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At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 22632

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Dick was in the passage, brushing a week's dust from his hard felt hat; he was going to church this Sunday morning; half the party were going. From the gun-room came the sound of a pen gliding swiftly over foolscap, and the perfume of Mr. Pinckney's pipe; from the open air a low conversational murmur, kept up by Mrs. Parish and Mr. Miles on the steps. Dick, though not unconscious of these sounds, was listening for another-a certain footstep on the stairs. It came at last. Alice came slowly down; Alice, prayer-book in hand, in the daintiest of white dresses and the prettiest, simplest straw hat; Alice for whom Mrs. Parish and Miles and Dick were all three waiting.

Her step was less light than it should have been. The slim little figure positively drooped. Her eyes, too, seemed large and bright, and dark beyond nature, though that may have been partly from the contrast with a face so pale. The girl's altered looks had caused anxiety at Teddington, but the change to Yorkshire had not visibly improved them. This morning, after a night made even more restless than others by a sudden influx of hopes and fears, this was painfully apparent.

The Colonel, coming in from outside at this moment, gazed earnestly at his daughter. It was easily seen that he was already worried about something; but the annoyance in his expression changed quickly to pain.

"You are not going to walk to Melmerbridge Church?" he said to her.

"Oh, yes, I am," she answered.

Her tone and look were saucy, in spite of her pallor; one of the old smiles flickered for a moment upon her lips.

"My child," said her father, more in surprise than disapproval, "it is eight miles there and back!"

"With a nice long rest in between," Alice reminded him. "I thought it would do one good, the walk; otherwise, papa, I am not in the least eager; so if you think--"

"Go, my dear, of course-go, by all means," put in Colonel Bristo hastily; "unwonted energy like this must on no account be discouraged. Yes, yes, you are quite right; it will do you all the good in the world."

As he spoke, he caught sight of Miles in the strong light outside the door. The worried look returned to the Colonel's eyes. Anxiety for his daughter seemed to fade before a feeling that for the time was uppermost. He watched his daughter cross over to the door, and Dick put on his hat to follow her. Then the Colonel stepped forward and plucked the young man by the arm.

"Dick, I want you to stop at home with me. I want to speak with you particularly, about something very important indeed."

Dick experienced a slight shock of disappointment, succeeded by a sense of foreboding. He fell back at once, and replaced his hat on the stand.

As for Alice, she felt a sudden inclination to draw back, herself. But that was not to be thought of. Mrs. Parish and Mr. Miles were waiting now at the gate. Alice went out and told them that Dick was, after all, staying behind with the Colonel.

"Not coming?" cried Mrs. Parish. "Why, I had promised myself a long chat with him!" which, as it happened, though Dick was no favourite of hers, was strictly true. "Where is Mr. Pinckney?"

"Busy writing to catch the post."

"And Dr. Robson?"

"Cousin Philip has gone to read the lessons for the Gateby schoolmaster, his new friend. Had we not better start?"

The three set out, walking slowly up the road, for Mrs. Parish was a really old lady, and it was only the truly marvellous proportion of sinew and bone in her composition, combined with a romantic and well-nigh fanatical desire to serve the most charming of men, that fortified her to attempt so formidable a walk.

"You men are blind," she had told her idol, among other things on the steps. "Where a word would end all, you will not speak."

"You honestly think it would end it the right way?" Miles had asked her.

"I do not think, I know," the old woman had said for the fiftieth time.

She had undertaken to give him his opportunity that morning. With four in the party, that would have been easy enough; with three, it became a problem soluble only by great ingenuity.

For some distance beyond the shooting-box the road ascended gently, then dipped deep down into a hollow, with a beck at the bottom of it, and a bridge and a farmhouse on the other side. The hill beyond was really steep, and from its crest the shooting-box-with red-roofed Gateby beyond and to the left of it-could be seen for the last time. But when they had toiled to the top of this second hill, Mrs. Parish with the kindly assistance of the attentive Miles, it occurred to none of them to look round, or they might have made out the Colonel and Dick still standing on the steps, and the arm of the former raised and pointed towards them.

"It is about that man there," the Colonel was saying, "that I want to speak to you."

Dick could scarcely suppress an exclamation. He changed colour. His face filled with apprehension. What was coming next? What was suspected? What discovered? Until these words the Colonel had not spoken since the church-goers left, and his manner was strange.

The Colonel, however, was scrutinising the young man.

"What rivals they are!" he was thinking. "The one starts at the mere name of the other! The fact is, Dick," he said aloud, "Miles has dealt with me rather queerly in some money matters, and-What on earth's the matter?"

