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At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 13636

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Dr. Mowbray, coming first thing in the morning, declared that the patient had passed a better night than he had hoped for; but he told Colonel Bristo privately that he must count on nothing as yet, and be prepared for anything.

To his surprise and delight, the physician found his patient in the hands of a gentle, intelligent nurse. This was the more fortunate since he had failed to find in Melmerbridge a capable woman who was able to come. Whoever the dark, shabbily-dressed woman was, she must not be allowed to leave the bedside for the present. "She is a godsend," said Dr. Mowbray on coming downstairs. Colonel Bristo, for his part, knew nothing of the woman; he supposed she was from Gateby. Mrs. Parish, no doubt, knew all about her; and after the doctor's account of her services, the Colonel made no inquiries.

Edmonstone and Pinckney were to drive back to Melmerbridge with the doctor to attend the inquest on the body of the suicide. Before they started the Colonel called the two young men aside, and a brief, earnest colloquy took place.

During the drive Dr. Mowbray mentioned a strange report that had reached him before leaving Melmerbridge; it was noised in the village, at that early hour, that the dead man had moved one of his hands during the night.

"It will show you," the doctor said, "the lengths to which the rustic imagination can stretch. The fact is, they are terribly excited and primed with superstition, for there hasn't been a suicide in the parish in the memory of this generation. What is more," added the old gentleman, suddenly, "I'm not sure that there's been one now!"

There was some excuse, perhaps, for the string of excited questions reeled off on the spur of the moment by young Pinckney: "Why? How could it be anything else but suicide? Had they not got the pistol-Miles's own pistol? Had not Dr. Mowbray himself said that the bullet extracted fitted the one empty cartridge found in the revolver? Besides, Miles had not denied shooting himself when asked by Edmonstone what he had done."

"But did he admit that he had shot himself?" asked Dr. Mowbray, turning to Edmonstone.

"No, he did not."

"Was his manner, up to the last, that of a man who had deliberately shot himself?"

"No, it was not. It might have been an accident."

"Neither the one nor the other," said the doctor. "Now I'll tell you two something that I shall make public presently: a man cannot point a pistol at himself from a greater distance than two feet at the outside; but this shot was fired at three times that range!"

"How can you tell, sir?" asked Pinckney, with added awe and subtracted vehemence.

"The clothes are not singed; the hole might have been made by a drill, it was so clean."

The young man sat in silent wonder. Then Dick put a last question:

"You think it has been-murder?"

"Personally, I am convinced of it. We shall say all we know, and get an adjournment. At the adjourned inquest Colonel Bristo will attend, and tell us his relations with the dead man, who, it appears, had no other friend in the country; but to-day that is not absolutely necessary, and I shall explain his absence myself. Meanwhile, detectives will be sent down, and will find out nothing at all, and the affair will end in a verdict against some person or persons unknown, at best."

Dr. Mowbray's first prediction was forthwith fulfilled: the inquest was adjourned. The doctor at once drove back to Gateby with the two young men. As they drove slowly down the last hill they descried two strangers, in overcoats and hard hats, conversing with Colonel Bristo in the road. Philip Robson was standing by, talking to no one, and looking uncomfortable.

When the shorter of the two strangers turned his face to the gig, Dick ejaculated his surprise-for it was the rough, red, good-humoured face of the Honourable Stephen Biggs.

"What has brought you here?" Dick asked in a low voice when he had greeted the legislator.

By way of reply, Biggs introduced him to the tall, grave, black-bearded, sharp-featured gentleman-Sergeant Compton, late of the Victorian Mounted Police.

There was an embarrassed silence; then Philip Robson stepped forward.

