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   Chapter 29 ELIZABETH RYAN

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 17499

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Elizabeth Ryan did not return to Gateby after leaving Pound in the fields between the village and the shooting-box. All that night she roamed the lanes and meadows like a restless shade. Whither her footsteps led her she cared little, and considered less.

Though not unconscious of the mechanical act of walking, her sense of locomotion was practically suspended. A night on the treadmill would have left upon her an impression of environment no more monotonous than that which remained to her when this night was spent; and she never once halted the whole night through.

Her seeing mind held but one image-her husband. In her heart, darting its poison through every vein, quivered a single passion-violent, ungovernable anger. The full, undivided force of this fierce passion was directed against Edward Ryan.

Later-when the flame had gone out, and the sullen glow of stern resolve remained in its stead-the situation presented itself in the form of alternatives. Either she must betray her husband, or set him free by ending her own miserable life. One of these two things must be done, one left undone. There was no third way now. The third way had been tried; it should have led to compassion and justice; it had led only to further cruelty and wrong. One of the remaining ways must now be chosen; for the woman it little mattered which; they surely converged in death.

At daybreak Elizabeth Ryan found herself in flat, low-lying country. She looked for the hills, and saw them miles away. From among those hills she had come. She must have been walking right through the night, she thought.

She was by no means sure. She only knew that her brain had been terribly active all through the night-she could not answer for her body. Then, all at once, a deadly weariness overcame her, and a score of aches and pains declared themselves simultaneously. Prevented by sheer distraction from feeling fatigue as it came, by natural degrees, the moment the mental strain was interrupted the physical strain manifested its results in the aggregate; Mrs. Ryan in one moment became ready to drop.

She had drifted into a narrow green lane leading to a farmhouse. She followed up this lane till it ended before a substantial six-barred gate. She opened the gate and entered the farmyard. She tried the doors of the outbuildings. A cowhouse was open and empty; one of its stalls was stacked high with hay; to the top of this hay she climbed, and crept far back to the wall, and covered her dress with loose handfuls of the hay. And there Elizabeth Ryan went near to sleeping the clock round.

A hideous dream awoke her at last. She was trembling horribly. She had seen her husband dead at her feet-murdered at his wife's instigation!

The mental picture left by the dream was so vivid that the unhappy woman lay long in terror and trembling, not daring to move. Instead of paling before consciousness and reason, the ghastly picture gained in breadth, colour, and conviction with each waking minute. He was lying dead at her feet-her husband-her Ned-the man for love of whom she had crossed the wide world, and endured nameless hardships, unutterable humiliation. He was slain by the hand of the man who had led her to him-by the ruthless murderer, Jem Pound!

She remembered her words to Pound, and her teeth chattered: "Take it, even if you have to take his life with it!" Those were the very words she had used in her frenzy, meaning whatever it was that Ned wore upon his breast. He wore it, whatever it was, near to his heart; he must value it next to his life. What else could it be but money? Oh, why had she told Pound? How could passion carry her so far? If her dream was true-and she had heard of true dreams-then her husband was murdered, and the guilt was hers.

A low wail of agony escaped her, and for a moment drove her fears into a new channel. Suppose that cry were heard! She would be discovered immediately, perhaps imprisoned, and prevented from learning the worst or the best about her dream, which she must learn at any price and at once! Filled with this new and tangible dread she buried herself deeper in the hay and held her breath. No one came. There was no sound but her own heart's loud beating, and the dripping and splashing of the rain outside in the yard, and the rising of the wind. She breathed freely again; more freely than before her alarm. The minutes of veritable suspense had robbed the superstitious terror of half its power, but not of the motive half, she must go back and make sure about that dream before carrying out any previous resolution. Until this was done, indeed, all antecedent resolves were cancelled.

She crept down from the hay and peeped cautiously outside. She could see no one. It was raining in torrents and the wind was getting up. With a shudder she set her face to it, and crossed the yard. At the gate she stopped suddenly, for two unpleasant facts simultaneously revealed themselves: she had no idea of the way to Gateby, and she was famishing. Now to be clear on the first point was essential, and there was nothing for it but to apply boldly at the farmhouse for the information; as to the second, perhaps at the farmhouse she might also beg a crust.

"Dear heart!" cried the good wife, answering the timid knock at the door. "Hast sprung from t'grave, woman?"

"Nay," answered Elizabeth, sadly; "I am only on my way there."

The farmer's wife, a mountain of rosy kindliness, stared curiously at the pale frightened face before her, and up and down the draggled dress.

"Why, Lord, thou'rt wet and cold; an' I'll be bound thou's had nobbut hay for thy bed."

With a sudden flood of tears, Elizabeth Ryan confessed where she had been sleeping all day.

