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At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 14661

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

When Dick Edmonstone opened the garden gate of Iris Lodge he was no longer excited. The storm that had so lately shaken his frame and lashed his spirit had spent its frenzy; no such traces as heaving breast or quickened pulse remained to tell of it. The man was calm-despair had calmed him; the stillness of settled gloom had entered his soul. His step was firm but heavy; the eye was vacant; lips like blanched iron; the whole face pale and rigid.

These are hall-marks graven by misery on the face of man; they are universal and obvious enough, though not always at the first glance. For instance, if prepared with a pleasant surprise for another, one is naturally slow to detect his dismal mood. Thus, no sooner had Dick set foot upon the garden path than the front door was flung open, and there stood Fanny, beaming with good-humour, good news on the tip of her tongue. It was like sunrise facing a leaden bank of western clouds.

"Oh, Dick, there is someone waiting to see you! You will never guess; it is a bush friend of yours. Such an amusing creature!" she added sotto voce.

Dick stood still on the path and groaned. "Biggs!" he muttered in despair.

Nothing directs attention to the face so surely as the voice. There was such utter weariness in this one word that Fanny glanced keenly at her brother, saw the dulness of his eyes, read for apathy agony, and knew that instant that there had been a cruel crisis in his affair with Alice Bristo.

Instead of betraying her insight, she went quickly to him with a bright smile, laid her hand on his arm, and said:

"His name is not Biggs, Dick dear. It is-but you will be very glad to see him! Come in at once."

A flash of interest lit up Dick's clouded face; he followed Fanny into the hall, and there, darkening the nearest doorway, stood a burly figure. The light of the room being behind this man, Dick could not at once distinguish his features. While he hesitated, a well-remembered falsetto asked if he had forgotten his old mate. Then Dick sprang forward with outstretched hand.

"Dear old Jack, as I live!"

"Dear old humbug! Let me tell you you've done your level best to miss me. An hour and a half have I been here, a nuisance to these ladies-"

"No, no, Dick; Mr. Flint has done nothing but entertain us," put in Mrs. Edmonstone.

"A charitable version," said Flint, bowing clumsily. "But I tell you, my boy, in half-an-hour my train goes."

"Don't delude yourself," said Dick; "you won't get off so easily to-night, let alone half-an-hour."

"Must, sir," Jack Flint replied. "Leave Dover by to-night's boat-holiday. If you'd only come in sooner! I wonder now where he's been?" Flint added, with a comic expression on his good-natured face.

"No place that I wouldn't have left for an hour or two with you, old chap," said Dick in a strange tone; "nowhere very pleasant."

Nothing better could have happened to Dick just then than seeing the chum from whom he had parted nearly three years ago. It was as though his good angel had stored up for him a sovereign simple, and administered it at the moment it was most needed. In the presence of Flint he had escaped for a few minutes from the full sense of his anguish. But now, by an unlucky remark, Jack had undone his good work as unconsciously as he had effected it. Dick remembered bitterly that long ago he had told his friend all about his love-as it then stood.

"Mr. Flint has been telling us some of your adventures, which it seems we should never have heard from you," observed Fanny, reproachfully.

This was quite true. Once snubbed at Graysbrooke, his system of silence on that subject had been extended to Iris Lodge. One set of people had voted his experiences tiresome; that was enough for him. This was doubtless unfair to his family, but it was not unnatural in Dick. He was almost morbid on the point.

"Indeed!" he replied; "but suppose he gives us some of his Irish adventures instead? How many times have they tried to pot you, my unjust landlord? You must know, mother, that this is not only my ex-partner in an honourable commercial enterprise-not only 'our Mr. Flint' that used to be-but John Flint, Esq., J.P., of Castle Flint, county Kerry; certainly a landholder, and of course-it goes without saying-a tyrant."

"Really?" said Mrs. Edmonstone. "He did not tell us that."

"It's the unhappy fact," said Flint, gloomily. "A few hundred acres of hills and heather, and a barn called by courtesy 'Castle'; those are my feudal possessions. The scenery is gorgeous, but the land-is a caution!"

"Barren?" asked Dick.

"As Riverina in a drought."

"And the tenants?"

"Oh, as to the tenants, we hit it off pretty well. It's in North Kerry they're lively. I'm in the south, you see, and there they're peaceable enough. Laziness is their worst crime. I do all I can for 'em, but I don't see how I can hold on much longer."