The strong young fellow at Colonel Bristo's side was trembling like a child; his face was livid, his words low and hurried.

"I will tell you in a moment, sir. Pray go on, Colonel Bristo."

"Well, the fact is I want you to tell me if you know anything-of your own knowledge, mind-of this station of Miles's in Queensland."

"Excuse me: I can only answer by another question. Has he been raising money on his station?"

"Do you mean by borrowing from me?"

"Yes, that is what I do mean."

"Well, then, he has. At Teddington-I don't mind telling you, between ourselves-I lent him a hundred pounds when a remittance he expected by the mail did not come. After that I found out that he had an agent in town all the while, and it then struck me as rather odd that he should have borrowed of me, though even then I did not think much of it. You see, the man did me the greatest service one man can render another, and I was only too glad of the opportunity to do him a good turn of any sort. I can assure you, Dick, at the time I would have made it a thousand-on the spot-had he asked it. Besides, I have always liked Miles, though a little less, I must confess, since he came up here. But last night, as we were strolling about together outside, he suddenly asked me for another hundred; and the story with which he supported his request was rambling, if not absurd. He said that his partner evidently believed him to be on his way out again, and therefore still omitted to send him a remittance; that he was thus once more 'stuck up' for cash; that he had quarrelled with his agent (whom I suggested as the most satisfactory person to apply to), and withdrawn the agency. Well, I have written out the cheque, and given it him this morning. His gratitude was profuse, and seemed genuine. All I want you to tell me is this: Do you know anything yourself of his station, his partner, or his agent?"

Dick made his answer with a pale, set face, but in a tone free alike from tremor or hesitancy:

"The man has no station, no agent, no partner!"

"What?" cried out the Colonel. "What are you saying? You must not make statements of this sort unless you are sure beyond the shadow of a doubt. I asked what you knew, not what you suspected."

"And I am telling you only what I know."

"That Miles is a common swindler?"

"That his name is not Miles, to begin with."

"Then do you mean to say," the Colonel almost shouted, "that you have known all this, and let me be duped by the fellow before your eyes?"

"I never suspected what you have told me now," said Dick warmly. "But it is true that I have known for some weeks who and what this man is. I found him out at Graysbrooke, and got rid of him for you within a few hours. I was at fault not to give him in charge. You have good cause to blame me-and I sha'n't want for blame by and by!-but if you will listen to me, I will tell you all-yes, all; for I have protected a worse scoundrel than I thought: I owe him not another moment's silence."

"Come in here, then," said Colonel Bristo, sternly; "for I confess that I cannot understand you."

* * *

Up hill and down dale was the walk to Melmerbridge; but the ascents really were a shade longer and steeper than the descents, and did not only seem so to the ladies. For when at last they reached the long grey stone wall at the edge of the moor, and passed through the gate into the midst of brown heather, dotted with heads of gay green bracken, they were greeted by a breeze-gentle and even fitful, but inexpressibly refreshing. Now below, in the deep lanes between the hedge-rows, there had been no breeze at all-for the morning was developing into hazy, sleepy, stifling heat, and the sun was dim-and the flies had been most pestilent. Accordingly they all drew breath on the moor. Mr. Miles uncovered his head, and let the feeble breeze make mild sport with his light brown locks. Then he lit a cigarette. As for the ladies, they sat down for a moment's rest; and, considering that one of them was well on in years, and the other combating with a sickness that was gradually tightening its hold upon her, they were walking uncommonly well. But conversation had flagged from the start, nor did the magic air of the moorland quicken it.

When they had threaded the soft, rutted track that girdled the heather with a reddish-brown belt, when they had climbed the very last knoll, they found themselves on the extreme edge of that range of hills. Far below them, to the right, stretched mile upon mile of table-land, studded with villages and woods, divided by the hedges into countless squares. No two neighbours, among these squares, were filled in with the same colour; some were brown, some yellow, and the rest all shades of green. Far ahead, where the squares were all lost and their colours merged in one dirty neutral tint-far ahead-at the horizon, in fact-hung a low, perpetual cloud, like a sombre pall of death. And death indeed lay under it: death to green fields, sweet flowers, and honest blue skies.

They viewed all this from a spot where the road had been carved round the rough brow of a russet cliff. This spot was the loftiest as well as the ruggedest of the whole walk. On the left the road was flanked by the ragged wall of the cliff; on the right it was provided with a low parapet, over which one might gaze forth upon the wide table-land, or drop stones upon the tops of the tallest fir-trees in the wood at the cliff's base.

