. Now, try again."

Miles bent his six feet three into five feet nothing, and slid gravely round with an anxious watch upon his feet.

"Why, you are bent double," cried Miss Bristo, sharply; "and, let me tell you, you will never learn while you look at your feet."

Miles stopped short.

"Then how am I to learn?" he asked, gazing helplessly at his instructress.

Alice burst out laughing.

"You had better lock yourself in your room and practise hard until evening. The ten minutes are up; but you have exactly six hours and twenty-nine minutes before you, if you make haste."

"Well, you shall suffer if I cut a poor figure to-night, Miss Bristo, and it will serve you right, for I intend to have my share of your dances."

"That remains to be seen," said Alice tritely.

"Stay, though," said Miles, drawing himself up to the last of his seventy-five inches, and speaking in that smooth, matter-of-fact tone that ushered in his most astounding audacities, "suppose we two try-in double harness-now?"

"Mr. Miles!"

"Miss Bristo, I am sure I should get on a thousand times better. Is it so very much to ask?" he added humbly-for him.

The inner Alice echoed the question: Was it so very much to ask-or to grant? The answer came at once: To anyone else, yes; to Mr. Miles, no; grave, heroic, middle-aged Mr. Miles! With a mighty show of condescension, Miss Bristo agreed to one round, and not a step more. She would not have been called prude for the world; but unluckily, prudery and prudence so often go hand in hand.

The two went whirling round the empty room. Before they were half-way round, Alice exclaimed:

"You have cheated; never danced, indeed!"

He murmured that it was so many years ago, he thought he had forgotten. Having thus discovered that she could teach her pupil nothing, it was Alice's plain duty to stop; but this she forgot to do. Mr. Miles, for his part, said not a word, but held her firmly. He, in fact, waltzed better than any man she had ever danced with. Two rounds-three-six-without a word.

Even if they had not been dancing they might have failed to hear a buoyant footstep that entered the conservatory at this time; for the worst of an india-rubber sole is the catlike tread that it gives the most artless wearer. But it was an unfortunate circumstance that they did just then happen to be dancing.

There is no excuse for Miss Bristo, that I know of. Pleas of faulty training or simplicity within her years would, one feels, be futile. Without doubt she behaved as the girl of this period is not intended to behave; let her be blamed accordingly. She did not go unpunished.

After waltzing for no less a space than five minutes-in a ballroom bare as a crypt, in broad daylight, and in silence-Alice

, happening to look up, saw a look on her partner's face which made her tremble. She had never seen a similar expression.

It was pale and resolute-stern, terrible. She disengaged herself with little ado, and sank quietly into a chair by the window.

"A fine 'one round'!" she said demurely; "but it shall be deducted from your allowance this evening."

She could not see him; he was behind her. His eyes were devouring the shapely little head dipped in the gold of the afternoon sun. Her face he could not see-only the tips of two dainty ears and they were pink. But a single lock of hair-a wilful lock that had got astray in the dance, and lay on her shoulder like a wisp of sunlit hay-attracted his attention, and held it. When he managed to release his eyes, they roved swiftly round the room, and finally rested upon another chair within his reach, on which lay two wax-candles, two dinner-knives, and a pair of scissors.

A click of steel an inch from her ear caused Alice to start from her chair and turn round. Mr. Miles-pale, but otherwise undisturbed-stood holding the scissors in his right hand, and in his left was a lock of her hair. For one moment Miss Bristo was dumb with indignation. Then her lips parted; but before she could say a word the door-handle turned, Mr. Miles dropped the scissors upon the chair and put his left hand in his pocket, and the head and shoulders of Colonel Bristo were thrust into the room.

"Ah, I have found you at last!" the old gentleman cried with an indulgent smile. "If you are at liberty, and Alice don't mind, we will speak of-that matter-in my study."

"My lesson is just over," said Miles, bowing to Alice. He moved towards the door; with his fingers upon the handle, he turned, and for an instant regarded Alice with a calm, insolent, yet tender gaze; then the door closed, and Alice was alone.

She heard the footsteps echo down the passage; she heard another door open and shut. The next sound that reached her ears was at the other side of the room in which she sat. She glanced quickly toward the curtained door: a man stood between it and her. It was Dick.

Alice recoiled in her chair. She saw before her a face pale with passion; for the first time in her life she encountered the eyes of an angry man. She quailed; a strange thrill crept through her frame; she could only look and listen. It seemed an age before Dick spoke. When he did speak, it was in a voice far calmer than she expected. She did not know that the calm was forced, and therefore the more ominous.

