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   Chapter 14 QUITS

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 15653

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


For the second time that night Miles felt instinctively for his revolver, and for the second time in vain.

The younger man understood the movement.

"A shot would be heard in the road and at the lodge," said he quietly. "You'll only hasten matters by shooting me."

At once Miles perceived his advantage; his adversary believed him to be armed. Withdrawing his hand from the breast of his overcoat slowly, as though relinquishing a weapon in the act of drawing it, he answered:

"I believe you are right. But you are a cool hand!"

"Perhaps."

"I have only seen one other as cool-under fire."

"Indeed?"

"A fact. But I'll tell you where you come out even stronger."

"Do."

"In playing the spy. There you shine!"

"Hardly," said Dick dryly, and this time he added a word or two: "or I should have shown you up some time since."

The two men faced one another, fair and square, but their attitudes were not aggressive. Miles leant back against a tree with folded arms, and Dick stood with feet planted firmly and hands in his pockets. A combat of coolness was beginning. The combatants were a man in whom this quality was innate, and one who rose to it but rarely. In these circumstances it is strange that the self-possession of Dick was real to the core, whilst that of the imperturbable Miles was for once affected and skin-deep.

"Will you tell me," said Miles, "what you have heard? You may very possibly have drawn wrong inferences."

"I heard all," Dick answered.

"All is vague; why not be specific?"

"I heard that-well, that that woman was your wife."

Miles felt new hope within him. Suppose he had heard no more than that! And he had not heard anything more-the thing was self-evident-or he would not have spoken first of this-this circumstance which must be confessed "unpleasant," but should be explained away in five minutes; this-what more natural?-this consequence of an ancient peccadillo, this bagatelle in comparison with what he might have learned.

"My dear sir, it is nothing but an infernal lie!" he cried with eager confidence; "she never was anything of the kind. It is the old story: an anthill of boyish folly, a mountain of blackguardly extortion. Can't you see?"

"No, I can't," said Dick stolidly.

"Why, my good fellow, they have come over on purpose to bleed me-they said so. It's as plain as a pikestaff."

"That may be true, so far as the man is concerned."

"Don't you see that the woman is his accomplice? But now a word with you, my friend. These are my private affairs that you have had the impudence--"

"That was not all I heard," said Dick coldly.

Danger again-in the moment of apparent security.

"What else did you hear, then?" asked Miles, in a voice that was deep and faint at the same time.

"Who you are," replied Dick shortly. "Sundown the bushranger."

The words were pronounced with no particular emphasis; in fact, very much as though both sobriquet and calling were household words, and sufficiently familiar in all men's mouths. The bushranger heard them without sign or sound. Dick waited patiently for him to speak; but he waited long.

It was a strange interview between these two men, in the dead of this summer's night, in the heart of this public park. They were rivals in love; one had discovered the other to be not only an impostor, but a notorious felon; and they had met before under circumstances the most peculiar-a fact, however, of which only one of them was now aware. The night was at the zenith of its soft and delicate sweetness. A gentle breeze had arisen, and the tops of the slender firs were making circles against the sky, like the mastheads of a ship becalmed; and the stars were shining like a million pin-pricks in the purple cloak of light. At last Miles spoke, asking with assumed indifference what Dick intended to do.

"But let it pass; of course you will inform at once!"

"What else can I do?" demanded Dick, sternly.

Miles scrutinised his adversary attentively and speculated whether there was the least chance of frightening such a man. Then he again thrust his hand into the breast of his overcoat, and answered reflectively:

"You can die-this minute-if I choose."

Dick stood his ground without moving a muscle.

"Nonsense!" he said scornfully. "I have shown you that you can gain nothing by that."

Miles muttered a curse, and scowled at the ground, without, however, withdrawing his hand.

"The case stands thus," said Dick: "you have imposed on friends of mine, and I have found you-not a common humbug, as I thought all along-but quite a famous villain. Plainly speaking, a price is on your head."

Miles did not speak.

"And your life is in my hands."

Miles made no reply.

"The natural thing," Dick continued, "would have been to crawl away, when I heard who you were, and call the police. You see I have not done that."

Still not a word.

"Another, and perhaps fairer, way would be to give you a fair start from this spot and this minute, and not say a word for an hour or two, until people are about; the hare-and-hounds principle, in fact. But I don't mean to do that either."

