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   Chapter 21 AN ALTERED MAN

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 10269

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Colonel Bristo was rambling about the place, according to habit, for a good hour the next morning before the early breakfast, but he saw nothing of Dick until the bell rang for that meal.

"I thought you meant turning out early?" said the old fellow to the young one, with a smile. "I've been looking for you in vain; but I'm glad you followed my advice and took it easy. Did you sleep well, though? That's the main thing; and 'pon my soul, you look as though you had been awake all night!"

"Oh, I was all right, thanks, sir; I slept pretty well," said Dick, with awkward haste.

The Colonel felt pretty sure that Dick had been all wrong, and slept not at all. There was a haggard look about him that put the fact beyond the contradiction of words.

"You didn't see Miles, I suppose?" said the Colonel after a moment's thought. "His room is close to yours, you know."

"I did see him. We-we exchanged a few words."

Dick's tone and manner were strange.

"Confound them both!" thought the Colonel. "They have clashed already. Yes, that is it. I wonder how it came about? I didn't think they were such implacable foes. Mrs. Parish hinted to me long ago that they were, and that it would be best not to have them here together. Is it all on Alice's account, I wonder? Anyway, it is by no scheme of mine that they are here together. Why, I wrote Miles a list of our little party without a word about Dick. I never thought Dick was coming. Yet I am glad now he is come."

"It was really kind of you," said Colonel Bristo aloud, "to give in and come after all."

"No," said Dick, with sudden fire. "I'm thankful I came! I am grateful to you for refusing to take my first refusal. Now that I am here, I would not be elsewhere at this moment for the whole world!"

The Colonel was pleased, if a little puzzled, by this vehement outburst.

"Are you really going out again-back to the bush?" he said presently.

"Yes," said Dick, the fire within him quickly quenched. "I have quite settled that point-though I have told no one but you, Colonel Bristo."

"Well, well-I think you are making a sad mistake; but of course every man decides for himself."

That was all Colonel Bristo said just then, for he knew that the young people had barely seen one another as yet. But up on the moor, an hour or two later, when the guns divided, he felt inclined to say something sharp, for the manner in which Dick avoided shooting with Miles was rather too pointed, and a good deal too ridiculous and childish for the Colonel's fancy.

That evening the conversation at the Colonel's dinner, and that around the beer-stained board-dedicated of an evening to the engrossing domino-in the inn at Gateby, were principally upon the selfsame topic-to wit, the excellence of Miles's shooting.

"I can't conceive," said the Colonel, "seeing that you have never shot grouse in your life before, how you do it."

"If I couldn't shoot straight," said the hero of the evening (for the bag that day was the biggest yet, thanks to Miles), "I ought to be shot myself. I was reared on gunpowder. In the bush-instead of the silver spoon in your mouth-you are born with a fire-arm in your hand!"

Dick smiled grimly to himself. And yet this was the longest speech the Australian had made all the evening. Miles was strangely subdued, compared with what he had been at Graysbrooke. The Colonel and his daughter had each noticed this already; and as for Mrs. Parish, she was resolved to "speak up" on the subject to Alice, whom she blamed for it entirely.

"Yon yoong man-him 't coomed las' night-t' long wan, I mean," declared Andy Garbutt in the pot-house, banging down his fourth glass (empty) upon the table, which upset several dominoes and led to "language"-"yon yoong man's t'bes' shot I iver seed. The way he picked off t'ould cocks, an' let be t'yoongsters an' all, was sumthink clever. I niver seed owt like it. They do say 'tis his first taast o' t'mowers-but we isn't the lads to swaller yon! Bob Rutter, y' ould divle-fill oop t' glasses."

And though perhaps, hyperbole ran riot upon the heels of intoxication, still in Robert Rutter's genial hostelry "t' long chap's" reputation was there and then established.

But the marked change in Miles's manner was, to those who had known him best before, inexplicable. Never had a shooting-party a more modest, mild, and unassuming member, even among the worst of shots; and Miles was, if anything, better than Captain Awdry. His quiet boastfulness was missing. He might have passed the weeks since the beginning of July in some school of manners, where the Colonial angles had been effectually rounded off, and the old free-and-easy habits toned down. Not that he was shy or awkward-Miles was not the man to become either the one or the other; but his manner had now-towards the Colonel, for instance, and Alice-a certain deference-with-dignity, the lack of which had been its worst fault before. Dick, who scarcely spoke three words to him in as many days, suddenly awoke to a sense of relief and security.

