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At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 14906

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Dick reached Iris Lodge before the other two whom he had left at the ball. This was fortunate, not only because he had the latchkey in his pocket, but since it obviated crooked answers to awkward questions: they would, of course, suppose that he had gone straight home from the Bristos'.

He went quietly up to his room, changed his coat, and filled his pipe. In searching for matches on the dressing-table, however, he came across something which caused him to forget his pipe for the moment; a packet of letters in an elastic band, displaying immediately below the band a thin, folded collection of newspaper cuttings. They were the extracts Flint had given him, referring to the capture and subsequent escape of Sundown the bushranger. He had found no time to read them before going out, and now-well, now he would read them with added interest, that was all.

Yet he stood still with the papers in his hand, trying to realise all that he had seen, and heard, and said since midnight; trying not to separate in his mind the vaguely suspected rogue of yesterday and the notorious villain unmasked this morning; trying, on the other hand, to reconcile the Sundown of his remembrance-still more of his imagination-with the Miles of his acquaintance, to fuse two inconsistent ideas, to weld unsympathetic metals.

Standing thus, with all other sensations yielding to bewilderment, Dick was recalled to himself by hearing voices and footsteps below his window. Fanny and Maurice had returned; he must go down and let them in, and then-the cuttings!

"Why, how long have you been in?" was Fanny's first question; she had too much tact to ask him why he had left.

"Oh, a long time," Dick replied. "I didn't feel quite all right," he added, a shade nearer the truth; "but-but I thought it would only bother you."

"How could you think that? If you had only told me," said Fanny, with honest trouble in her voice, "you shouldn't have come alone."

"Then I'm glad I gave you the slip." Dick manufactured a laugh. "But, indeed, I'm all right now-right as the mail, honour bright!"

"But why didn't you go to bed when you got home?" his sister pursued.

"The key!" explained Maurice laconically, turning out the hall gas as he spoke.

They stole up-stairs in the pale chill light that fell in bars through the blind of the landing window.

Fanny laid her hand softly on Dick's shoulder.

"It was wretched after you went," she whispered sympathetically. "Do you know that-that-" timorously-"Alice went up-stairs and never came down again?"

"Did no one else disappear?" asked Dick, bending his head to read his sister's eyes.

Fanny hung her head. Mr. Miles had been missed by all; but no one-except the Colonel-had remarked Dick's absence in her hearing. When she had found Alice nearly fainting, and taken her to her maid, she had seen, indeed, that her friend was sorely distressed about something; but the friendship between them was not close enough for the seeking of confidences on either side; and, as the cause of so many sighs and tears, she had thought naturally, because she wished so to think, of her own brother. Now it seemed that perhaps, after all, Mr. Miles-whom she detested-had been the object of compassion. And Fanny had nothing to say.

"Good night," said Dick, quietly kissing her.

The next moment she heard the key turn in his door.

He sat down on the edge of the bed, lit his pipe, and withdrew the cuttings from the indiarubber band. There was not much to read, after all; only three paragraphs, of which two were telegraphic, and consequently brief. In no case was either name or date of the newspaper attached; but in the short paragraphs Dick seemed to recognise the type of the "Australasian," while there was internal evidence that the longer one emanated from a Queensland organ. After glancing rapidly at all three, he arranged them in an order that proved to be chronologically correct.

The first paragraph (telegraphic: headed "Brisbane, Friday,") stated that, on the afternoon of the day before, the branch of the Australian Joint-Stock Bank at Mount Clarence had been entered by two bushrangers, one of whom declared that he was Sundown, the New South Wales outlaw. That after "bailing up" everybody in the establishment, and shutting up the bank-which, as it was then closing-time, was effected without raising the suspicions of the township-the bushrangers had ridden away, taking with them about five hundred ounces of gold and a considerable sum in cheques and notes. That, at two o'clock the following morning, the bushrangers had been captured asleep under a gunyah, twelve miles from Mount Clarence, "through the rare sagacity of Sergeant Dogherty," and that Sundown's mate, a man named Benjamin Hickey, had been subsequently shot dead by the police on attempting to escape. "The redoubtable Ned Ryan, alias Sundown," the paragraph concluded, "gave no trouble on the way to Mount Clarence, whence he will be forwarded to Rockhampton without delay; but the gold has not yet been recovered, having evidently been 'planted' by the outlaws before camping for the night."