"It was my doing," he said, awkwardly enough; and he motioned Dick to follow him out of hearing of the others. "I listened," he then confessed, "to a conversation between you and Miles. I heard you read a letter aloud. From what passed between you, I gathered that Miles was a blackleg of some kind, whom you were screening from the police. Miles found that I had overheard you, and swore to me that you were the victim of a delusion. When I reflected, I disbelieved him utterly. I copied the address of the letter you had written, and the next day I wrote myself to Mr. Biggs, describing Miles as well as I could, and saying where he was. I did not dream that Miles was a bushranger, even then-I thought he was merely a common swindler. However, that's the whole truth. Edmonstone, I'm sorry!"

Dick's first expression of contempt had vanished. Frank admissions turn away wrath more surely than soft answers. Besides, Robson had behaved well yesterday: without him, what might not have happened before Dr. Mowbray arrived?

"I believe," said Dick, "that you were justified in what you did, only-I'm sorry you did it."

Mr. Biggs was in close conversation with Colonel Bristo. Sergeant Compton stood aloof, silent and brooding; in the hour of triumph Death had baulked him of his quarry; his dark face presented a study in fierce melancholy.

"If only," the Colonel was saying piteously, "the tragedy could stop at the name of Miles! The scandal that will attach to us when the whole sensation comes to light is difficult to face. For my part, I would face it cheerfully if it were not-if it were not for my daughter Alice. And, after all, it may not annoy her. She may not live to hear it."

The last words were broken and hardly intelligible.

The rugged face of Stephen Biggs showed honest concern, and honest sympathy too. It did not take him long to see the case from the Colonel's point of view, and he declared very bluntly that, for his part, he would be glad enough to hush the thing up, so far as the dead man's past life was concerned (and here Mr. Biggs jingled handfuls of coins in his pockets), but that, unfortunately, it did not rest with him.

"You see, Colonel," he explained, "my mate here he's been on Ned Ryan's trail, off and on, these four years. Look at him now. He's just mad at being cheated in the end. But he's one of the warmest traps in this Colony-I mean out in Vic.; and, mark me, he'll take care to let the whole Colony know that, if he warn't in at Sundown's death, he was nearer it than any other blessed 'trap.' There's some personal feeling in it, Colonel," sai

d Biggs, lowering his voice. "Frank Compton has sworn some mighty oath or other to take Ned Ryan alive or dead."

"Suppose," said the Colonel, "we induce your friend here to hold his tongue, do you think it would be possible for us to let this poor fellow pass out of the world as Miles, a squatter, or, at worst, an unknown adventurer?"

"How many are there of you, Colonel, up here who know?"


"And there are two of us. Total six men in the world who know that Ned Ryan, the bushranger, died yesterday. The rest of the world believes that he was drowned in the Channel three months ago. Yes, I think it would be quite possible. Moreover, I don't see that it would do the least good to any one to undeceive the rest of the world; but Frank Compton-"

"Is he the only detective after Miles in this country?"

"The only one left. The others went back to Australia, satisfied that their man was drowned."

"But our police-"

"Oh, your police are all right, Colonel. They've never so much as heard of Sundown. They're easily pleased, are your police!"

It was at this point that Dr. Mowbray reappeared on the steps. Colonel Bristo went at once to learn his report, which must have been no worse than that of the early morning, for it was to speak of the inquest that the Colonel hurried back the moment the doctor drove away.

"Dick," said he, in a voice that all could hear (Edmonstone was still talking to Robson-Compton still standing aloof), "you never told me the result. The inquest is adjourned; but there is a strong impression it seems that it is not a case of suicide after all, gentlemen-but one of wilful murder."

The personal bias mentioned by Biggs had not altogether extinguished ordinary professional instincts in the breast of Sergeant Compton; for, at this, his black eyes glittered, and he pulled his patron aside.

Biggs, in his turn, sought a private word with the Colonel.

"Compton," he said, "is bent on at once seeing the spot where Ryan was shot. Will you send some one with us? I'll bring my man back this evening, and we'll try to talk him over between us; but I fear it's hopeless."

Between three and four that afternoon the body of Jem Pound was found at the bottom of the cliff, a mile from Melmerbridge, among the fir-trees.

