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   Chapter 16 MILITARY MAN UVRES

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 15598

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Well!" exclaimed Colonel Bristo, after some minutes. He leant back in his chair and stared sternly at his book-shelves. "It's a nice look-out for the moors; that's all."

His reflections were dispiriting. He was thinking that the only two men whom he had really wanted down in Yorkshire had this morning, almost in the same breath, declared that they could not go. They were, in fact, both going back to Australia-independently, from widely different reasons. With Miles the necessity was pressing enough, no doubt; and then he had only been visiting England, and never contemplated a long stay. But Dick's case was very different. He had come home for good, with his "pile" and his prospects. Could he possibly have been made so miserable during these few weeks that he would be glad to bury himself again in the bush? Could his case be really so hopeless as he himself believed it?

"If so," said Colonel Bristo with irritation, "then Alice has played the deuce with the best young fellow in England!"

But how could he tell? How was he, the father, to get at the facts of the case? Alice was all the world to him: but for all the world he would not have sought her confidence in such a matter. Then what was he to do?

He got up from his chair, and paced the floor with the stride of a skipper on his poop. He had liked young Edmonstone always-respected him as a mere stripling. Love-sick boys were, as a rule, selfish, if not sly, young fools-that was his experience; but this one had shown himself upright and fearless-had, in fact, behaved uncommonly well, once the mischief was done. But that liking had developed into affection since the night of Dick's arrival. Poor fellow! how grateful he had been! how hopeful! Who could have discouraged him? The Colonel, for his part, had no reason to do so now. What was there against him? what against "it"? In a word, he had soon-as he saw more of him-set his heart upon Dick for his son. Secretly, he had already formed certain projects of parental ingenuity. He had already, in his walks, held stealthy intercourse with house and estate agents, and otherwise dipped into the future of other people, further than he had any business. And here was the death-blow to it all! The pair had quarrelled so violently that the prospective son-in-law was on the point of taking himself back to Australia! One thing was certain: it could be no ordinary disagreement-she must have jilted him. But if so, for whom? She had seen nobody for months-nobody but Miles! And Miles-the Colonel smiled indulgently-with all his good points, with all his fine qualities, Miles was no marrying man. Then who could it be? Once more he, her father, was unable to tell, for the life of him.

He sat down, rose again in a moment, and rang the bell. Then he sent a polite message to Mrs. Parish, requesting her kind attendance, if not in any way inconvenient.

"She can at least put me right on one or two points. That is, if she doesn't go off at a tangent, down some blind-alley of a side issue!"

The lady appeared after the regulation delay, by which she was in the habit of italicising the dignity of her office.

By her greeting, one would have thought the appointment was of her making. She observed that she would have come before to inquire how the Colonel felt after it all, but understood that he was engaged.

The Colonel explained with a sigh.

"He is gone."

"Ah!" There was unprecedented sympathy in the lady's look and tone.

"You saw him go?" asked the Colonel, looking up in surprise.

"I did," sadly; "I did."

"He said good-bye to you, perhaps?"

"To be sure he did! He was hardly likely to-"

"He didn't ask to see Alice, I suppose?"

"Oh, yes, he did."

"Dear me!" said the Colonel to himself.

"But she could not see him, I grieve to say; it was a thousand pities, seeing that he's going straight back to Australia."

"Oh, he told you that too, did he?"

"Of course, Colonel Bristo, when he said good-bye."

"Dear me! But why wouldn't Alice see him?"

"It was too early."

"A mere excuse," exclaimed the Colonel angrily, looking at his watch. "Too early! It is plain that she has thrown him over. If so, then the best young fellow in England has been--But perhaps you can tell me whether it really is so?"

Mrs. Parish began to feel mystified.

"A young fellow?" she began doubtfully.

"Well, young in years; older than his age, I know. But that's not my point."

"Then I really don't know, Colonel Bristo. Alice seldom honors me with her confidence nowadays. Indeed, for the last year-"

"The point-my dear madam; the point!"

"Well, then," snapped Mrs. Parish, "to judge by their dances together, last night, I should say you are certainly wrong!"

"Ah, you thought that at the time, I know. Do you remember my disagreeing with you when you declared Alice had never been more brilliant, and so on? Why she only danced with the lad once!"

Only once! "The lad!" Colonel Bristo must certainly be joking; and jokes at the expense of the lady who had controlled his household for twenty years were not to be tolerated.