Dick believed that he had seen this identical paragraph in the "Argus" of February 13th, the day on which the Hesper sailed from Hobson's Bay.

The second cutting seemed to be part-perhaps the greater part-of an article from a Queensland pen, written in the first blush of triumph following the announcement of Sundown's capture. From it Dick learned so much concerning Ned Ryan that had never before come to his knowledge, that it is here reproduced word for word:

"Edward Ryan, or 'Sundown,' is declared by our informant to be a man of pleasing countenance, about six feet three inches high and thirty-seven years of age. He is a native of Victoria, where his parents resided for many years. Some six years ago-being then a horse-dealer of questionable repute-he married the daughter of a well-to-do farmer in the Ovens district (Vic.). But for some time past-since, indeed, a short time after his outlawry-he is said to have ceased all communication with his wife. About four years and a half ago, a warrant was taken out against Edward Ryan for some roguery connected with a horse. He, however, managed to escape across the Murray into New South Wales. A few weeks later his career of desperate crime-which has now happily ended as above detailed-was commenced in the partnership of two kindred spirits. One of these, Benjamin Hickey, has met with a summary fate, but one strictly in accordance with his deserts, as already described. The third of the band, however, who is believed by the police to be a Tasmanian 'old hand,' lost sight of for many years, was turned adrift some time ago by Sundown, on account, it is said, of his extreme bloodthirstiness. This statement receives colour from the fact that Sundown, since his capture, has declared that neither he nor Hickey ever spilt blood with their own hands; so that if this is true, not only the murder of Youl, the storekeeper near Menindie, on the Darling-which crime rendered the name of Sundown infamous at the commencement-but the grievous wounding of Constable O'Flynn, two years later, may be freely ascribed to the murderous hand of the miscreant that is still at large. However this may be, we have, in Sundown, succeeded in running to earth a freebooter equal in daring, impudence, and cunning generalship to the most formidable of

the highwaymen who were the terror of the sister colonies in the early days. The credit of this brilliant capture, however, rests entirely with this colony. Indeed, it is to be hoped that we shall hereafter be able to boast that it was reserved to the youngest colony to add the finishing touch to the extermination of the Australian bandit. And as the bushrangers had been but a few months in Queensland, whereas their depredations in the neighbouring colony extended over as many years, it will be seen that on the whole the exploit of our police compares not unfavourably with the New South Wales method of doing business."

After this, the effect of the last extract was at least startling. The words in this case were few, and cruelly to the point. They simply told of the escape of the prisoner Ryan during a violent dust-storm that enveloped the township of Mount Clarence, and afterwards rendered tracking (when the bird was discovered to have flown) most difficult. No details of the escape were given, but the message ended with the confident assurance (which read humourously now) that the re-capture of Sundown, alive or dead, could be but a matter of hours.

There was a curious smile upon Dick's face as he folded up the cuttings. "I wonder how on earth he did it?" he asked himself as he slowly knocked the ashes from his pipe.

The sunlight was peeping in where it could through blind and curtains. Dick raised the first, drew back the second, and stood in the broad light of day. Then, throwing up the sash, he plunged head and shoulders into the fresh, fragrant morning air. The effect upon him was magical. His forehead seemed pressed by a cool, soothing hand; his throat drank down a deep draught of wizard's wine; he caught at his breath, as though actually splashing in the dewy air, and yet in a very little while the man's baser nature asserted itself. Dick yawned, not once or twice, but repeatedly; then he shivered and shut the window. Five minutes later the lively sparrows-if they took more than a passing interest in their early guest, as they should, since such very early guests were rare among them-the sprightly sparrows that visited the window-ledge might have seen for themselves that he was sound, sound asleep.

For some hours this sleep was profound, until, in fact, Dick began to dream. Then, indeed, he was soon awake, but not before his soul had been poisoned by a very vivid and full vision. This dream was not strange under the circumstances, but it was plausible, disturbing, and less bizarre than most-in fact, terribly realistic. He had gone to Graysbrooke and found Miles-Sundown the bushranger-still there. At once and openly he had denounced the villain, shown him in his true colours, and at once he had been disbelieved-laughed at by the enemy, pitied by his friends, treated as the victim of a delusion. With Miles's mocking defiant laugh in his ears, Dick awoke.

