MoboReader> Literature > At Large


At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 13044

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Mr. Miles had written his name no fewer than six times on Alice's card. On finding this out Alice had resolved to recognise perhaps half these engagements-in any case, no more than should suit her convenience. After her dance with Dick she found it would suit her admirably to recognise them all.

For Dick had no word of apology or regret; in fact, he did not speak at all. He did not even look sorry; but only hard and cold and bitter. It was not in the power of woman to treat such a man too harshly.

Alice therefore threw herself into these dances with Miles with a zest which brought about one good result: the mere physical effort gradually allayed the fever of her spirit; with the even, rhythmical motion sufficient peace stole into the heart of the girl to subdue the passionate tumult of many hours. To this tranquillity there presently succeeded the animation inseparable from ardent exercise.

While the music lasted Alice could scarcely bring herself to pause; she seemed never to tire. Between the dances she spoke little to her partner, but filled her lungs with new breath, and waited impatiently for the striking of a new note; and when the new note sounded she turned to that partner with eyes that may have meant to fill with gratitude, yet seemed to him to glow with something else.

Once, when he led her from the heated room, she fancied many eyes were upon her. She heard whispers; a murmur scarcely audible; a hum of wonder, of admiration, perhaps of envy. Well, was she not to be admired and envied? Could she not at least compare with the fairest there in looks? Was there one with a foot more light and nimble? And was not this, her partner, the manliest yet most godlike man that ever stooped to grace a ballroom?-and the best dancer into the bargain?-and the most admirable altogether? These questions were asked and answered in one proud upward glance as she swept on his arm through the throng.

"She never looked so well before," exclaimed Mrs. Parish, in an ecstatic aside to Colonel Bristo; "so brilliant, so animated, so happy!"

"I don't agree with you," the Colonel answered shortly; and he added, with strange insight in one usually so unobservant: "Alice is not herself to-night."

That seemed absurd on the face of it. Who that watched her dancing could have admitted it for a moment? Well, last of all, probably her partner.

The music burst forth again. The dancers flocked back to the room, Alice and Mr. Miles among them. It was the sixth dance, and their third together.

Again they were dancing together, the glassy floor seeming to pass beneath their feet without effort of theirs, the music beating like a pulse in the brain. As for Alice, she forgot her partner, she forgot Dick, she forgot the faces that fled before her eyes as she glided, and turned, and skimmed, and circled; she only knew that she was whirling, whirling, and that for awhile her heart was at rest.

Before the dance was fairly over, Miles led his partner into the conservatory, but said to her: "We will go right through into the open air; it will be so much pleasanter." And he did not wait her consent either-which was characteristic.

The smooth lawn leading down to the river was illuminated, and now that it was quite dark it had a very effective appearance, and was a charming resort between the dances. The lawn was bounded on the right by the little inlet which has been mentioned. A rustic bridge crossed this inlet, leading into a meadow, where seven tall poplars, in rigid rank, fronted the river. Without a protest from the girl, Miles led her over the bridge, and across the meadow, and down to the river's brim, under the shadow of the stately poplars. Most likely she did not heed where they were going; at any rate, they had been there often enough together before-in daylight.

It was a heavenly night; the pale blue stars were reflected in the black still mirror of the Thames, the endless song of the weir was the only sound that broke the absolute stillness of the meadow. No voices reached them from the house, no strains of music. As though influenced by the night, the two were silent for some minutes; then Alice said lightly:

"I am glad you brought me out; I was beginning to stifle. What a lovely night! But I thought there would be a moon. When is there a moon, Mr. Miles?"

No answer but a deep breath, that was half a groan Alice thought. Perhaps she was mistaken. She could not see his face, unless she moved away from him, he was so tall. She repeated the question:

"I want to know when there will be a moon. It would be so delicious now, if it shot up right over there, to be reflected right down there-but why don't you speak, Mr. Miles?"

Still no answer. She drew back a step. He was standing like a monument, tall and rigid, with his hands clasped tightly in front of him and his face turned slightly upward. He seemed unconscious of her presence at his side. Something in his motionless attitude, and the ghastly pallor of his face in the starlight, sent a thrill of vague fear to the heart of Alice. She drew yet a little farther from him, and asked timidly if anything was the matter.

Slowly he turned and faced her. His head drooped, his shoulders sank forward. She could see little beads glistening on his forehead. His hands loosed each other, and his arms were lifted towards her, only to be snatched back, and folded with a thud upon the breast. There they seemed to sink and fall like logs upon a swollen sea.

"Matter?" he cried in a low, tremulous voice; then, pausing, "nothing is the matter!" Then in a whisper, "Nothing to tell you-now."

A strange coldness overcame Alice-the sense of an injury wrought in her carelessness on the man before her. She tried to speak to him, but could find no words. With a single glance of pity, she turned and fled to the house. He did not follow her.

So Mrs. Parish had been right, after all; and she, Alice-a dozen names occurred to her which she had heard fastened upon women who sport with men's hearts to while away an idle month.