"Colonel Bristo, I fail to understand you. If it were not preposterous, I should imagine you had stooped to ridicule. Allow me, please, to state that your daughter danced three times, if not four, with Mr. Miles-I see nothing to smile at, Colonel Bristo!"

"My good-my dear Mrs. Parish," said he, correcting himself hastily, and rising urbanely from his chair, "we are at cross purposes. I mean young Edmonstone; you mean, I suppose, Mr. Miles. A thousand apologies."

Mrs. Parish was only partially appeased.

"Oh, if you mean that young gentleman, I can assure you he has absolutely no chance. Has he said good-bye, too, then?"

"Yes. He says he is going back to Australia."

"I said he would!" exclaimed Mrs. Parish with gusto.

"But-I say! You surely don't mean that it is Mr. Miles Alice cares for?"

Mrs. Parish smiled superior.

"Has it not been patent?"

"Not to me, madam!" said Colonel Bristo warmly.

"Love on both sides; I might say at first sight. I watched it dawn, and last night I thought it had reached high noon," the old lady declared with emotion. "But this unfortunate summons! Still, I think we shall see him again before he sails, and I think he will come back to England for good before long."

"You mean you hope so, Mrs. Parish," said the Colonel dryly. He seated himself at his desk with unmistakable meaning. "Confound her!" he muttered when the door closed; "the thing is plausible enough. Yet I don't believe it. What's more, much as I like Miles, I don't wish it! No. Now what am I to do about Dick?"

This question occupied his thoughts for the rest of the morning. He could not answer it to his satisfaction. In the afternoon he sent word to Iris Lodge, begging Dick to come over in the evening for an hour. The messenger brought back the news that Mr. Edmonstone was from home-had, in fact, left for abroad that afternoon.

"Abroad!" thought Colonel Bristo. "He has lost no time! But 'abroad' only means the Continent-it is 'out' when you go farther. And yet that is one way out-the quickest! Is he capable of such madness at a moment's notice? Never; impossible. But I had better look into the matter myself."

And this the Colonel did in the course of a few days, by himself calling at Iris Lodge. There was a little coldness, or it may have been merely self-consciousness, in his reception. But when, after a few preliminaries, the visitor began to speak of Dick, this soon wore off; for his regard was too warmly expressed, and his praise too obviously genuine, not to win and melt hearts half as loving as those of Mrs. Edmonstone and her daughter. The Colonel, for his part, was sufficiently rewarded

when he learnt that Dick had merely joined an old Australian friend in Italy, and would be back at the beginning of August.

"I was half afraid," he observed tentatively, "that he was tired of England already, and was on his way out again."

The horror with which this notion was instantly demolished caused the old gentleman to smile with unconcealed satisfaction; for it assured him that Dick's intention (if it was an intention, and not merely the wild idea of a heated moment) had at least not yet been breathed to his family. He took up his hat and cane with a light heart. And he stopped to add a rider to his gracious adieu:

"We shall be tramping the moors when your son returns, Mrs. Edmonstone, so I beg you will forward him on to us. And pray, Miss Fanny, use your influence as well, for we have lost our other Australian, and I don't see how we can get on without Dick."

He went out in good spirits.

Thereafter, as far as the Colonel was concerned, young Edmonstone might bake himself to his heart's content-until the Twelfth-abroad. As it happened, Colonel Bristo found a far more immediate cause for anxiety at home. This was the appearance of Alice.

As July drew near its latter days, the change in her looks passed the perceptible stage to the noticeable. Her colouring had been called her best point by some, her only good one by others (possibly according to the sex of the critic); yet now her face was wholly void of colour. The flower-like complexion was, if possible, more delicate than before, but now it resembled the waxen lily instead of the glowing wild rose. Even the full, firm lips were pale and pinched. Her eyes were either dull or restless, and their dark setting seemed more prominent: shadows lay below them where no shadows should have been. For the rest, any real activity of mind or body seemed as impossible to her as any real repose; she appeared to have gained only in thoughtfulness-as indicated by silence. On fine days, though the river could not charm her, she would dress for walking, and come back tired out in twenty minutes. On wet ones she divided her time between the first few pages of a book, and the first few bars of a waltz; between the two she never got any farther in either. Perhaps experience had taught her that all the tune of a waltz is at the beginning; and I suppose she failed to "get into" her novels. Her ear was sensitive, attuned to her temper; common sounds startled her painfully; the unexpected opening or shutting of a door went far to unhinge both nerves and temper. The latter, indeed, was less sweet at this period than ever in her life before, and none knew it so well as she herself, who bore the brunt of it in her own heart.

