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At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 23478

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The month was October; the day Dick's last in England. Both the day and the month were far spent: in an hour or two it would be dark, in a week or so it would be November. This time to-morrow the R.M.S. Rome, with Dick on board, would be just clear of the Thames; this time next month she would be ploughing through the Indian Ocean, with nothing but Australia to stop her.

"Last days," as a rule, are made bearable by that blessed atmosphere of excitement which accompanies them, and is deleterious to open sentiment. That excitement, however, is less due to the mere fact of impending departure than to the providential provision of things to be done and seen to at the last moment. An uncomfortable "rush" is the best of pain-killers when it comes to long farewells. The work, moreover, should be for all hands, and last to the very end; then there is no time for lamentation-no time until the boxes are out of the hall and the cab has turned the corner, and the empty, untidy room has to be set to rights. Then, if you like, is the time for tears.

Now Dick had made a great mistake. He had booked his passage too far in advance. For six weeks he had nothing to think of but his voyage; nothing to do but get ready. Everything was prearranged; nothing, in this exceptional case, was left to the last, the very luggage being sent to the boat before the day of sailing. If Dick had deliberately set himself to deepen the gloom that shadowed his departure, he could not have contrived things better. Maurice, for instance, with great difficulty obtained a holiday from the bank because it was Dick's last day. He might just as well have stopped in the City. There was nothing for him to do. The day wore on in dismal idleness.

About three in the afternoon Dick left the house. He was seen by the others from the front windows. The sight of him going out without a look or a word on his last day cut them to the heart, though Dick had been everything that was kind, and thoughtful, and affectionate since that evening after his return from Yorkshire. Besides, the little family was going to be broken up completely before long: Fanny was to be married in the spring. No wonder they were sad.

Dick turned to the right, walked towards the river, turned to the right again, and so along the London road towards the village.

"It is the right thing," he kept assuring himself, and with such frequency that one might have supposed it was the wrong thing; "it is the right thing, after all, to go and say good-bye. I should have done it before, and got it over. I was a fool to think of shirking it altogether; that would have been behaving like a boor. Well, I'll just go in naturally, say good-bye all round, stop a few minutes, and then hurry back home. A month ago I couldn't have trusted myself, but now--"

It was a joyless smile that ended the unspoken sentence. The last month had certainly strengthened his self-control; it had also hardened and lined his face in a way that did not improve his good looks. Yes, he was pretty safe in trusting himself now.

At the corner opposite the low-lying old churchyard he hesitated. He had hesitated at that corner once before. He remembered the other occasion with peculiar vividness to-day. Why should he not repeat the performance he had gone through then? Why should he not take a boat and row up to Graysbrooke? An admirable idea! It harmonised so completely with his humour. It was the one thing wanting to complete the satire of his home-coming. That satire had been so thoroughly bitter that it would be a pity to deny it a finishing touch or two. Besides, it was so fitting in every way: the then and the now offered a contrast that it would be a shame not to make the most of. Then, thought Dick, his foolish hopes had been as fresh and young and bright as the June leaves. Look at his bare heart now! look at the naked trees! Hopes and leaves had gone the same way-was it the way of all hopes as well as of all leaves? His mind, as well as his eye, saw everything in autumnal tints. Nor did he shirk the view. There is a stage of melancholy that rather encourages the cruel contrasts of memory.

"I'll row up," said Dick, "and go through it all again. Let it do its worst, it won't touch me now-therefore nothing will ever touch me as long as I live. A good test!"

He did row up, wearing the same joyless smile.

He stood the test to perfection.

He did not forget to remember anything. He gave sentimentality a princely chance to play the mischief with him. It was a rough and gusty day, but mild for the time of year; a day of neither sunshine nor rain, but plenty of wind and clouds; one of those blustering fellows, heralds of Winter, that come and abuse Autumn for neglecting her business, and tear off the last of the leaves for her with unseemly violence and haste. The current was swift and strong, and many a crisp leaf of crimson and amber and gold sailed down its broad fretted surface, to be dashed over the weir and ripped into fragments in the churning froth below.

Dick rowed into the little inlet with the white bridge across it, landed, and nodded, in the spirit, to a hundred spots marked in his mind by the associations of last June; those of an older day were not thought of. Here was the place where Alice's boat had been when he had found her reading a magazine-and interrupted her reading-on the day after his return. There were the seven poplars, in whose shadows he had found Miles on the night of the ball, when the miscreant Pound came inquiring for him. There was the window through which he, Dick, had leapt after that final scene-final in its results-with Alice in the empty ballroom. A full minute's contemplation and elaborate, cold-blooded recollection failed to awake one pang-it may be that, to a certain quality of pain, Dick's sense had long been deadened. Then he walked meditatively to the front of the house, and rang the bell-a thing he was not sure that he had ever done before at this house.

