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   Chapter 26 AT BAY

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 13186

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Where is Mrs. Parish?" demanded Colonel Bristo, the moment his daughter reached the gate. In spite of a gallant effort to be calm before Alice, his voice quivered.

"The walk was too much for her." The girl's face was flushed, and her tones faint. "She said she couldn't walk back were it ever so. She spoke to Mrs. Commyns-who was called here, you know-and went to the Rectory. She wants us to send the pony-trap if--"

"Where is Mr. Miles?" Alice's father interrupted her.

"He is following."

She passed quickly by them into the house. Her face was full of trouble. Traces of tears were visible under her eyes. They heard her hurrying upstairs. Neither of them spoke a word. Dick had his back turned; he was watching the road.

The figure of Miles appeared on the nearest knoll. He walked slowly down the bank, his head bent, his eyes fixed upon the ground. Dick turned to Colonel Bristo.

"You had better leave me to speak to him," he said. "I will settle with him on the spot."

"It ought to come from me," said the Colonel doubtfully; "and yet--"

The old man paused. Dick looked at him with some anxiety.

"You had really better leave him to me, sir," he repeated. "I am sorry to say I am used to treating with him. There had better be no third party to our last parley. And the fewer words the better, on Alice's account; she need know nothing. Besides, I know your intentions--"

"Yes, yes; that for my part I will take no steps, not even to get back my money; that he may go to-day instead of to-morrow, and leave the country-we will not stop him. Of course, he will be only too glad to get off! Dick, I care nothing about the paltry pounds he has got out of me; he is welcome to them; I do not grudge him them, because of the service he did me-yet if I saw him now, I feel that I should forget to count that service. And you are right about Alice. Speak quietly, and get rid of him quickly. I will not see him unless I am obliged; at least, I will first hear from the dining-room what he has to say to you."

A moment later the Colonel was at his post in the dining-room. His retreat from the steps, which was really characteristic of the man, is open to misconstruction. He feared nothing worse than an unpleasantness-a disagreeable scene; and he avoided unpleasantnesses and disagreeables systematically through life. That was the man's weakness. Now if Dick had led him to suppose that Miles would do anything but take his congé philosophically and go, the Colonel would have filled the breach bristling with war. But from Dick's account of his previous relations with the impostor, he expected that Miles would be sent to the right-about with ease, and Colonel Bristo shrank from doing this personally.

The dining-room windows were wide open, but the brown holland blinds were drawn. Colonel Bristo did not raise them. He sat down to listen without looking. Almost immediately he heard a sharp click from the latch of the wicket-gate; then a louder click accompanied by a thud of timbers. Whoever had opened the gate had passed through and swung it to. The next sound that Colonel Bristo heard was the quiet, business-like voice of young Edmonstone:

"Stop! I have a word for you from the Colonel. Stop where you are! He does not want you to come in."

"What do you mean? What has happened?" The tones were apathetic-those of a man who has heard his doom already, to whom nothing else can matter much.

"He simply does not want you inside his house again. He is sending your things down to the inn, where he hopes you will stay until you leave the place according to your plans. Ryan," added Edmonstone in an altered manner, "you understand me by this time? Then you may take my word for it that you are as safe as you were yesterday; though you don't deserve it. Only go at once."

There was a pause. The Colonel fidgeted in his chair.

"So, my kind, generous, merciful friend could not keep his word one day longer!"

Miles's voice was so completely changed that the Colonel involuntarily grasped the blind-cord; for now it was the voice of an insolent, polished villain.

"If I had known before," Dick answered him coolly, "what I have found out this morning, you might have cried for quarter until you were hoarse."

"May I ask what you have learnt this morning?"

"Your frauds on the man who befriended you."

"My obligations to the man whose life I saved. Your way of putting it is prejudiced. Of course you gave him your version as to who I am?"

"My version!" exclaimed Edmonstone scornfully. "I told him that you and the bushranger Sundown are one."

Again Miles swiftly changed his key; but it was his words that were startling now.

"You are mad!" he said, pityingly-"you are mad; and I have known it for weeks. Your last words put your delusion in a nutshell. You have not a proof to bless yourself with. You are a madman on one point; and here comes the man that knows it as well as I do!"

In a whirl of surprise and amazement, not knowing for the moment whom or what to believe, the Colonel pulled up the blind and leant through the window. The Australian stood facing his accuser with an impudent smile of triumph. For once he stood revealed as he was-for once he looked every inch the finished scoundrel. If the Colonel had wavered for an instant before drawing up the blind, he wavered no more after the first glimpse of the Australian's face. He settled in his mind at that instant which was the liar of those two men. Yet something fascinated him. He was compelled to listen.

Robson was coming in at the gate.

"You are the very man we want," laughed Miles, turning towards him. "Now pull yourself together, Doctor. Do you call our friend, Mr. Edmonstone here, sane or not?"

"You said that he was not," said Robson, looking from Edmonstone to Miles.

"And you agreed with me?"

"I said I thought--"

"You said you thought! Well, never mind; I call him sane-practically; only under a delusion. But we will test him. You charge me with being a certain Australian bushranger, Mr. Edmonstone. Of course you have some evidence?"

An awkward sensation came over Dick: a consciousness that he had committed a mistake, and a mistake that was giving the enemy a momentary advantage. He choked with rage and indignation: but for the moment he could find no words. Evidence? He had the evidence of his senses; but it was true that he had no corroborative evidence at hand.