She reached the conservatory, but paused on the stone steps, with a hand lightly laid on the iron balustrade-for the floor-level was some feet above that of the garden-path. The music was in full swing once more, but Alice's attention was directed to another sound-even, rapid, restless footsteps on the drive. She peered in that direction; for it was possible, from her position on these steps, to see both the river to the left and

the lodge-gates far off on the right-in daylight. She had not long to wait. A figure crossed quickly before her, coming from the front of the house: a man-by his dress, one of the guests-and bare-headed. When he first appeared, his back was half-turned to her; as he followed the bend of the drive she saw nothing but his back! then she lost sight of him in the darkness and the shadows of the drive. Presently she heard his steps returning; he was perambulating a beat. Not to be seen by him as he neared the house, Alice softly opened the door and entered the conservatory. It was at that moment quite deserted. She moved noiselessly to the southern angle, hid herself among the plants, and peered through the glass. It was very dark in this corner, and the foliage so thick that there was small chance of her being seen from without. The solitary figure passed below her, on the other side of the glass; it was Dick: she had been sure of it.

She watched him cross and recross twice-thrice; then she trembled violently, and the next time she could not see him distinctly, because tears-tears of pity-had started to her eyes. If a face-haggard, drawn, white as death, hopeless as the grave-if such a face is a sight for tears, then no wonder Alice wept. Was it possible that this was he who landed in England less than a month ago-so gay, so successful, so boyish? He looked years older. The eager light had gone out of his eyes. His step, so buoyant then, was heavy now, though swift with the fever of unrest. He bent forward as he walked, as though under a burden: a month ago he had borne no burden. Was this the man she had loved so wildly long ago-this wreck? Was this the result of trying to rule her heart by her head? Was this, then, her handiwork?

Her cup to-night was to be filled to overflowing. Even now her heart had gone out in pity to another whom also she had wronged-in pity, but not in love. For here, at last-at this moment-she could see before her but one: the man who had loved her so long and so well; the man who had once held her perfect sun of love-Heaven help her, who held it still!

A faintness overcame this frail girl. Her frame shook with sobs. She could not see. She leant heavily against the framework of the glass. She must have fallen, but a gentle hand at that moment was thrust under her arm.

"Oh, fancy finding you here! Your father sent me-" the pleasant voice broke off suddenly, and Alice felt herself caught in strong and tender arms. She looked up and saw Dick's sister. Her poor beating heart gave one bound, and then her head sank on Fanny's shoulder.

Presently she was able to whisper:

"Take me up-stairs; I am ill. It has been a terrible day for me!"

* * *

Mr. Miles still stood by the river, erect, motionless; his powerful hands joined in front of him in an iron knot, his fine head thrown slightly backward, as though in defiance. At first the thoughts in his mind were vague. Then, very slowly, they began to take shape. A little later his expression was soft and full of hope, and his lips kept repeating inaudibly one word: the word "to-morrow."

Then in a moment his mind was chaos.

There is nothing more confusing to the brain than memory. Often there is nothing so agonising and unsparing in its torture, when memory preys upon the present, consuming all its peace and promise like some foul vampire. Miles was now in the clutch of memory in its form of monster. His teeth were clenched, his face livid, the veins on his forehead standing out like the spreading roots of an oak. Spots of blood stood under the nails of his clenched fingers.

The stars blinked high overhead, and the stars deep down in the tranquil water answered them. The voice of the weir seemed nearer and louder. A gentle breeze stirred the line of poplars by the river's brink in the meadow, and fanned the temples of the motionless man at their feet. A bat passed close over him, lightly touching his hair with its wing. Miles did not stir.

Slowly-as it were, limb by limb-he was freeing himself from the grip of the hideous past. At last, with a sudden gesture, he flung back his head, and his eyes gazed upward to the zenith. It was an awful gaze: a vision of honour and happiness beyond a narrow neck of crime-a glimpse of heaven across the gulf of hell.

His tongue articulated the word that had trembled on his lips before: now it embodied a fixed resolve-"To-morrow! to-morrow!"

* * *

Mr. Miles became suddenly aware that his name was being spoken somewhere in the distance by a voice he knew-young Edmonstone's. A moment later the speaker was with him, and had added:

"There is someone who wants to speak to you, standing outside the gate."

There was a gleam of triumph in the younger man's eyes that shot out from the misery of his face like lightning from a cloud, throwing that misery into stronger relief. Miles noted this swift gleam, and it struck terror into his heart-at this moment, more than terror. He was as a general who, on the eve of the brilliant stroke that is to leave him conqueror, hears the alarm sounded in his own rearguard. He stared Dick up and down for some moments. When he spoke, it was-to the ear-with perfect coolness:

"Thanks. I half-expected something of the kind; but it is an infernal nuisance to-night. I must get a coat and hat, for I may have to go up to town at once." And he strode away.

Dick watched him out of sight, admiring more than anything he had seen in this man his readiness and resource at this moment. He would have liked to follow Miles, and keep him within reach or sight; but those were not his directions. Instead, he crossed the bridge, at once bore to the left, and crept into the shrubbery. Keeping close to the wall, without stirring a single leaf, he gained a spot within ten paces of the gate, whence he could command most of the drive and a fair slice of the road. In a minute Miles approached at a swinging walk. He passed close to Dick, and so through the gate. At that moment a man emerged from the shadows at the other side of the road; it was the man Dick had discovered in the shrubbery, though he had seen him before-in the Settler's Hut!

The two men were now but a few paces apart; with little more than a yard between them, they stopped. A low chuckle escaped one of them; but without another sound they turned-passed slowly down the road, side by side, and so out of sight.

Dick gasped: it was so very unlike his preconceived notions of arrest!

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top