"Nay, nay, honey," said the good woman, a tear standing in her own eye, "it's nowt-it's nowt. Come in and get thysel' warmed an' dried. We're having our teas, an' you shall have some, an' all!"

Thus the poor vagrant fell among warm Yorkshire hearts and generous Yorkshire hands. They gave her food, warmth, and welcome, and pitied her more than they liked to say. And when, in spite of all protests, she would go on her way (though the risen wind was howling in the chimney, and driving the heavy rain against the diamond panes), honest William, son of the house and soil, brought a great sack and tied it about her shoulders, and himself set her on the high road for Melmerbridge.

"Ye'll 'ave te go there," said he, "to get te Gaatby. 'Tis six mile from this, an' Gaatby other fower."

Six miles? That was nothing. So said the strange woman, as she tramped off in the teeth of the storm; and William, hurrying homeward, wondered what had made her eyes so bright and her step so brisk all at once. He asked his parents what they thought, but they only shook their puzzled heads: they had done nothing out of the way that they knew of; how could they guess that it had been their lot to show the first human kindness to a poor forlorn pilgrim from over the seas-the first the poor woman had met with in all stony-hearted England?

Yet her treatment at the hands of these simple people had lightened the heart of Elizabeth Ryan, and the terror of her awful dream had softened it. Her burning rage against her husband was quenched; she thought of it with shuddering shame. Her wild resolves were thrown to the winds; she must have been mad when she entertained them. She must have been blind as well as mad; but now her sight was restored. Yes, now she could see things in their true light. Now she could see who had caused her husband's cruelty; who had poisoned him against her-subtly, swiftly, surely, at their first meeting; who had drugged her, and then shown Ned his drunken wife at their second meeting; whom she had to thank for all her misery: the fiend, Jem Pound.

It was true that Ned had treated her heartlessly; but, believing what he believed of her, could she blame him? She blamed him for listening to the first whisper against her, from the lips of a monster; but his fault ended there. He had never heard her in her own defence. He had not so much as seen her alone. There lay the root of it all: she had been allowed no chance of explaining, of throwing herself on his compassion.

But now she was going to put an end to all this. She was going to him at once, and alone. She was going to tell him all: how she had waited patiently for him at Townsville until the news of his capture drove her almost frantic; how, in the impulse and madness of the moment, she had trusted herself to Jem Pound, and followed him, her husband, to England; how she had followed him for his own sake, in the blindness of her love, which separation and his life of crime had been powerless

to lessen; how, ever since, she had been in the power of a ruffianly bully, who had threatened and cajoled her by turns.

And then she would throw herself at Ned's feet, and implore his mercy. And he, too, would see clearly, and understand, and pity her, and take her back into his life. Whether that life was bad or good, it alone was her heart's desire.

A soft smile stole over the haggard face, upon which the wind and the rain were beating more fiercely every minute. Wind and rain were nothing to her now; she could not feel them; she was back in Victoria, and the sky above was dark blue, and the trees on either side the flint-strewn track were gaunt, grey, and sombre. The scent of the eucalyptus filled her nostrils. The strokes of two galloping horses rang out loud and clear on the rough hard road. She was mounted on one of these horses, Ned on the other. They were riding neck and neck, she and her handsome Ned-riding to the township where the little iron church was. It was their marriage morn. She had fled from home for ever.

Surely he loved her then-a little? Yet he had left her, very soon, without a word or a cause; for weeks she could gather no tidings of him, until one day news came that rang through the countryside, and was echoed throughout the colony-news that stamped her new name with infamy. But had she changed her name, or sunk her identity, or disowned her husband, as some women might have done? No. She had employed her woman's wit to hunt her husband down-to watch over him-to warn him where danger lurked. One night-it stood out vividly in her memory-she had burst breathlessly into his bivouac, and warned him in the nick of time: half-an-hour later the armed force found the fires still burning, but the bushrangers flown. And he had been good to her then; for it was then that he had given her the money to go to his only relative-a sister at Townsville; and he had promised in fun to "work up" through Queensland, some day, and meet her there. Yes, with the hounds of justice on his heels he had made time to be kind to her then, after a fashion. It was not much, that amount of kindness, but it would be enough for her now. After all that she had gone through, she would be content with something short of love, say even tolerance. She would try to win the rest, in after years-years when Ned settled down in some distant country-when Ned reformed. Could he refuse her now so small a measure of what she gave him without stint? Surely not. It was impossible. Unless-unless-unless-

What made Elizabeth Ryan clench her drenched cold fingers and draw her breath so hard? What blotted out the visionary blue skies, tore hope and fancy to shreds, and roused her to the bleak reality of wind and rain and the sickening memory of her husband's heartlessness? What, indeed, but the suggestions of Jem Pound?