"Poor fellow!" he thought, "he is keeping his word this time, I mu

st own. Well, I am glad I didn't make a scene; and the week is half over. When it is quite over, I shall be still more glad that I let him off. For, after all, I owe him my life. I am sorry I threatened him during our interview, and perhaps I need not have avoided him so studiously since. Yet I am watching him, and he knows it. I watch him sometimes when he cannot possibly know it, and for the life of me I can see nothing crooked. My belief is that he's only too thankful to get off on the terms, and that he wouldn't break them for as much as his life is worth; besides which, his remorse the other night was genuine."

Mrs. Parish, for her part, was quite sure that it was love unrequited with Mr. Miles, and nothing else. She fumed secretly for two days, and then "spoke up" according to her intention. What she said was not well received, and a little assault-at-words was the result.

Dr. Robson told Mr. Pinckney that he found Miles a less interesting man to talk to than he had been led to expect from his conversation the first evening. Mr. Pinckney replied that if all the Australians were as unsociable, he was glad he didn't live out there. Though Miles, he said, might be a fine sportsman and a devilish handsome dog, there was evidently "nothing in him;" by which it was meant that he was not intellectual and literary-like L. P.

Colonel Bristo was fairly puzzled, but, on the whole, he liked the new Miles rather less than the old.

As for Alice, though she did her best to exclude her personal feelings from the pages of her diary, she could not help just touching on this matter.

"I never," she wrote, "saw anybody so much changed as Mr. Miles, and in so short a time. Though he is certainly less amusing than we used to think him, I can't help admitting that the change is an improvement. His audacity, I remember, carried him a little too far once or twice before he left us. But he was a hero all the time, in spite of his faults, and now he is one all the more. Oh, I can never forget what we owe to him! To me he is most polite, and not in the least (as he sometimes used to be) familiar, I am thankful to say. The more I think of it the less I can account for his strange behaviour that night of our dance-because it was so unlike what he had been up till then, and what he is now."

Of Dick this diary contained no mention save the bald fact of his arrival. There was, indeed, a sentence later on that began with his name, but the few words that followed his name were scored out so carefully as to be illegible. The fact was that the estrangement between the pair was well-nigh hopeless. They conversed together, when they did converse, with mutual effort. Dick found himself longing to speak-to ask her forgiveness before he went-but without opportunity or encouragement. Alice, on the other hand, even if ready to meet an overture half-way, was the last person in the world to invite one. Under the conditions of the first few days, meeting only at breakfast and dinner, and for an hour or so in the drawing-room afterwards, these two might have been under one roof for weeks without understanding one another a whit the better.

But meanwhile, Alice seemed to benefit very little by her change from the relaxing Thames valley to the bracing Yorkshire moors; and as for Dick-except when the Colonel was present, for whose sake he did make an effort to be hearty-he was poor company, and desperately moody. He was also short-tempered, as Philip Robson found out one morning when they were tramping over the moor together. For Cousin Philip was sufficiently ill-advised to inform his companion that he, Dr. Robson, thought him looking far from well-at a moment when no good sportsman would have opened his mouth, unless in businesslike reference to the work in hand.

"I'm all right, thanks," Dick answered shortly, and with some contempt.

"Ah!" said Philip, compassionately, "perhaps you are not a very good judge of your own health; nor can you know how you look. Now, as a medical man-"

"Spare me, my dear fellow. Go and look at all the tongues of the village, if you must keep your eye in. They'll be charmed. As for me, I tell you I don't want-I mean, I'm all right."

"As a medical man," pursued Philip, "I beg to dif-"

"Hang it!" cried Dick, now fairly irritated. "We didn't come out for a consultation, did we? When I want your advice, Robson, you'll hear from me."

With such men as Robson, if they don't feel the first gentle snub (and the chances are all against it), anything short of an insult is waste of breath. Yet, having driven you into being downright offensive, they at once turn sensitive, and out with their indignation as though they had said nothing to provoke you. Witness the doctor:

"I thought," he cried, beginning to tremble violently, "I came out with a gentleman! I meant what I said for your good-it was pure kindness on my part, nothing else. I thought-I thought-"

At that point he was cut short; for Edmonstone had lost his temper, turned on his heel with a short, sharp oath, and made Philip Robson his enemy from that minute.

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