"No," said Flint, warmly; "I'd rather emigrate, and take the whole boiling of them with me; take up new country, and let them select on it. Dick, you savage, don't laugh; I'm not joking. I've thought about it often."

"Would you really like to go back to Australia, Mr. Flint?" Mrs. Edmonstone asked, glancing at the same time rather anxiously at her son.

"Shouldn't mind, madam," returned Flint.

"No more should I!" broke in Dick, in a harsh voice.

Flint looked anxiously at his friend, and made a mental note that Dick had not found all things quite as he expected. For a minute no one spoke; then Fanny took the opportunity of returning to her former charge.

"We have heard some of your adventures which you seemed determined to keep to yourself. I think it was very mean of you, and so does mamma. Oh, Dick, why-why did you never tell us about the bush-ranger?"

Mrs. Edmonstone gazed fondly at her son-and shivered.

"Has he told you that?" Dick asked quickly. "Jack, old chap"-rather reproachfully-"it was a thing I never spoke of."

"Nonsense, my dear fellow!"

"No, it's a fact. I never cared to talk about it, I felt it so strongly."

"Too strongly," said Flint; "I said so at the time."

For a little while Dick was silent; then he said:

"Since he has told you, it doesn't matter. I can only say it nearly drove me out of my mind; it was the bitterest hour of my life!"

A little earlier that day this would have been true.

His mother's eyes filled with tears. "I can understand your feeling, dear Dick," she murmured; "yet I wish you had told us-though, indeed, it would have made me miserable if you had written it. But now Mr. Flint has given us a graphic account of the whole incident. Thank Heaven you were spared, my boy!"

"Thank Sundown," said Dick dryly.

"Oh, yes!" cried Fanny. "Noble fellow! Poor, wicked, generous man! I didn't think such robbers existed; I thought they went out with wigs and patches, a hundred years ago."

"So they did," muttered Flint. "They're extinct as the dodo. I never could make this one out-a deep dog."

"Oh, sir," exclaimed Mrs. Edmonstone, "do you think there is no spark of goodness in the worst natures? of truth in the falsest? of generosity in the most selfish?"

Jack Flint looked quaintly solemn; his face was in shadow, luckily.

"Yes," said Dick, gravely, "my mother is right; there was a good im

pulse left in that poor fellow, and if you find gold in an outlaw and a thief, you may look for it anywhere. But in my opinion there was more than a remnant of good in that man. Think of it. He saved me from being knifed, to begin with; well, it was to his own interest to do that. But after that he took pity, and left us our money. That needed more than a good impulse; it needed a force of character which few honest men have. Try and realise his position-a price upon him, his hand against the world and the world's hand against him, a villain by profession, not credited with a single virtue except courage, not bound by a single law of God or man; a man you would have thought incapable of compassion; and yet-well, you know what he did."

There was a manly fervour in his voice which went straight to the hearts of his mother and sister. They could not speak. Even Flint forgot to look sceptical.

"If it had not meant so much to me, that hundred pounds," Dick continued, as though arguing with himself, "it is possible that I might think less of the fellow. I don't know, but I doubt it, for we had no notion then what that hundred would turn to. As it is, I have thought of it very often. You remember, Jack, how much more that hundred seemed to me at that time than it really was, and how much less to you?"

"It was a hundred and thirty," said Flint; "I remember that you didn't forget the odd thirty then."

"Dick," Fanny presently exclaimed, out of a brown study, "what do you think you would do if-you ever met that bushranger again. I mean, if he was at your mercy, you know?"

Flint sighed, and prepared his spirit for heroics.

"No use thinking," Dick answered. "By this time he's a life-if they didn't hang him."

Flint became suddenly animated.

"What?" he cried, sharply.

"Why, the last I heard of him-the day I sailed from Melbourne-was, that he was captured somewhere up in Queensland."

"If you had sailed a day later you would have heard more."

"What?" asked Dick, in his turn.

"He escaped."


"The same night. He got clean away from the police-barracks at Mount Clarence-that was the little Queensland township. They never caught him. They believe he managed to clear out of the country-to America, probably."

"By Jove, I'm not sorry!" exclaimed Dick.

