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At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 14077

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Days of suspense followed, while Alice's life trembled in the balance. In what way these days were passed the watchers themselves scarcely knew: for it is among the offices of suspense to make word and deed mechanical, and life a dream. The senses are dulled; nothing is realised-not even death itself, when death comes. Afterwards you remember with horror your callousness: when all the time your senses have been dulled by the most merciful of Nature's laws. Afterwards you find that you received many an impression without knowing it. Thus Dick Edmonstone, for one, recalled a few things that he had quite forgotten, on his way south in the train afterwards.

He could feel again the wind lifting the hair from his head on the dark hilltop. He saw the crescent moon racing through foamy billows of clouds, like a dismasted ship before the wind. He felt the rushing air as he sped back to the post in the lonely road from which he watched all night that square of yellow light-the light through her window-blind. This faint yellow light shot beams of hope into his heart through the long nights; he watched it till dawn, and then crept wearily to his bed in the inn. When he roamed away from it, a superstitious dread seized him that he would return to find the light gone out for ever. The pale, faint light became to him an emblem of the faint, flickering life that had burnt so low. He would wildly hurry back, with death at his heart. Thank God! the light still burned.

In memory he could hear his own voice treating with a carter for a load of straw. He was again laying down with his own hands the narrow road with this straw; he was sitting half the day at his post in the gap of the hedge, watching her window; he was tasting again of the delight with which he watched the first vehicle crawl noiselessly across that straw.

These were among his most vivid recollections; but voices came back to him plainest of all.

The voices of the professional nurses, whispering where they little dreamt there was a listener; foreboding the worst; comparing notes with their last fatal cases; throwing into their tones a kind of pity worse than open indifference-perfunctory and cold. Or, again, these same voices telling how a certain name was always on the feverish lips upstairs.

"Ah, poor soul!" said they; "she thinks of nothing but him!"

Of whom? Whose name was for ever on her lips? The name of him to whom she had breathed her last conscious words?

Even so; for another voice had echoed through the silent house more than once, and could never be forgotten by those who heard it; the piercing, heart-rending, delirious voice of Alice herself, reiterating those last conscious words of hers:

"Hear what it was he said to me, and my answer-which is my answer still!"

What had Miles said? What had been Alice's answer? Who would ever know? Not Dick; and these words came back to him more often than any others, and they tortured him.

But there were other words-words that had been spoken but yesterday, and as yet seemed too good to be true; the words of the kind old country doctor:

"She is out of danger!"

* * *

And now Dick Edmonstone was being whirled back to London. Alice was declared out of danger, so he had come away. Alice was not going to die. Her young life was spared. Then why was Dick's heart not filled with joy and thanksgiving? Perhaps it was; but why did he not show it? He who had been frenzied by her peril, should have leapt or wept for joy at her safety. He did neither. He could show no joy. Why not?

Edmonstone arrived in town, and broke his fast at an hotel-he had travelled all night. After breakfast he drove, with his luggage, first to the offices of the P. and O. Company in Leadenhall Street. He stepped from that office with a brisker air; something was off his mind; something was definitely settled. On his way thence to Waterloo he whistled lively tunes in the cab. By the time he reached Teddington and Iris Lodge, the jauntiness of his manner was complete. In fact, his manner was so entirely different from what his mother and Fanny had been prepared for, that the good ladies were relieved and delighted beyond measure for the first few minutes, until a something in his tone pained them both.

"Oh yes," he said, carelessly, in answer to their hushed inquiry, "she is out of danger now, safe enough. It has been touch and go, though."

He might have been speaking of a horse or dog, and yet have given people the impression that he was a young man without much feeling.

"But-my boy," cried Mrs. Edmonstone, "what has been the matter with you? We never heard that you were ill; and you look like a ghost, my poor Dick!"

Dick was standing in rather a swaggering attitude on the hearthrug. He wheeled round, and looked at himself in the large glass over the chimneypiece. His face was haggard and lined, and his expression just then was not a nice one.