Colonel Bristo was out, but Mrs. Parish was in. Dick would see Mrs. Parish; he would be as civil to his old enemy as to the rest of them; why not?

But Mrs. Parish received him in a wondrous manner; remorse and apology-nothing less-were in the tones of her ricketty voice and the grasp of her skinny hand. The fact was, those weeks in Yorkshire had left their mark upon the old lady. They had left her older still, a little less worldly, a little more sensible, and humbler by the possession of a number of uncomfortable regrets. She had heard of Dick's probable return to Australia, long ago; but her information had been neither definite nor authentic. When he now told her that he was actually to sail the next day, the old woman was for the moment visibly affected. She felt that here there was a new and poignant regret in store for her-one that would probably haunt her for the rest of her days. At this rate life would soon become unbearable. It is a terrible thing to become suddenly soft-hearted in your old age!

"Colonel Bristo is out," said Mrs. Parish, with a vague feeling that made matters worse. "You will wait and see him, of course? I am sure he will not be long; and then, you know, you must say good-bye to Alice-she will be shocked when you tell her."

"Alice?" said Dick, unceremoniously, as became such a very old friend of the family. "I hope so-yes, of course. Where is she?"

"She is in the dining-room. She spends her days there."

"How is she?" Dick asked, with less indifference in his manner.

"Better; but not well enough to stand a long journey, or else her father would have taken her to the south of France before this. Come and see her. She will be so pleased-but so grieved when she hears you are going out again. I am sure she has no idea of such a thing. And to-morrow, too!"

Dick followed Mrs. Parish from the room, wishing in his heart that convalescence was a shorter business, or else that Alice might have the advantages of climate that in a few days, and for evermore, would be his; also speculating as to whether he would find her much changed, but wishing and wondering without the slightest ruffling emotion. He had some time ago pronounced himself a cure. Therefore, of course, he was cured.

There were two fireplaces in the dining-room, one on each side of the conservatory door. In the grate nearer the windows, which were all at one end, overlooking lawn and river, a fire of wood and coal was burning brightly. In a long low structure of basketwork-half-sofa, half-chair, such as one mostly sees on shipboard and in verandahs-propped up by cushions and wrapped in plaids and woollen clouds, lay Alice, the convalescent. There was no sign that she had been reading. She did not look as though she had been sleeping. If, then, it was her habit to encourage the exclusive company of her own thoughts, it is little wonder that she was so long in parting company with her weakness.

Dick stood humbly and gravely by the door; a thrill of sorrow shot through him on seeing her lying there like that; the sensation was only natural.

"Here is Mr. Richard come to-to-to ask you how you are," stammered poor Mrs. Parish.

Alice looked up sharply. Mr. Richard crossed the room and held out his hand with a smile.

"I hope from my heart that you are better-that you will very soon be quite better."

"Thank you. It was kind of you to come. Yes, indeed, I am almost well now. But it has been a long business."

Her voice was weak, and the hand she held out to him seemed so thin and wasted that he took it as one would handle a piece of dainty, delicate porcelain. Her hair, too, was cut short like a boy's. This was as much as he noticed at the moment. The firelight played so persistently upon her face that, for aught he could tell, she might be either pale as death or bathed in blushes. For the latter, however, he was not in the least on the look-out.

"Won't you sit down?" said Alice. "Papa will come in presently, and he will be so pleased to see you; and you will take tea with us. Have you been away?"

"No," said Dick, feeling awkward because he had made no inquiries personally since the return of the Bristos from Yorkshire, now some days back. "But I have been getting ready to go." He put down his hat on the red baize cover of the big table, and sat down a few chairs further from Alice than he need have done.

"What a capital time to go abroad," said Alice, "just when everything is becoming horrid in England! We, too, are waiting to go; it is I that am the stumbling-block."

So she took it that he was only going on the Continent. Better enlighten her at once, thought Dick. Mrs. Parish had disappeared mysteriously from the room.

"This time to-morrow," Dick accordingly said, "I shall be on board the Rome."

The effect of this statement upon Alice was startling.

"What!" cried she, raising herself a few inches in suddenly aroused interest. "Are you going to see them off?"

"See whom off?" Dick was mystified.

"My dear good nurse-the first and the best of my nurses-and her brother the Sergeant."

"Do you mean Compton?"

"Yes. They sail in the Rome to-morrow."

"So the brother," Dick thought to himself, "is taking the sister back to her own people, to be welcomed and forgiven, and to lead a better kind of life. Poor thing! poor thing! Perhaps her husband's death was the best thing that could have befallen her. She will be able to start afresh. She is a widow now."

Aloud, he only said: "I am glad-very glad to hear it."

"Did you know," said Alice, seeing that he was thinking more than he said, "that she was a widow?"

"Yes," said Dick.