None of these signs escaped the watchful eyes about her. But while, on the one hand, Mrs. Parish noted them with incomplete sympathy and impartial confidence in the justice of consequences (believing that Alice's indecision had brought this on her own head, and that a little uncertainty would do her no harm), the father's heart became more and more distressed as each new symptom was made plain to him. He was both worried and perplexed. He called in a local doctor. That move made her ill-health no better, and her ill-temper worse. What, then, could the father do? Always loving and indulgent-never intimate-with his child, it had been his practice, when serious matters arose, to employ the ambassador always at hand; thus there had never, during all the years, been a word of contention between father and daughter; and to this practice the father resorted now.

Late one afternoon they were all three sitting in the garden, when Alice rose, without breaking her long silence, and slowly walked towards the house. The Colonel followed her with his eyes; he held a glowing cigarette between his fingers; the distance was short enough, but before Alice reached the house the cigarette was out.

"Look at her now! Is that the step of a healthy girl? See her climb those six steps-they might be the top flight of St. Paul's! Mrs. Parish"-with sudden decision-"Mrs. Parish, you must see to the root of this matter before it gets any worse. I must know exactly what is at the bottom of it. I desire you to speak to Alice, for I cannot. You understand me, I think? Very well, then, pray watch your opportunity."

The very next morning the housekeeper came to the study. She had spoken to Alice. She did not require much questioning.

"Oh, as to young Mr. Richard. I could elicit nothing-nothing at all. He seemed quite outside her thoughts."

Mrs. Parish made this statement with a smack of satisfaction. Colonel Bristo, however, must have given it a construction of his own, for he did not look displeased. He simply said:

"Well?"

"Well, she was almost as reticent about Mr. Miles; though we know what that signifies!" (But here the Colonel shook his head.) "What she did say, however, is not worth repeating."

"Still, I should like to hear it."

"It does not affect matters in the least."

"Pray go on, Mrs. Parish."

"Of course, if you insist, Colonel Bristo! Well, then, Alice tells me that, two days after Mr. Miles went, a shabby kind of woman had the impudence to walk into the garden, accost her, and ask if Mr. Miles (how she had got his name, one cannot tell) was still here. Alice said 'No,' and was weak enough to give her money, because she seemed wretched, she says, and so got rid of her."

"One of the beggars he helped," said the Colonel. "He used to have long conversations with them, and tell them to emigrate."

"Why, to be sure!" cried Mrs. Parish, at once enlightened and relieved. And now she was as eager to tell the rest as before she had been slow to speak. "The very next day after that, Alice saw a man watching the house from the tow-path. He seemed to be there all day; so at last she rowed across and asked him if he wanted anyone. He said, 'Yes, the gentleman who's been staying there; where is he?' She told him he was on his way back to Australia. The man did not seem to believe it. In the end she gave money to him too, and soon she saw him go."

"Another of his beggars!" laughed Colonel Bristo. "Their name is legion, no doubt, and we shall see more of them yet. For the credit of the Mother Country, we can't shut the door in their faces after a Colonial has given them a taste of real downright generosity. Poor Miles!"

"Well, Alice, for her part, seems ready enough to carry on his works of charity," said Mrs. Parish, adroitly, with an emphasis ever so slight on the possessive pronoun.

The Colonel smiled. Then he thanked her graciously for the service.

"I am extremely obliged to you, Mrs. Parish, for the hundredth time. You have saved me yet another interview. That is, I should have made it awkward, but you, with your usual tact, have got at precisely what I wanted. I am perfectly satisfied."

Mrs. Parish bowed. She was not a little pleased with the compliment to her tact, on which she plumed herself above everything; but her pleasure was less than her surprise-that the Colonel should be so easily satisfied! She moved with dignity to the door. As she was shutting it, the Colonel rubbed his hands and exclaimed aloud:

"It is Dick!"

The door, which was at that moment swinging to, stopped, trembled, then shut with a vicious little bang. The Colonel could make a near enough guess at the expression of the face on the other side of it. He smiled benevolently.

"Silly lady! She thinks I have turned against my friend Miles-whom, by the way, she worships on her own account. Far from it, I miss him abominably. But when it comes to a choice between him and Dick-and where my girl is concerned-why, then, I confess, I'm all for the younger man and the older suitor."

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