"Why," he owned, with a grating laugh, "I certainly don't look very fit, now you mention it, do I? But it's all on the surface. I'm all right, bless you! I'm not on speaking terms with the sexton yet, anyway!"

A tear stood in each of Mrs. Edmonstone's dark eyes. Fanny frowned, and beat her foot impatiently upon the carpet. What had come over Dick?

He must have known perfectly well the utter falsity of the mask he was wearing; if not, self-deception was one of his accomplishments. Or perhaps those tears in his mother's eyes caused a pang of shame to shoot through him. In any case, he made a hasty effort to change his tone.

"How are you two? That is the main point with me. Bother my seediness!"

"We are always well," sighed Mrs. Edmonstone.

"And Maurice?"

"Maurice was never brisker."

"Lucky dog!" said Dick, involuntarily; and the bitterness was back in his tone before he knew it.

"Your friend Mr. Flint," said Mrs. Edmonstone, "is Maurice's friend now, and Mr. Flint finds all his friends in good spirits."

"Do you mean to say old Jack is doing the absentee landlord altogether? Did he never go back?"

"Yes. But he is over again-he is in town just now," said Mrs. Edmonstone.

"He's fast qualifying for buckshot, that fellow," said Dick, with light irony.

"I rather fancy," observed Fanny, with much indifference, "that you will see him this evening. I half think he is coming back with Maurice." And Miss Fanny became profoundly interested in the world out of the window.

"Good!" cried Dick; and there was a ring of sincerity in that monosyllable which ought to have made it appreciated-as much as a diamond in a dustheap!

In a little while Dick went up to his room. He had letters to write, he said; but he was heard whistling and singing as he unpacked his portmanteau. Neither of the ladies saw much more of him that day. They sat together in wretched silence; there was some constraint between them; they felt hurt, but were too proud to express the feeling even to each other. The fact was, they did not quite know why they felt hurt.

Dick had greeted them kindly enough-it was only that there was a something in his manner which they didn't like and could not understand. And so both these women longed heartily for evening, and the coming of Maurice and merry Mr. Flint-Fanny, however, the more heartily of the two.

Maurice and Flint did come-in excellent time, too; and it so happened that when the little table-gong rang out its silvery call, Mr. Flint and Miss Edmonstone were still perambulating the dewy, twilit tennis-court. It further happened, in spite of the last-mentioned fact, that Miss Fanny contrived to reach the drawing-room before her mother was finally disentangled from the wools and needles that beset her at most hours of the day; that mother and daughter were the last to enter the little dining-room, hand in hand; that Miss Fanny looked uncommonly radiant, and that the usual stupid tears were standing in gentle Mrs. Edmonstone's soft, loving eyes.

Dick was unusually brilliant in his old place at the head of the table-so brilliant that his friend Flint was taken by surprise, and, for his own part, silenced; though it is true that the latter had something on his mind which would have made him, in any case, worse company than usual. Dick rattled on incessantly, about the dales, and the moors, and the grouse, as though his stay in Yorkshire was associated with no tragedy, and no sickness nigh unto death. His mood, indeed, was not taken up by the others, but he did not seem to notice or to mind that; only when he was quiet, all were quiet, and the sudden silences were embarrassing to all save their prime author.

The longest and most awkward of these pauses occurred while the crumbs were being removed. When the maid had withdrawn, Dick drank of his wine, refilled his glass, held it daintily by the stem between finger and thumb, leant back in his chair, and proceeded deliberately to break the spell.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, speaking the trite words in the same disagreeable tone that had pained the ladies that morning, "I am going to make you a little speech; a very little one, mind, so don't look uncomfortable-you needn't even feel it."

He glanced from one to another of them. They did look uncomfortable; they felt that somehow Dick was not himself; they heartily wished he would be quiet. His manner was not the manner to carry off a sneer as so much pleasantry.