It was the dread, the chance of something like this actually happening, that hurried him to Graysbrooke with unbroken fast. He found Colonel Bristo plainly worried, yet glad to see him, eager to tell him what was the matter.

"We have lost our guest."

Dick felt the blood rushing back to his face at the words.

"Miles has gone," the Colonel pursued in a tone of annoyance; "gone this morning-a summons to Australia, he fears-a thing he had never dreamt of until last night."

"Dear me!" said Dick, with surprise that was partly genuine. For his plan had worked out better-he had been followed more strictly to the letter than he could have dared to hope; the misgivings of the last hour were turned to supreme satisfaction.

"Yes," sighed the soldier, "it was most unexpected. And I need not tell you how disappointed we all are."

Dick murmured that he was sure of it, with all the awkwardness of an honest tongue driven into hypocrisy.

"For my own part, I feel confoundedly put out about it. I shall be as dull as ditch-water for days. As for the ladies, they'll miss him horribly."

Dick's reply was monosyllabic, and its tone fell distinctly short of sympathy.

"He was such a good fellow!"

The Colonel said this regretfully, and waited for some echo. But Dick could have said nothing without the whole truth bursting out, so he merely asked:

"When did he go?"

"About nine-as soon as he could pack up his things, in fact. Alice was not down to say good-bye to him."

Dick's eyes glittered.

"He will be back to say it, though?" he asked suspiciously.

"No, I fear not; he will probably have to start at once; at least, so his agent told him-the fellow who came down last night, and robbed us of him for half the evening. By-the-bye, we missed you too; did you go home?"

"Yes." Dick faltered a little.

"Have you and Alice been quarrelling?" asked Alice's father abruptly.

Dick answered simply that they had. Colonel Bristo silently paced the carpet. When he spoke again it was to revert to the subject of Miles.

"Yes, I am sorry enough to lose him; for we had become great friends, intimate friends, and we understood one another thoroughly, he and I. But the worst of it is, we shan't have him with us in Yorkshire. What a man for the moors! And how he would have enjoyed it! But there; it's no use talking; we're all disappointed, and there's an end of it."

The Colonel laid his hand on Dick's shoulder, and added:

"You won't disappoint us, my boy?"

"For the moors, sir?"

"Why, of course."

"I cannot go-I am very sorry"-hastily-"but--"

"Nonsense, Dick!"

"I really cannot-I cannot, indeed," with lame repetition.

"And why?" asked Colonel Bristo, mildly. "Why-when you promised us weeks ago?"

Dick raised his eyes from the ground, and the answer was given and understood without words; yet he felt impelled to speak. He began in a low voice, nervously:

"Without disrespect, sir, I think I may beg of you not to insist on an explanation-either from me, or from-anyone else. It could do no good. It might do-I mean it might cause-additional pain. You have guessed the reason? Yes, you see it clearly-you understand. And-and you seem sorry. Don't let it trouble you, sir. There are lots better than I." He paused, then added uncertainly: "Colonel Bristo, you have been more, far more, than kind and good to me. If you treated me like a son before it was time-well-well, it will all be a pleasant memory to-to take away with me."


"Yes, away; back to Australia," said Dick, expressing his newest thought as though it were his oldest. "Before you get back from the north, I shall probably be on my way."

"Don't do that, Dick-don't do that," said Colonel Bristo, with some feeling.

Personal liking for Dick apart, it was not a pleasant reflection that his daughter had jilted the man who had come from Australia to marry her, and was sending him back there.

Dick answered him sadly.

"It can't be helped, sir. It is all over. It is decent that I should go."

"I don't understand 'em-never understood 'em," muttered the old man vaguely, and half to himself. "Still, there is no one but Dick, I dare swear; who should there be but Dick?"

Dick stepped forward, as though to push the scales from the eyes of this unseeing man; but he checked his impulse, and cried huskily, holding the thin hand in his own great strong one:

"Good-bye, Colonel Bristo. God bless you, sir! Good-bye!"

And the young man was gone.

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