It was plain to him that Alice did not k

now whose widow the poor woman was. She suspected no sort of bond between the woman who had nursed her and the man who had made love to her. She did not know the baseness of that love on his part. This was as it should be. She must never suspect; she must never, never know.

"Yes," said Dick slowly, "I knew that."

"Oh!" cried out Alice. "How dreadful it all was! How terrible!"

"Ay," said Dick, gravely; "it was that indeed."

There was a pause between them. It was Alice who broke it.

"Dick," she said frankly-and honest shame trembled through her utterance-"I want to ask your pardon for something-no, you shall not stop me! I want to tell you that I am sorry for having said something-something that I just dimly remember saying, but something that I know was monstrous and inexcusable. It was just before-but I was accountable enough to know better. Ah! I see you remember; indeed, you could never forget-please-please-try to forgive!"

Dick felt immensely uneasy.

"Say no more, Alice. I deserved it all, and more besides. I was fearfully at fault. I should never have approached you as I did, my discovery once made. I shall never forgive myself for all that has happened. But he took me in-he took me in, up there, playing the penitent thief, the-poor fellow!"

His voice dropped, his tone changed: many things came back to him in a rush.

"Papa has told me the whole history of the relations between you," Alice said quietly, "and we think you behaved nobly."

"There was precious little nobility in it," Dick said grimly. Nor was there any mock modesty in this. He knew too well that he had done nothing to be proud of.

There was another pause. Dick broke this one.

"Forgive me," he said, "if I refer to anything very painful, but I am going away to-morrow, and-there was something else you said, just after you administered that just rebuke to me. You said you would tell us what Miles had said to you. Now I do not mean it as presumption, but we are old friends"-she winced-"and I have rather suspected that he made some confession to you which he never made to anyone else. There was a lot of gold--"

Alice interrupted him in a low voice.

"I would rather not tell you what he said; it was nothing to do with anything of that kind."

Dick's question had not been unpremeditated. He had had his own conviction as to the "confession" Alice had listened to; he only wanted that conviction confirmed. Now, by her hesitation and her refusal to answer, it was confirmed. Miles had proposed marriage on the way from Melmerbridge Church, and been accepted! Well, it was a satisfaction to have that put beyond doubt. He had put his question in rather an underhand way, but how was he to do otherwise? He had got his answer; the end justified the means.

"Pray don't say another word," said Dick impulsively. "Forgive me for prying. Perhaps I can guess what he said."

Alice darted at him a swift glance, and saw his meaning in a flash.

"Do not get up," said she quietly, for Dick was rising to go. "Since it is possible that you may guess wrong, I will tell you all. I insist in telling you all! Here, then, are the facts: Mr. Miles scarcely spoke a word on the way from church, until suddenly, when we were almost in sight of home, he-he caught hold of my hand."

Dick knew that already. He was also quite sure that he knew what was coming. It was no use Alice going on; he could see that she was nervous and uncomfortable over it; he reproached himself furiously for making her so; he made a genuine effort to prevail upon her to say no more. In vain; for now Alice was determined. Seeing that it was so, he got up from his chair and walked over to the windows, and watched the brown leaves being whisked about the lawn and the sky overhead turning a deeper grey.

Alice continued in a voice that was firm for all its faintness:

"I suppose I looked surprised, and taken aback, and indignant, but he held my hand as if his was a vice, and still we walked on. Then I looked at him, and he was pale. Then he stared down upon me, closely and long, as if he meant to read my soul, and a great shudder seemed to pass through him. He almost flung my hand away from him, and faced me in the road. We were then on that little bridge between two hills, not far from the shooting-box: you will remember it. 'Miss Alice,' he said, 'I am a villain! a scoundrel! an impostor. I have never been fit to speak to you, and I have dared to take your hand. But I find I am a shade less black than I thought myself a minute ago; for what I meant to say to you I would not say now to save my soul, if I had one! Good-bye; you will see no more of me. Whatever you may one day hear of me-and you must believe it all, for it is every word true-remember this: that, bad as I still am, I am less bad than I was before I knew you, and I have found it out this instant. Go, leave me, run home; you shall never see me again. I shall go at once from this place, and I leave England in two days. Do you hear? Go, leave me alone-go! And God go with you!' His voice was breaking, his wild looks frightened me, but I answered him. I had my suspicions, as I told him, but I did not tell him that you put them into my head. What I did say to him was this: 'Whatever you have done, whatever you may do, you did one thing once that can never, never grow less in my eyes!' I meant his saving of my father's life; and with that I ran away from him and never looked round. That is every word that passed. I can never forget them. As to what happened afterwards, you know more than I."

Alice's own voice shook; it was hollow, and hoarse, and scarcely audible at the end. As for Dick, he stood looking out of the window at the whirling leaves, with not a word to say, until an involuntary murmur escaped him.

"Poor Miles!"

The girl's answer was a low sob.