Dick continued:

"All good things must come to an end, you know-and, in fact, that's my very original text. Now look at me, please-mother, look at your sheep that was lost: thanks. You will, perhaps, agree with me that I'm hardly the fellow I was when I landed; the fact being that this beautiful British climate is playing old Harry with me, and-all good things come to an end. If I may class myself among the good things for a moment-for argument's sake-it seems to me that one good thing will come to an end pretty soon. Look at me-don't you think so?"

The wretched smile that crossed his lean, pale face was not at variance with his words. He was much altered. His cheeks were sunken and bloodless, dark only under the eyes. His eyes to-night were unnaturally bright. His lips too were bloodless; to-night they were quivering incessantly. His question was left unanswered, as he meant that it should be. Flint was trying mentally to compute the quantity of wine his friend might possibly have taken; the others could not have spoken at that moment even if they would.

"Now," continued Dick, still toying with his wine, "the country I left a few months ago never allows a man to fall into my unhappy plight. It puts a man in good health at the beginning, and keeps him in it to the end, somewhere in the nineties. Why, Maurice, if he went out there, would find that he has never known what health is! Fanny, we know, is a hardy plant, and would thrive anywhere; yet she was made for the life out there, if girl ever was. As for you, mother, it would clap twenty years on to your dear old life-no, it would make you twenty years younger. No one who has once lived there will live anywhere else. Even old Flint here is dying to go back; he confessed as much last month. Now what I say is this: all good things, etcetera-England among them. Therefore let us all go out there together, and live happily ever afterwards! Stop; hear me out, all of you: it's arranged already-I go out first, to stock the station, and all the rest of it. The fact is, I booked my passage this morning! Come, you have had good patience; my speech, like better 'good things,' has come to an end!"

His tone had changed from half-jest to whole earnest-from earnestness to ardour-from ardour to something bordering on defiance. But, with the last word scarcely out of his mouth, he checked himself, and ejaculated below his breath: "Good heavens!"

Mrs. Edmonstone had rushed sobbing from the room.

No one followed her. The others stared blankly, then indignantly, at Dick, in whose face concern began to show itself. Then young Maurice spoke up.

"If I were you," he said hotly to his brother, "I'd go after her, and tell her you have taken too much wine, and beg her pardon for making a fool of yourself!"

Dick darted an angry glance at him, but rose and stalked from the room. In point of fact, the wine had not had much to do with it-no more and no less than it has to do with anybody's after-dinner speech. At the same time, Dick had not been altogether in his right senses, either then or any time that day. He found his mother weeping as though her heart would break; whereat his own heart smote him so that he came to his senses there and then, and knelt in humility and shame at her feet.

"Dearest mother, forgive me!" he murmured again and again, and took her hand in his and kissed it.

"But are you-are you really going back-back over the seas?" she sobbed.

"Yes. I can't help it, mother! No one knows how miserable I have been over here. Forgive me-forgive me-but I can't stay! I can't indeed! But-but you shall come out too, and the others; and your life will be happier than it has been for years, once you are used to it."

Mrs. Edmonstone shook her head.

"No; it is impossible," she said with sudden decision.

"How so? Both Fanny and Maurice, once when I sounded them-"

"Fanny will never go, and I cannot leave her."

"Why? Mother dear, what do you mean?"

"I mean that your sister is going to be married."

Married! The mere word ought not to have cut him to the heart; yet, in the state that he was in then, it did. He rose uncertainly to his feet.

"You take my breath away, mother! I know of nothing. Whom is it to?"

"Can you ask?"

"I cannot guess."

"Then it is to your friend, Mr.-no, Jack-Jack Flint."

"God bless old Jack!"

That was what Dick said upon the instant. Then he stood silent. And then-Dick sank into a chair, and laid his face upon his hands.

"I can go out alone," he whispered. "And-and I wish them joy; from my heart I do! I will go and tell them so."

* * *

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