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   Chapter 20 STRANGE HUMILITY

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 15250

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Dick found his room plainly and scantily furnished but delightfully fresh, clean, and comfortable. There was but one narrow strip of carpet by the bedside, but the boards were as snowy as an admiral's poop; the narrow bed stood out into the middle of the room, to the left as you came in at the door. The ceiling, and the walls, and the blind, and the bed, and the tall new candles, and the dressing-table on which they stood, were all very white indeed. At the foot of the bed Dick found his portmanteau and gun-case, and the first thing he did was to put together his gun, and stand it in one corner of the room, ready for next day. He happened to stand it in the corner nearest the bed head, and farthest from the door; but there was no design in that: the whole action was mechanical.

He undressed slowly, or rather he was long in beginning. He stood, resting his elbows on the chest of drawers, and his chin in his palms, and watched the candle burn half-way down before he so much as wound his watch. It was only the wick's last throes that reminded him to put an end to its flickering and get into bed. But by that time Dick's mind was made up. When he lay down to sleep he knew precisely what he was going to do first thing in the morning, and more or less what he meant to say. He fell quickly into a dreamless slumber.

After sleeping like an infant for two or three hours he experienced something very like a dream, and that about the very man of whom he would certainly have dreamt sooner or later. But this was no dream. Dick was awakened: he lay still for a moment, peering through the darkness, and listening with all his ears. Then he started up in his bed, and called sternly:

"Who is there? Who are you?"

At the foot of the bed a tall figure loomed through the darkness. The challenge was answered: first with a short, soft laugh, then in the mildest tones of the man who had passed himself off as Miles the squatter.

"Hush! I have come to explain."

"Oh, it is you!" though Dick had known who it was from the moment the light, stealthy step disturbed him.

"Yes; it isn't a burglar, so lie down again. I tell you I come with a frank explanation. I suppose you will listen to a man?"

"Why should I? You have broken faith with me!"

"It amounts to that, I own. It must seem to you that I deserve no further consideration at your hands. Very well; all I ask is a hearing."

The tones were so unlike anything that could have been expected from the lips of this man that Edmonstone was taken aback; they were so low as to be scarcely audible; they were humble, and they were sad. It was this very humility that at first excited Dick's suspicion.

"I will listen to you now," said he, after a moment's thought, "but it is the last thing I shall do for you. You might first strike a light. There are matches on the dressing-table behind you, and two candles, I think."

Miles complied unsuspectingly with this reasonable request. He was some time, however, in finding the matches. Yet he heard no sound (Dick's arm was so long, so lithe his movement) until the candles were alight; when two loud clicks caused him to wheel suddenly round, throwing one candlestick with a crash to the floor.

Dick was sitting up quietly in his bed, as he had been sitting a moment before; but in his hands was a double-barrelled gun-cocked-the butt not six inches from his shoulder, the muzzle not three feet from Miles's breast. It could be brought to the shoulder in a small fraction of a second. It could be fired with sufficient deadliness without being brought to the shoulder at all. A finger was upon each of the triggers. The light of the single candle glittered upon the barrels.

"Now, my friend," said Dick, "I am ready to listen to you as long as you like."

Miles stared fixedly at the hammers of the gun. He did not speak, he did not draw back. He stood there, in his shirt and trousers, motionless and silent. This was not, as we know, his first interview under arms, but it was the first in which the arms had been in the hands of the other side; moreover, he had once pressed a pistol to the head of this Edmonstone whose gun covered him now. The reversal of things was complete-the tables were turned to the last inch. The strange part of it was that the outwitted bushranger's face showed no trace of cunning baffled, or the fury of an animal at bay, which might have been expected of him. On the contrary, his countenance gradually filled with quite another expression-one of reproach.

"I am not a fool," he said, speaking at last. "I was never yet fool enough to tackle a forlorn hope. Therefore, even if I had come into this room armed to the teeth to offer you violence, I should not dream of competing against those double-barrels. But as I came empty-handed, and in peace, I, for my part, can say all I have to say comfortably into their muzzles-they can make no difference to me, unless you press too hard on those triggers in your anxiety; and if you did, perhaps it would be the best turn you or any man could do me! At the same time you are treating me like a dog. The only words that have left my lips were as submissive as any victor need want; I turned my back on you without the smallest suspicion, yet turn round again to find you pointing a gun at me!"