Miles raised his eyes, and at last broke his silence.

"You are arbitrary," he sneered. "May I ask what is the special quality of torture you have reserved for me? I am interested to know."

"I shall name a condition," replied Dick firmly-"a single condition-on which, so far as I am concerned, you may impose on the public until some one else unmasks you."

"I don't believe you!"

"You have not heard my condition. I am in earnest."

"I wouldn't believe you on oath!"

"And why?"

"Because you owe me a grudge," said Miles, speaking rapidly-"because it is in your interest to see me go under."

"My condition provides for all that."

"Let me hear it, then."

"First tell me how you came to know the Bristos."

Miles gave Dick substantially the same story that he had already learned from Alice.

"Now listen to me," said Dick. "Instead of squatter you were bushranger. You had been in England a day or two instead of a month or two, and you had set foot in Sussex only; instead of masquerading as a fisherman you wore your own sailor's clothes, in which you swam ashore from your ship."

"Well guessed!" said Miles ironically.

"A cleverer thing was never done," Dick went on, his tone, for the moment, not wholly free from a trace of admiration. "Well, apart from that first set of lies, your first action in England was a good one. That is one claim on leniency. The account you have given me of it is quite true, for I heard the same thing from one whose lips, at least, are true!"

These last words forced their way out without his knowledge until he heard them.

"Ah!" said Miles.

An involuntary subdual of both voices might have been noticed here; it was but momentary, and it did not recur.

Dick Edmonstone took his hands from his pockets, drew nearer to Miles, slowly beat his left palm with his right fist, and said:

"My condition is simply this: you are to go near the Bristos no more."

If this touched any delicate springs in the heart of Miles, their workings did not appear in his face. He made no immediate reply; when it came, there was a half-amused ring in his speech:

"You mean to drive a hard bargain."

"I don't call it hard."

"All I possess is in that house. I cannot go far, as I stand; you might as well give me up at once."

"I see," said Dick musingly. "No; you are to have an excellent chance. I have no watch on me: have you? No? Well, it can't be more than one now, or two at the latest, and they keep up these dances till dawn-or they used to. Then perhaps you had better go back to the house now. Button-hole the Colonel; tell him you have had a messenger down from town

-from your agent. You can surely add a London agent to your Queensland station and your house in Sydney! Well, affairs have gone wrong on this station of yours-drought, floods-anything you like; you have received an important wire; you are advised, in fact, to start back to Queensland at once. At any rate, you must pack up your traps and leave Graysbrooke first thing in the morning. You are very sorry to be called back so suddenly-they are sorrier still to lose you; but Australia and England are so close now, you are sure to be over again some day-and all the rest of it; but you are never to go near them again. Do you agree?"

"What is the alternative?"

"Escape from here dressed like that if you can! You will breakfast in gaol. At best you will be hunted for a week or two, and then taken miserably-there is no bush in England; whereas I offer you freedom with one restriction."

"I agree," said Miles, hoarsely.

"Very good. If you keep your word, Sundown the bushranger is at the bottom of the sea, for all I know; if you break it, Sundown the bushranger is a lost man. Now let us leave this place."

Dick led the way from the plantation, with his hands again deep in his pockets.

Miles followed, marvelling. Marvelling that he, who had terrorised half Australia, should be dictated to by this English whelp, and bear it meekly; wondering what it all meant. What, to begin with, was the meaning of this masterly plan for an honourable exit? which was, in fact, a continuation of his own falsehood. Why had not this young fellow-who had every reason to hate him, independently of to-night's discovery-quietly brought the police and watched him taken in cold blood? There would have been nothing underhand in that; it was, in fact, the only treatment that any criminal at large would expect at the hands of the average member of society-if he fell into those hands. Then why had not this been done? What tie or obligation could possibly exist between this young Edmonstone and Sundown the Australian bushranger?

The night was at its darkest when they reached the avenue; so dark that they crossed into the middle of the broad straight road, where the way was clearest. Straight in front of them burned the lamps of the gateway, like two yellow eyes staring through a monstrous crape mask. They seemed to be walking in a valley between two long, regular ranges of black mountains with curved and undulating tops-only that the mountains wavered in outline, and murmured from their midst under the light touch of the sweet mild breeze.