Old Mrs. Parish pointed to the long black cloud on the horizon, and explained that it was formed almost entirely of the smoke of blast-furnaces, and was the constant canopy of a great town that they could not see, because the town was hidden in perennial smoke. More than this she might have said-about the mighty metals that were disgorged from under their very feet-about the rich men of yonder town (old Oliver, for one), not fo

rgetting the poor men, beggar-men, and thieves-had the old lady not perceived that Miles was gazing furtively at Alice, and Alice gazing thoughtfully into space, and neither of them listening to a word.

They walked on, and the descending road became smoother, but tortuous; and trees arched over it, and the view was hidden until they stood at the top of straight, steep Melmerbridge Bank, and the good-sized prosperous village lay stretched at their feet.

One long row of houses and shops on the left; a long straight silvery stream for the right-hand side of the village street; a bridge across this stream, leading to a church and a public-house that stood side by side, on apparently the best of terms, and without another near neighbour on that side of the beck-such was Melmerbridge from its bank-top.

As they crossed a white wooden bridge at the foot of the bank (for the beck curved and twisted, like other becks, except where it did its duty by that straight village street), a simple, modest Sabbath peal rang out upon the sultry air.

The old church was roomy, twilit, and consequently cool. Strong light never found its way inside those old stone walls, for the narrow windows were pictorial, one and all. Dusk lingered in these aisles throughout the longest days; upon them day broke last of all; they met nightfall half-way.

After a long, hot, tiring walk there could have been no more grateful retreat than this church of All Saints at Melmerbridge. The senses were lulled in the very porch, nor were they rudely aroused when the quiet peal had ended and the quiet service began. Everything was subdued and inoffensive, even to the sermon: a vigorous discourse from the dark oak pulpit would have grated on the spirit, like loud voices in a death-chamber.

As for Mrs. Parish, she was soon sleeping as soundly and reverently as the oldest parishioner. Alice, on the other hand, gave her whole mind to the service, and her mind filled with peace. Her sweet clear voice chimed in with every response (at which the parish clerk, with the fine old crusted dialect, who enjoyed a monopoly in the responses, snorted angrily and raised his tones), while in the first hymn it rose so high and clear that the young curate peered over his book through the dusk, and afterwards lost his place in the Litany through peering again.

Miles, for his part, looked about him with a pardonable curiosity. He thought that he might have been christened in some church as an infant; he had certainly been married in one as a comparatively respectable blackleg-but that was not a pleasant thing to recall to-day. He had since been once in a little iron Bush chapel, on a professional visit with his merry men, the object of which visit was attained with such complete success that all Australia thrilled with indignation. In London, the Bristos had insisted on taking him to St. Paul's and the Abbey. This was the full extent of his previous church-going. He was interested for a little while in looking about him. His interest might have lasted to the Benediction had there been less subjective food for thought, or, perhaps, if he had been sitting there alone.

In the hush and the dusk of this strange place, and the monotonous declamation of phrases that conveyed no meaning to him, Miles set himself deliberately to think. Wild and precarious as his whole life had been, he felt its crisis to be within arm's length of him now at last-he joined hands with it here in this peaceful Yorkshire church. Even the past few years of infamy and hourly risk contained no situation so pregnant with fate as the present. He ran over in his mind the chain of circumstances that had led up to this crisis.

The train of thought took him back to Queensland, where, with Nemesis holding him by the throat at last, he had wrenched himself from her tightening grip, and escaped. He had tumbled upon English soil with a fair sum of money, a past dead and buried, a future of some sort before him; by chance he had tumbled upon his feet. Chance, and that genius in the water that had crowned his escape by drowning him in the eyes of the world, had combined at once, and helped him to save an unknown gentleman's life. Mother-wit and the laws of gratitude enabled him to dupe the man he had rescued, become his close friend, live upon him, draw upon him, extract with subtle cunning the last farthing of salvage, and all the while he guessed-pretty correctly-that his pursuers were arriving to learn his death and take ship back to Australia.

Thus far everything had worked out so prettily that it seemed worth while turning thoroughly honest and beginning this second life on entirely different lines from the old one. Then he fell in love and believed that his love was returned, a belief that was not fostered by his own fancy unaided; now more than ever he desired to improve on the past, and to forget all ties and obligations belonging to the past. Edward Ryan was dead; then Edward Ryan's wife was a widow; Miles the Australian was a new unit in humanity; then why should not Miles the Australian marry?

Up to this point he could look back on every step with intense satisfaction; but here his reflections took a bitter turn. To go on calmly recoiling step after step, beginning with the month of July, was impossible: he tried it; but to remember that night in the park-to remember subsequent weeks spent in scheming and plotting, in rejecting plot after plot and scheme after scheme, in slowly eating his heart out in the solitude of a London lodging, in gradually losing all taste for fresh enterprise and all nerve for carrying it out-to remember all this was to pour vitriol on the spirit. He would remember no more; he would shut the gate on memory; he would annihilate thought; he would make his mind a blank. Yet he was powerless to do any of these things.