"Here are some newspaper cuttings about him," continued Flint, taking the scraps from his pocketbook and handing them to Dick. "Read them afterwards; they will interest you. He was taken along with another fellow, but the other fellow was taken dead-shot through the heart. That must have been the one he called Ben; for the big brute who tried to knife you had disappeared some time before. When they were taken they were known to have a lot of gold somewhere-I mean, Sundown was-for they had just stuck up the Mount Clarence bank."

"Yes, I heard that when I heard of the capture."

"Well, it was believed that Sundown feared an attack from the police, and planted the swag, went back to it after his escape, and got clear away with the lot. But nothing is known; for neither Sundown nor the gold was ever seen again."

"Mamma, aren't you glad he escaped," cried Fanny, with glowing cheeks. "It may be wicked, but I know I am! Now, what would you do, Dick?"

"What's the good of talking about it?" said Dick.

"Then I'll tell you what I'd do; I'd hide this poor Sundown from justice; I'd give him a chance of trying honesty, for a change-that's what I should do! And if I were you, I should long and long and long to do it!"

Flint could not help smiling. Dick's sentiment on the subject was sufficiently exaggerated; but this young lady! Did this absurd romanticism run in the family? If so, was it the father, or the grandfather, or the great-grandfather that died in a madhouse?

But Dick gazed earnestly at his sister. Her eyes shone like living coals in the twilight of the shaded room. She was imaginative; and the story of Dick and the bushranger appealed at once to her sensibilities and her sympathy. She could see the night attack in the silent forest, and a face of wild, picturesque beauty-the ideal highwayman-was painted in vivid colour on the canvas of her brain.

"Fanny, I half think I might be tempted to do something like that," said Dick gently. "I have precious few maxims, but one is that he who does me a good turn gets paid with interest-though I have a parallel one for the man who works me a mischief."

"So it is a good turn not to rob a man whom you've already assaulted!" observed Flint ironically.

"It is a good turn to save a man's life."

"True; but you seem to think more of your money than your life!"

"I believe I did four years ago," said Dick, smiling, but he checked his smile when Flint looked at his watch and hastily rose.

Dick expostulated, almost to the extent of bluster, but quite in vain; Flint was already shaking hands with the ladies.

"My dear fellow," said he, "I leave these shores to-night; it's my annual holiday. I'm going to forget my peasants for a few weeks in Paris and Italy. If I lose this train I lose to-night's boat-I found out that before I came; so good-bye, my-"

"No, I'm coming to the station," said Dick; "at least I stickle for that last office."

Mrs. Edmonstone hoped that Mr. Flint-her boy's best friend, as she was assured-would see his way to calling on his way home and staying a day or two. Mr. Flint promised; then he and Dick left the house.

They were scarcely in the road before Flint stopped, turned, laid a hand on each of Dick's shoulders, and quickly delivered his mind:

"There's something wrong. I saw it at once. Tell me."

Dick lowered his eyes before his friend's searching gaze.

"Oh, Jack," he answered, sadly, "it is all wrong!"

And before they reached the station Flint knew all that there was to know-an abridged but unvarnished version-of the withering and dying of Dick's high hopes.

They talked softly together until the train steamed into the station; and then it was Dick who at the last moment returned to a matter just touched in passing:

"As to this dance to-night-you say I must go?"

"Of course you must go. It would never do to stay away. For one thing, your friend, the Colonel might be hurt and bothered, and he is now your best friend, mind. Then you must put a plucky face on it; she mustn't see you cave in after the first facer. I half think it isn't all up yet; you can't tell."

Dick shook his head.

"I would rather not go; it will be wormwood to me; you know what it will be: the two together. And I know it's all up. You don't understand women, Jack."

"Do you?" asked the other, keenly.

"She couldn't deny that-that-I can't say it, Jack."

"Ah, but you enraged her first! Anyway, you ought to go to-night for your people's sake. Your sister's looking forward to it tremendously; never been to a ball with you before; she told me so. By Jove! I wished I was going myself."

"I wish you were, instead of me."

"Nonsense! I say, stand clear. Good-bye!"

Away went the train and Jack Flint. And Dick stood alone on the platform-all the more alone because his hand still tingled from the pressure of that honest grip; because cheering tones still rang in his ears, while his heart turned sick, and very lonely.

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