Between eight and nine that evening, in the little gun-room at the shooting-box, Biggs-in the presence of Colonel Bristo-made a last effort to induce Sergeant Compton to join the conspiracy of silence regarding the identity of Miles, the Australian adventurer, now lying dead at Melmerbridge, with Sundown, the Australian bushranger, supposed to have been drowned in the Channel in the previous April. All to no purpose. The Sergeant remained obdurate.

"Mr. Biggs," said he, "and you, sir, I must declare to you firmly and finally that it is impossible for me to hold my tongue in a case like this. I will not speak of fairness and justice, for I agree that no one will be a bit the better off for knowing that Ned Ryan died yesterday instead of last spring. I will be perfectly candid. I will ask you to think for a moment what this means to me. It means this: when I get back to Melbourne I will be worth twice what I was before I sailed. The fact of having been the only man to disbelieve in Ryan's drowning, and the fact of having as near as a touch taken both Ryan and Pound alive, will make my fortune for me out there."

Honest Biggs rattled the coins in his pockets, and seemed about to speak.

"No, sir," said Compton, turning to his patron. "My silence won't be given-it cannot be bought. I have another reason for telling everything: my hatred for Ned Ryan-that death cannot cool!"

These words Compton hissed out in a voice of low, concentrated passion.

"I have not dogged him all these years for mere love of the work. No! He brought disgrace upon me and mine, and I swore to take him alive or dead. I keep my oath-I take him dead! All who know me shall know that I have kept my oath! As for Jem Pound, his mate and his murderer-"

The door opened, and the nurse stood panting on the threshold. Even in her intense excitement she remembered that she had left her charge sleeping lightly, and her words were low:

"What is it you say? Do you say that Jem Pound murdered my husband?" Colonel Bristo and the Sergeant started simultaneously. "Well, I might have known that-I might have told you that. But upstairs-I have been forgetting! I have been forgetting-forgetting! Yet when I heard you gentlemen come in here I remembered, and it was to tell you what I knew about Jem Pound that I came down."

Sergeant Compton had turned an ashen grey; his eyes never moved from the face of the woman from the moment she entered the room. Elizabeth Ryan crossed the room and stood in front of him. His face was in shadow.

"You, sir-I heard your voice as my hand was on the door-handle; and I seemed to know your voice; and, while I stood trying to remember whose voice it was, I heard what you said. So you will not let the dead man rest! So, since he escaped you by his death, you would bring all the world to hoot over his grave! Oh, sir, if the prayers of his wife-his widow-"

She stopped. The man had risen unsteadily from his chair. His face was close to hers. She sprang back as though shot.

Sergeant Compton whispered one word: "Liz!"

Biggs and the Colonel watched the pale dark woman and the dark pale man in silent wonder. There was a likeness between man and woman.

"Liz!" repeated the Sergeant in a low, hoarse voice.

"Who-who are you? Are you-are you-"

"I am Frank!"

"Frank!" she whispered to herself, unable to realise all at once who Frank had been-it was so long since there had been a Frank in her life. "What!" she exclaimed in a whisper; "not my brother Frank?"

"Yes, your brother Frank. But-but I thought you were out there, Liz. I thought he had long ago deserted you; and that made me thirst all the more-"

His sister flung herself at his feet.

"Oh, Frank! Frank!" she wailed. "Since the day I married I have spoken to none of my own kith and kin until this night. And this is how we meet! Frank!-Frank!"-her voice fell to a tremulous whisper-"do one thing for me, and then, if you are still so bitter against me, go away again. Only one thing I ask-a promise. Promise, for your part, to keep silence! Let the dead man-let the dead man sleep peacefully. If the whole truth will come out, come out it must; but don't let it be through you, Frank-never let it be through you! Speak. Do you promise?"

The low, tearful, plaintive tones ceased, and there was silence in the room. Then Francis Compton bent down, and lifted his sister Elizabeth in his arms.

"I promise," he whispered in a broken voice. "God knows you have suffered enough!"

* * *

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