In his helplessness he looked down on the white figure at his side. The second hymn was being sung. He had stood, and sat, and knelt or leant forward with the rest, by mere mechanical impulse. He was even holding the book which she held without knowing it. When he realised this, his hand shook so much that the hymn-book was almost jerked from his fingers. At this she looked up, and caught his eyes bent down upon her.

Now Miles was at the end of the pew, next the wall, and in shadow. Alice noticed nothing in his expression, and went on singing without pause or break. But either her face, as she raised it, came in direct line with the skirt of some saint, in the window above Miles, and the sun, or else the sun chose that moment for a farewell gleam; in any case, the girl's pale face was instantly flooded with a rich, warm, crimson glow. Miles looked down, and this warm glow caught in his heart like a tongue of live flame.

The hymn was over; they sank down side by side: she to listen to the sermon, no matter its calibre-he to his thoughts, no matter their madness.

What were his thoughts? Not reflections now. Not hesitancy, his new unaccountable failing; not nervous doubt, his new humiliating enemy. No, his thoughts were of the old kind, but worse. He was contemplating a crime. He was contemplating the worst crime of his whole career. The plain English of his thoughts was this:

"I believe that she likes me. I see that she is, in the catch phrase, 'pining.' I am told that it is for me. Very good. If that is the case she will believe what I tell her, and do what I ask her. I have some power of persuasion. I am not without invention. I shall represent to her all kinds of reasons for precipitancy and secrecy-temporary secrecy. In a word, she shall fly with me! Well, that is bad enough; but there my badness ends. I will live without crime for her sake; I will retrieve what I can of the past. Henceforth my life is of her, with her-above all, it is for her. She need never know how I have wronged her, therefore she will not be wronged."

He looked at the face beside him; it was white as alabaster. Alice was straining her eyes towards some object that filled them with sadness and sympathy. He followed the direction of her gaze; and he saw an old, old man-a man who would soon come to church for the last time, and remain outside the walls, under the grass-who was gazing with pathetic wistfulness at the preacher, and, with wrinkled hand raised to the ear, making the most and the best of every well-worn epithet and perfunctory stock phrase. That was all. Miles brought back his glance to the white profile at his side, and found it changed in this instant of time: the long eyelashes were studded with crystal tears!

How sad she looked-how thin and ill! Would she look like this afterwards? Would tears often fill her eyes in the time to come?

Miles shut his eyes, and again exerted might and main to blot out thought. But he could not do it; and half his confidence was gone at the moment when he most needed it all. He knew it, and shuddered. A thought that had haunted him of late crossed his mind for the hundredth time: he was an altered man not only in pretence but in reality; his nerve and coolness had deserted him!

The sermon was over, and the congregation awake. Miles stood up with the rest, and took between thumb and finger his side of the little hymn book held out to him. He heartily wished it all over. In his present unfortunate state of mind another hymn was another ordeal: her voice, when she sang, put such weak thoughts into his head. Was he not a fool and a madman to think at all of a woman who unmanned him so? Nay, hush! The hymn was begun. She was singing it with her whole heart, the little head thrown backward, the little white face turned upward. She was singing; he could hear nothing else. She was singing; would she sing afterwards? She was singing from the depths of her tired soul. Would she ever sing like this again? Would he ever hear her voice again. Hush! This might be the last time!

* * *

Colonel Bristo was back on the steps, gazing under his thin, hollowed hand up the road. He looked anxious, and indignant, and determined-but old and careworn.

"What a time they are!" said Dick, pointing to the crest of the second hill, where the brown road met the silver sky. Next moment he would have recalled his words, for two figures, not three, stood out black against the sky. They were only in sight for an instant, but during that instant they were hand in hand!

The two men on the steps waited without a word for many minutes. Neither could bring himself to speak-perhaps each hoped that the other had not seen everything. Besides, one was the father of the girl, and the other-her jilted lover. More than once the father shivered, and his fingers twitched the whole time. Simultaneously they both started in surprise; for all at once Alice appeared over the brow of the nearest hill, coming swiftly towards them-alone.

"Thank God!" murmured the Colonel, forgetting Dick's presence. "He has asked her to marry him, and she has refused. The villain!"

"Then, if you are right," cried Dick with sudden intensity, "a million times blacker villain he."

"What do you mean?"

"Mean? I mean-but there is no need to tell you now."

"You may as well tell me everything."

"Then I mean that he is married already."

* * *

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