Then here was the truth at last. The innocence and purity of the young English girl had awed and appalled that bold, desperate, unscrupulous man at the last moment. On the brink of the worst of all his crimes his nerve had failed him, or, to do him better justice, his heart had smitten him. Yes, it must have been this, for the poor fellow loved her well. His last thought was of her, his last, dying effort was for her, his life's blood ran out of him in her service!

But Alice! Had she not loved him when he spoke? Had she not given her heart to him in the beginning? Had she not tacitly admitted as much in this very room? Then her heart must be his still; her heart must be his for ever-dead or living, false or true, villain or hero. Poor Alice! What a terrible thing for a girl to have so misplaced her love. Dick felt his heart bleeding for her, but what could he do? He could do nothing but go back to Australia, and pray that some day she might get over it and be consoled. Now that he thought of it, he had not told her about Australia. He had tried twice, and each time been interrupted. It must be done now.

"By-the-bye," he began (it was after a long silence, and the room was filled with dusk, and the fire burning low), "I didn't tell you, after all, how it is that I shall be aboard the Rome this time to-morrow. It is not to see off Compton and his sister, because until you told me I didn't know they were going. Can't you guess the reason?"


What could be the meaning of that quick gasp from the other side of the room that preceded the faint monosyllable?

"I will tell you: it is because I sail for Australia myself to-morrow! I am going back to the bush."

There was a slight shiver of the basketwork chair. Then all was still; and Dick watched evening gather over the flat Ham fields across the river. The next tones from near the fireplace had a steely ring about them.

"Why are you going back?"

"Because I have found England intolerable."

"I thought you were going to get on so well in England?"

"So did I."

Another silence. Dick drummed idly upon the pane with his fingers. There was certainly a degree of regret in Alice's tone-enough to afford him a vague sense of gratitude to her.

"Is it not a terrible disappointment to your family?"

"I suppose it is," said Dick uneasily.

"And can you lightly grieve those who love you?"

She spoke as earnestly as though she belonged to that number herself; but, thought Dick, that must be from the force of her woman's sympathy for women. There was a slight catch in her voice, doubtless from the same cause. Could it be from any other cause? Dick trembled in the dusk by the window at the thought. No; it could not be. No; he did not wish it. He would not have her relent now. It was too late. He had set his mind on going; his passage was booked, his luggage was on board; nothing could unsettle him now. Was it not admitted in the beginning that he was an obstinate fellow? Besides, hope had been out of the range of his vision these many weeks. When a faint spark of hope burned on the horizon, was it natural that he should detect it at once? Yet her tones made him tremble.

As for Alice, her heart was beating with wild, sickening thuds. She felt that she was receiving her just deserts. Dick was as cold to her now as she had been cold to Dick before; only far colder, for she had but been trying him. Ah! but Nemesis was cruel in her justice! And she, Alice, so faint, so weary, so heartsick, so loveless, so full of remorse, so ready to love! And this the last chance of all!

"Is there nothing that could stop you from going now?"


"Nothing at all?"

"No consideration upon earth!"

"Ah, you have taken your passage!"

"That's not it!"

He was indignant. A paltry seventy guineas!

"Then what is? It must be that you've made up your mind, and would not unmake it-no matter who asked you."

The slightest stress imaginable was laid upon the relative.

Dick was leaning against the window-ledge for support. His brain was whirling. He could scarcely believe his ears. There was a tearful tenderness in her voice which he could not, which he dared not understand.

"What do you mean?" he asked hoarsely.

"I mean that-that you-that I--"

The words ended in inarticulate sobs.

"Do you mean that you ask me to stay in England?"

Dick put this question in a voice that was absolutely stern, though it quivered with suppressed agitation. There was no answer: sobs were no answer. He crossed the room unsteadily, fell on his knees at her side, and took both her hands in his. Then he repeated the same question-in the same words, in the same tones.

The answer came in a trembling whisper, with a fresh torrent of tears:

"What if I did?"

"The Rome might sail without me."

A tearful incredulous smile from Alice.

"Do you tell me to stay? I stay or go at your bidding. Darling! you know what that means to us two?"

No answer.

"Speak! Speak, Alice, for I cannot bear this! The Rome would sail without me!"

* * *

Alice did speak. The Rome did sail without him.

* * *

Transcriber's Notes:

* * *

Inconsistencies in hyphenation were not corrected.

In the original book, sometimes the first words of each chapter were in small caps and sometimes they were not. That inconsistency was preserved in this version.

On page 8, the quotation mark was deleted after "on this side of the road."

On page 68, the word "looee" was replaced with "cooee".

On page 92, a quotation mark was placed after "deducted from your allowance this evening."

On page 158, "not this young follow" was replaced with "not this young fellow".

On page 168, "bunshrangers" was replaced with "bushrangers".

On page 184, a quotation mark was added after "and the older suitor."

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