"You call that bad treatment!" Edmonstone sneered. "You forget, perhaps, that you have no business to be loose in the world; you forget that I found you out and shielded you, wrongly enough, on certain terms, which you have broken! Well, I am reminding you; but I am not likely to give you a second chance of playing me false. That is why I keep the sight of my gun in a line with your stud-so; that is why, if you come a step nearer, I won't answer for consequences."

"Considering," said Miles, "how I treated you a few years ago, and what you owe to that treatment, I should have thought you might behave rather differently to-night; you might have shown a little generosity, outlaw as I am."

"You remind me," said Dick, "that in '82, in the scrub near Balranald, you stuck up me and my mate, and took almost everything we had-except our money. I didn't require to be reminded of that forbearance of yours. I haven't forgotten it, and I know pretty well its worth by now, though hitherto I have overvalued it. But that old account-supposing it to be one, for argument's sake-was squared last month; you have been fool enough to open a new one."

"It is a pity," said Miles, bitterly, "that I didn't let Jem Pound knife you!"

"On the contrary, through saving me then you found one man in England actually ready to screen you from justice. If you had not broken faith with him that man would screen you still; but as it is-Steady! don't move! I am pressing the trigger."

"Do you mean that you are going to betray me after all?" cried Miles, in a quick gasp of dismay, yet drawing back-he had taken a step forward in his agitation.

"What else would you have me do? Give you another chance? Honestly," cried Dick, with honesty in his tone, "I wish that I could! But can you expect it?"

"Listen to me!" cried Miles, in a deep faltering voice. "Listen to me!"

"I am listening."

"The other day, then-I mean the night you found me out, you and those blood-suckers-I was on the brink of a new life! You smile-but before Heaven it is the truth! I had lived for weeks as I never lived before-among good people. Bad as I was, they influenced me, at first without my knowing it. It was a new side of life to me. I found it was the best side. I grew-well, call it happy. Then I looked ba

ck and loathed the old days. I began to map out a better life for myself. I was a new man, starting afresh. I thanked God for my escape, for it seemed like His act."

"If the fellow isn't in earnest," thought Dick, "this is the worst blasphemy I ever heard. I half think he means what he says, poor wretch."

"It was you that blotted out that new existence-just as it opened out before me! It was you that drove me from my haven! It was you that turned me adrift in a city full of foes! So much for your side of the balance between us!"

Dick was half-carried away by the man's rough eloquence, and the note of pathos in his deep tones. But he was only half-carried away; he was a man hard to shift when his stand was once taken. His answer was shrewd:

"That city is the safest place in the world for such as you-safer even than the bush. As to your friends, did you expect to live on them forever?"

The other's vehemence was checked.

"Perhaps you intended to become one of the family!" said Edmonstone scornfully, pursuing his advantage.

Miles pulled himself together, and dismissed this keen question with a smile and a wave of the hand; but the smile faded quickly; nor had it been anything better than a ghastly mockery.

"You do not appreciate my position," said Miles presently, fetching a deep sigh; "you cannot put yourself in my place. No honest man could, I suppose! And you shut me off from all decent living; you made me bid good-bye to the people who had befriended me, and somehow-well, made me wish I was a little less the ruffian! I became an outcast! I tried to make new friends, but failed. I had lost my nerve somehow-that was the worst of it! I resolved to throw it up, and quit England. I took my passage for New York, and-"

"Do you mean what you say? Have you actually done that?"

"Yes. The ticket is in my room, which is opposite this room." He pointed to the door. "I can bring it to show you."

"No; stay where you are; I believe you. When do you sail?"

"In a week-next Tuesday."

Dick breathed more freely. Here was an extenuating circumstance of the broken compact. On the whole, Dick was glad to find one.

"Go on," said Dick, in a slightly less hostile tone: "tell me the rest, and what it was that induced you to come up here."

"Surely you can see the rest for yourself? Surely you can put yourself in my place at this point? I own that hearing you were not to be of the party finally induced me to come-I thought you would not hear of it till afterwards; but I came to bid my friends good-bye! to get one more glimpse of a kind of life I had never seen before and shall never see again! for one more week in a pure atmosphere."