"I have only one thing to ask," he began hurriedly, in a low tone: "was this a plot? If it was, do say so, and so far as I am concerned its effect shall be quick enough: I will go at once. Only I want to know the worst, to begin with."

Alice sat like a stone. She gave no sign that she had so much as heard him. Poor girl, the irony of Fate seemed directed against her! She had invited Dick on purpose to consult him about Mr. Miles, and now-and now-

"You don't speak," pursued Dick, less steadily; "but you must. I mean to have my answer before either of us leaves this room. I mean to know all there is to know. There shall be an end to this fooling between us two!"

"What right have you to speak to me like this?"

"The right of a true lover-hopeless of late, yet still that! Answer me: had you planned this?"

"You know that is absurd."

How coldly, how evenly she spoke! Was her heart of ice? But Dick-there was little of the "true lover" in his looks, and much of the true hater. Yet even now, one gentle word, one tender look from him, and tears of pity and penitence might still have flowed. His next words froze them.

"No conspiracy, then! Merely artless, honest, downright love-making; dancing-alone-and giving locks of hair and (though only by coincidence!) the man you loved once and enslaved for ever-this man of all others asked by you to come at this very hour, and, in fact, turning up in the middle of it! And this was chance. I am glad to hear it!"

Men have been called hard names for speaking to women less harshly than this-even on greater provocation; but let it be remembered that he had loved her long years better than his life; that he had wrenched himself from England and from her-for her sake; that during all that time her image had been graven on his soul. And, further, that he had led a rough life in rough places, where men lose their shallower refinements, and whence only the stout spirits emerge at all.

When recrimination becomes insult a woman is no longer defenceless; right or wrong in the beginning, she is right now; she needs no more than the consciousness of this to quicken her wit and whet her tongue.

"I do not understand you," exclaimed Alice, looking him splendidly in the face. "Have the goodness to explain yourself before I say the last word that shall ever pass between you and me."

"Yes, I will explain," cried Dick, beside himself-"I will explain your treatment of me! While you knew I was on my way to you-while I was on the very sea-you took away your love from me, and gave it to another man. Since then see how you have treated me! Well, that man-the man you flatter, and pet, and coquette with; the man who kennels here like a tame dog-is a rogue: a rogue and a villain, mark my words!"

In the midst of passion that gathered before his eyes a marble statue, pure and cold, seemed to rise out of the ground in front of him.

"One word," said Alice Bristo, in the kind of voice that might come from marble: "the last one. You spoke of putting an end to something existing between us-'fooling' was the word you used. Well, there was something between us long ago, though you might have found a prettier word for it; but it also ended long ago; and you have known that some weeks. There has since been friendship; yes, you shall have an end put to that too, though you might have asked it differently. Stay, I have not finished. You spoke of Mr. Miles; most of what you said was beneath notice; indeed, you have so far lost self-control that I think you cannot know now what you said a minute ago. But you spoke of Mr. Miles in a cruel, wicked way. You have said behind his back what you dare not say to his face. He at least is generous and good; he at least never forgets that he is a gentleman; but then, you see, he is so infinitely nobler, and truer, and greater than you-this man you dare to call a villain!"

"You love him!" cried Dick fiercely.

Instead of answering, Alice lowered her eyes. Stung to the quick-sick and sore at heart-revenge came within her reach in too sweet a form to be resisted.

Never was lie better acted. Dick was staggered. He approached her unsteadily.

"It is a villain that you love!" he gasped. "I know it-a villain and an impostor! But I will unmask him with my own hands-so help me God!"

He raised his pale face upward as he spoke, smiting his palms together with a dull dead thud. Next moment he had vaulted through the open window by which Miles had entered so short a time before-and was gone.

* * *

Meanwhile an interview of a very different character took place in Colonel Bristo's sanctum. It ended thus:

"Then you are quite sure that this hundred will be enough for you to go on with?"

"More than enough; fifty would have done. Another Queensland mail is due a month hence; and they can never fail me twice running."

"But you say you are so far up country that you do not send down to meet every mail. Your partner may not have thought you likely to run short."

"I wired him some weeks ago that I had miscalculated damages. I should have had my draft by this mail but for the floods. I feel confident they have prevented him sending down in time; there has been mention of these floods several times in the papers."

"Well, my dear Miles, if you want more, there is more where this came from. I cashed the cheque myself this morning, by the way; I happened to be in the bank, and I thought you would like it better. Here they are-ten tens."

"Colonel Bristo, I can never express-"

"Don't try, sir. You saved my life."

* * *

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