The bushranger's eyes glittered with a reckless light. He knew that the sides were too uneven to play this game long. He fe

lt that he was a free man if he quietly accepted fate as he had accepted it before at this man's hands. The odds were overwhelming; but he was seized with a wild desire to turn and face them; to turn upon his contemptible foe and treat him as he should have treated him in the beginning. It might cost him his liberty-his life-but it was worth it! The old devilry had sprung back into being within him. He was desperate-more desperate, this half-hour, than ever in the whole course of his desperate existence. His life had seemed worth having during the past weeks of his cowardice; now it was valueless-more valueless than it had been before. He was at bay, and he realised it. His brain was ablaze. He had played the docile Miles too long. Wait a moment, and he would give them one taste of the old Sundown!

"At least," he sneered in a low, suppressed voice, "you have someone behind you with a warrant? No? Nothing but your bare word and the dim recollection of years ago? That, my friend, seems hardly enough. Ah, Colonel, I'm glad you are there. Is there any truth in this message that has been given me, that you have had enough of me?"

"I wish you to go," said Colonel Bristo, sternly. "I wash my hands of you. Why refuse a chance of escape?"

"What! Do you mean to say you believe this maniac's cock-and-bull yarn about me?" He pointed jauntily at Dick with his forefinger. But the hand lowered, until the forefinger covered the corner of white handkerchief peeping from Edmonstone's breast-pocket. For a moment Miles seemed to be making some mental calculation; then his hand dropped, and trifled with his watch-chain.

"I believe every word that he has told me," declared the Colonel solemnly. "As to warrants, they are not wanted where there is to be no arrest. We are not going to lay hands on you. Then go!"

"Go!" echoed Edmonstone hoarsely. "And I wish to God I had done my duty the night I found you out! You would have been in proper hands long before this."

"Suppose I refuse to go? Suppose I stay and insist on evidence being brought against me?" said Miles to the Colonel. Then turning to Dick with fiery, blood-shot eyes, he cried: "Suppose, since there is no evidence at all, I shoot the inventor of all these lies?"

The hand was raised sharply from the watch-chain and dived into an inner pocket. That moment might have been Dick Edmonstone's last on earth, had not a white fluttering skirt appeared in the passage behind him.

The hand of Miles dropped nervelessly.

Colonel Bristo heard in the passage the light quick steps and rustling dress, and ran to the door. At the same instant Pinckney jumped up from his writing to see what was the matter. They met in the passage, and followed Alice to the steps. Her father seized her hand, to draw her back, but she snatched it from his grasp. Her hand was icy cold. Her face was white as death-as immovable-as passionless. She stood on the steps, and glanced from Edmonstone at her side to Miles on the path below. On Miles her calm glance rested.

"You seem to forget!" she said in a hard voice that seemed to come from far away. "You are forgetting what you said to me a few minutes ago, on the road. I understand your meaning better now than I did then. Yes, it is true; you know it is true: you are what he says you are!"

Miles watched her like one petrified.

She turned to Dick at her side. And now a sudden flush suffused her pallid cheeks, and her eyes dilated.

"It is you," she cried impetuously, "you that we have to thank for this! You that have brought all this upon us, you that allowed us to be preyed upon by a villain-screened him, helped him in his deceit, plotted with him! Being what he was, it was in his nature to cheat us. I forgive him, and pity him. But you I shall never forgive! Go, Mr. Miles. Whatever and whoever you are, go as you are asked. And go you too-true friend-brave gentleman! Go, both of you. Let us never see you again. Yet no! Stay-stay, all of you" (her face was changing, her words were growing faint)-"and hear what it was-he said-to me-and my answer, which is my answer still! Stay-one moment-and hear--"

Her words ceased altogether. Without a cry or a moan she sank senseless in her father's arms.

Philip Robson rushed forward. They stretched her on the cold stone. They tore open the collar round her neck, breaking the pretty brooch. They put brandy to her lips, and salts to her nostrils, and water upon her brow. Minutes passed, and there was no sign, no glimmer of returning life.

When Alice fell, Miles took one step forward, but no more. He stood there, leaning forward, unable to remove his eyes from the white lifeless face, scarcely daring to breathe.

There was no noise, no single word! The doctor (to his credit be it remembered) was trying all that he knew, quickly and quietly. The Colonel said not a word, but silently obeyed his nephew, and chafed the chill hands. Edmonstone fanned her face gently. Pinckney had disappeared from the group.

Robson suddenly looked up and broke the silence.

"Where is the nearest doctor?"

"Melmerbridge," murmured someone.

"He should be fetched at once. We want experience here. This is no ordinary faint."

Before the doctor had finished speaking, Miles wheeled round and darted to the gate. And there he found himself confronted by a short, slight, resolute opponent.

"You sha'n't escape," said Pinckney through his teeth, "just because the others can't watch you! You villain!"

Pinckney had heard only the end of what had passed on the steps, but that was enough to assure him that Miles had been unmasked as a criminal. Of course he would take the opportunity of all being preoccupied to escape, and did; and David faced Goliath in the gateway.

In lesser circumstances Miles would have laughed, and perhaps tossed his little enemy into the ditch. But now he whipped out his revolver-quicker than thought-and presented it with such swift, practised precision that you would have thought there had been no hiatus in his career as bushranger. And he looked the part at that instant!

Pinckney quailed, and gave way.

The next moment, Miles was rushing headlong up the hill.

On the crest of the second hill, above the beck and the bridge, he stopped to look round. The people on the steps were moving. Their number had increased. He could distinguish a servant-maid holding her apron to her eyes. They were moving slowly; they were carrying something into the house-something in a white covering that hung heavily as a cerement in the heavy air.

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