"Oh! not to make up to Miss Bristo, then?"

Blunt though the words were, each one was a self-inflicted stab to the heart of the man that spoke them.

"No!" cried Miles, and his voice was turned suddenly hoarse; "no, before Heaven!"

"If I believed it was that, I think I should pull this trigger on the spot."

"It is not," cried Miles; "I swear it is not," he whispered.

And Dick believed him then.

"Why, man," the bushranger went on, more steadily, "you have got me under the whip here. Down with the lash and cut me to ribbons the first time you see me playing false. Keep your eye on me; watch me all day; I can do nothing up here without your knowledge; I cannot speak but you will hear what it is I say. As to Miss Bristo, I will not go near her-but this is a small part of the whole. In my whole conduct you will find me behave like-like a changed man. Only let me stay this week out. But one other thing-a thing I would go down on my knees to you for, if that would do any good: don't open their eyes when I am gone. There will be no need to; they will forget me as Miles the squatter if you let them. Then let them. They think well of me because I saved the old man from drowning. Edmonstone, you can let me keep their good opinions if you will. God help me! they are the only good opinions I ever honestly earned, because I got them entirely through that simple, paltry affair at the seaside. Do not rob me of them, now or afterwards. That is all I ask."

Dick was beginning to waver.

There was an honest ring in Ned Ryan's asseverations; and after all it was just possible that a villain, who had shown a soft side at least once before, might be softened right through by the gracious influence of an English home. Then Sundown, the bushranger, desperado though he had been, had preserved hands unstained by blood; and Sundown the bushranger had saved him, Edmonstone, from death and ruin in the Australian wilds, and Colonel Bristo from drowning. Such acts could not be made light of or forgotten, no matter who was their author.

Dick was relenting, and the other saw it.

"Stay!" said Miles, suddenly. "You have my word only so far. I can show you a better pledge of good faith if you will let me."

"Where is it?"

"In my room."

Edmonstone nodded. Miles left the room, and returned immediately with a paper, which he handed to Edmonstone.

"Why, this is a receipt of passage-money for two!" said Edmonstone, looking up. "You are not going out alone, then?"

"No," said Miles. His voice was low. His back was to the window, through which grey dawn was now stealing. It was impossible to see the expression on his face-its outline was all that was visible.

"Who is going with you?"

"My wife!" whispered Miles.

Dick was taken aback, glad, incredulous.

"Your wife!" he said. "Then you admit that she is your wife? When did you see her?"

"Yesterday."

"But not until then!" Dick meant to put a question; he did not succeed in his excitement-his tone was affirmative.

"No, not until then," said Miles quietly; "because, though I have been watching her as closely as I dared, it was the first chance I got of seeing her without seeing Pound. He thinks she has not seen me since the night in Bushey Park. She must not escape him until the very day of joining me on board the steamer. If she did, he would find her sooner or later; and then he would find me, which is all he is living for. That man would murder me if he got the chance. Do you understand now?"

Dick made no reply, but it all seemed clear and intelligible to him; Pound's hold upon Mrs. Ryan, and the false position in which that fiend placed the woman at the meeting of husband and wife, which accounted for Ryan's misunderstanding and heartless treatment of his wife on that occasion; the reconciliation of husband and wife; their projected departure for America; the necessity of deceiving Pound meanwhile, and getting away without his knowledge. All these things seemed natural enough; and, told in the desperately earnest tones of a strong man humbled, they carried conviction with them. Nor were they pleaded in vain.

The way in which Dick finally put the matter was this:-

"Remember," he said, "that it is for my friends' sake as much as for yours; that this is our second treaty; and that if you break one particle of it there are always four men in the house here, and villagers in plenty within a cooee of us."

"I know all these things," said Miles, very humbly, "and will forget none of them."

And so the interview ended.

When Miles was gone, Dick lifted his gun, which had lain long upon the counterpane, pressed the lever, bent down the barrels, and aimed them at the glimmering window-blind. The early morning light shone right through the gleaming bores-the gun had been empty all the time! Dick felt ashamed of the part that it had played in the interview.

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