They walked on in silence, and watched the deep purple fading slowly but surely before their eyes, and the lights ahead growing pale and sickly.

Miles gave expression to the thought that puzzled him most:

"For the life of me, I can't make out why you are doing this" (he resented the bare notion of mercy, and showed it in his tone). "With you in my place and I in yours--"

Dick stopped in his walk, and stopped Miles also.

"Is it possible you do not know me?"

"I have known you nearly a month," Miles answered.

"Do you mean to say you don't remember seeing me before-before this last month?"

"Certainly, when first I met you, I seemed to remember your voice; but from what I was told about you I made sure I was mistaken."

"Didn't they tell you that at one time, out there I was hawking?"

"No. Why, now-"

"Stop a bit," said Dick, raising his hand. "Forget that you are here; forget you are in England. Instead of these chestnuts, you're in the mallee scrub. The night is far darker than this night has ever been: the place is a wilderness. You are lying in wait for a hawker's wagon. The hawkers drive up; you take them by surprise, and you're three to two. They are at your mercy. The younger one is a new chum from England-a mere boy. He has all the money of the concern in his pocket, and nothing to defend it with. He flings himself unarmed upon one of your gang, and, but for you, would be knifed for his pains. You save him by an inch; but you see what maddens him-you see he has the money. You take it from him. The money is all the world to him: he is mad: he wants to be killed outright. You only bind him to the wheel, taking from him all he has. So he thinks, and death is at his heart. But he finds that, instead of taking it all, you have left it all; you have been moved by compassion for the poor devil of a new chum! Well, first he cannot believe his eyes; then he is grateful; then senseless."

Miles scanned the young man's face in the breaking light. Yes, he remembered it now; it had worn this same passionate expression then. His own face reflected the aspect of the eastern sky; a ray was breaking in upon him, and shedding a new light on an old action, hidden away in a dark corner of his mind. A thing that had been a little thing until now seemed to expand in the sudden warmth of this new light. Miles felt an odd, unaccountable sensation, which, however, was not altogether outside his experience: he had felt it when he pulled Colonel Bristo from the sea, and in the moment of parting with his coat to a half-perishing tramp.

Dick continued:

"Stop a minute-hear the end. This new chum, fresh from 'home,' was successful. He made a fortune-of a sort. It might have been double what it is had he been in less of a hurry to get back to England." Dick sighed. "Whatever it is, it was built on that hundred which you took and restored: that was its nucleus. And therefore-as well as because you saved his life-this new chum, when no longer one, never forgot Sundown the bushranger; he nursed a feeling of gratitude towards him which was profound if, as he had been assured, illogical. Only a few hours ago he said, 'If he came within my power I should be inclined to give him a chance,' or something like that." Dick paused; then he added: "Now you know why you go free this morning."

Miles made no immediate remark. Bitter disappointment and hungry yearning were for the moment written clearly on his handsome, reckless face. At last he said:

"You may not believe me, but when you came to me-down there on the lawn-that's what I was swearing to myself; to begin afresh. And see what has come to me since then!" he added, with a harsh laugh.

"Just then," returned Dick, frankly, "I should have liked nothing better than to have seen you run in. I followed you out with as good a hate as one man can feel towards another. You never thought of my following you out here? Nor did I think of coming so far; by the bye, the-your wife made it difficult for me; she was following too. Yes, I hated you sufficiently; and I had suspected you from the first-but not for what you are; when I heard Jem Pound say your name I was staggered, my brain went reeling, I could scarcely keep from crying out."

"Did you recognise him?"

"Pound? No: I thought him a detective. He is a clever fellow."

"He is the devil incarnate!"

They had passed through the gates into the road.

"Here we separate," said Dick. "Go back to Graysbrooke the way you came, and pack your things. Is there any need to repeat-"

"None."

"You understand that if you break it, all's up with you?"

"I have accepted that."

"Then we are quits!"

"I like your pluck-I liked it long ago," said Miles, speaking suddenly, after staring at Dick for more than a minute in silence. "I was thinking of that new chum hawker awhile ago, before I knew you were he. You reminded me of him. And I ought to have known then; for I was never spoken to the same, before or since, except then and now. No one else ever bargained with Sundown! Well, a bargain it is. Here's my hand on it."

As he spoke, he shook Edmonstone by the hand with an air of good faith. Next moment, the two men were walking in opposite directions.

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