She loathed herself for listening to a single word from that polluted source; yet, as Pound's words came back to her, she listened again to them all. She thought of the pretty, delicate, pink-and-white woman her own eyes had seen by the waters of the Thames, with whom she had spoken, who had dared to offer her money. The thought became a globe of fire in her brain; and soon the poor woman had worked herself back into a frame of mind bordering upon that frenzy which had driven her hither and thither, like a derelict ship at the wind's mercy, through the long hours of the previous night. The appearance of watery lights through the storm came not before it was time. Even to Elizabeth Ryan, with hope and passion wrestling in her breast, there was a certain faint excitement and satisfaction in reaching a village after a six-mile tramp through wind, rain, and dusk deepening into night. Besides, if this was Melmerbridge, she must ask and find out the road to Gateby.

Guided by the lights, she presently reached the north end of the long, one-sided village street; the long straight stream, now running turbulently, was on her left as she advanced, and Melmerbridge Bank straight ahead, at the southern end of the village. An irregular line of lights marked the houses on the right; to the left, across the beck, there were no such lights; but a set of church windows-the church being lit up for evening service-hung gaudily against the black screen of night; the outline of the church itself was invisible. The deep notes of an organ rose and fell in the distance, then died away; then suddenly, as the wayfarer gazed, the stained-glass window disappeared, and Mrs. Ryan found herself in the midst of a little stream of people who were coming from the bridge in front of the church to the cottages on the opposite side of the road.

From one of these people she received the directions she required, but she noticed that most of them were talking eagerly and excitedly, in a way not usual among folks fresh from worship, or indeed in a quiet country village at any time. Little groups formed in the doorways and kept up an animated conversation. Clearly there was something of uncommon interest astir. Mrs. Ryan passed on, mildly interested herself.

The last houses of the village were darker. Elizabeth touched their outer walls with her skirts as she trudged along the narrow uneven pavement. From one of them came a sound which struck her as an odd sound for a Sabbath evening-the long, steady sweep and swish of a plane. This house was a shop; for six parallel threads of light issued from the chinks of the tall shutters. Through one of these chinks a small boy was gazing with rapt attention and one eye closed. Mrs. Ryan stopped, and out of mere curiosity peered through another.

A burly old man was energetically planing a long, wide, roughly-shaped, hexagonal plank. The shape of the plank was startling.

"What is it he is making?" inquired Mrs. Ryan of the small boy. Perhaps she could see for herself, and put the question mechanically.

The answer was prompt and short:

"A coffin!"

Mrs. Ryan shuddered and stood still. The urchin volunteered a comment.

"My! ain't it a long 'un! Did ye iver see sich a long 'un, missis?"

He was little Tom Rowntree, the sexton's son and heir, this boy, so he knew what he was talking about; one day, all being well, he would dig graves and bury folks himself; he took a profound premature interest in all branches of the hereditary avocation.

"Who is dead?" asked Mrs. Ryan, in a hard metallic voice.

"Haven't heard tell his name, but 'tis a sooincide, missis-a sooincide! A gent's been and shot hisself upon the bank there, this afternoon. He's a-lyin' ower yonder at t' Blue Bell."

"Where is that?"

"Yonder, look-t' last house on this side. It's nigh all dark, it is, an' no one there 'cept my mother an' Mr. Robisson hisself, an' customers turned away an' all. That's 'cause Mrs. Robisson she's took the high-strikes-some people is that weak!"

But there was no listener to these final words of scorn. With a ghastly face and starting eyes, Elizabeth Ryan was staggering to the Blue Bell inn.

A square of pale light dimly illumined a window close to the ground to the left of the door, otherwise the inn was in darkness. Elizabeth Ryan crouched down, and never took her eyes from that window till the light was extinguished. Then she heard the door within open and shut, and the outer door open. A man and a woman stood conversing in low tones on the steps, the woman's voice broken by sobs.

"'Tisn't that I'm growing old and nervous, Mr. Robisson, and thinkin' that me own time'll come some day; no, it's not that. But all these years-and never such a thing to happen in the village before-little did I think to live to be called in to the likes o' this. And such a good face as I never seed in living man, poor fellow! You never know where madness comes in, and that's what it's been, Mr. Robisson. And now I'm out o' t' room I'm that faint I don't know how to get home."

"Come, come, I'll give you my arm and umbrella across, Mistress Rowntree."

"But ye've left t' key in t' door?"

"Oh, I'll be back quick enough; it's only a step."

He gave her his arm, and the pair came out together and went slowly up the village street. In less than five minutes the landlord of the Blue Bell returned, locked all the doors, and went to bed, leaving the inn in total darkness.

A quarter of an hour later this total darkness was interrupted; a pale light glimmered in the window close to the ground to the left of the door. This light burned some ten or twenty minutes. Just before it was put out, the window-sash was moved up slowly. Then, when all was once more in darkness, a figure stepped out upon the sill, leapt lightly to the ground, and cautiously drew down the sash.

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