A Bride from the Bush, by E. W. Hornung

Chapter 16

Traces

Alfred did not become unconscious, nor even feel faint: he was a man. But he did feel profoundly wretched. He tried to shake off this feeling, but failed. Later, on his way back through the City, he stopped somewhere to try and lunch it off, and with rather better success. He was a man: he proceeded to throw the blame upon the woman. It was Gladys who had supplied all the sentiment (and there had been an absurd amount of it) at their parting; it was the woman who had exaggerated this paltry week’s separation, until it had assumed, perhaps for them both — at the moment — abnormal dimensions; he, the man, was blameless. If his way had obtained, she should have gone away in highest spirits, instead of in tears — and all for one insignificant week! He should write her a serious, if not a severe, letter on the subject. So Alfred went down to Twickenham in quite a valiant mood to face his week of single-blessedness, and to affect a droll appreciation of it in the popular, sprightly manner of the long-married man.

But the miserable feeling returned — if, indeed, it had ever been chased fairly away; and it returned with such force that Alfred was obliged to own at last that it, too, was exaggerated and out of all proportion to the exciting cause. He, in his turn, was sentimentalising as though Gladys had gone for a term of years. He was conscious of this; but he could not help it. His thoughts seemed bound to the parting of this Saturday, powerless to fly forward to the reunion of the next. A vague, dim sense of finality was the restraining bond; but this sense was not long to remain dim or vague. Meanwhile, so far as Alfred was concerned, the Sunday that followed was wrapped in a gloom that not even the genial presence of the distinguished (but jocular) guest could in any way pierce or dissipate. Nevertheless, it contained the last tranquil moments that Alfred was to know at that period of his life; for it led him to the verge of an ordeal such as few men are called upon to undergo.

He was not a little surprised on the Monday morning to find among the letters by the first post one addressed to his wife. She had received scarcely any letters since her arrival in England — two or three from tradesmen, an invitation or so, nothing from Australia; but this letter was directed in a large, bold hand, with which Alfred fancied he was not wholly unfamiliar; and he suddenly remembered that he had seen it before in Miss Barrington’s note of invitation. Now, the post-mark bore the name of the town to which Gladys had booked from Liverpool Street, and the date of the day before; and how could Miss Barrington write to Gladys at Twickenham, when Gladys was staying with Miss Barrington in Suffolk?

He tore open the envelope, and his hand shook as he did so. When he had read to the end of the letter, which was very short, his face was gray and ghastly; his eyes were wild and staring; he sank helplessly into a chair. The note ran thus:—

‘Dearest Glad — We are so disappointed, you can’t think. As for me, I’ve been in the sulks ever since your telegram came this afternoon. What ever can have prevented your coming, at the very last minute— for your wire from Liverpool Street? Do write at once, for I’m horribly anxious, to your loving

‘Ada.

‘PS. — And do come at once, if it’s nothing serious.

‘Saturday.’

Alfred read the letter a second time, and an extraordinary composure came over him.

He folded the letter, restored it to its envelope, and put the envelope in his pocket. Then he looked at the clock. It wanted a quarter to eight. The Judge was no doubt up and about somewhere; but none of the others were down. Alfred rang the bell, and left word that he had received a letter begging an early interview on important business, and that he would breakfast in town.

Alfred was stunned; but he had formed a plan. This plan he proceeded to put into effect; or rather, once formed, the plan evolved itself into mechanical action without further thought. For some hours following he did not perfectly realise either what he was doing or why he was doing it. He never thoroughly pulled himself together, until a country conveyance, rattling him through country lanes, whisked into a wooded drive, and presently past a lawn where people were playing lawn-tennis, and so to the steps of a square, solid, country house. But he had all his wits about him, and those sharpened to the finest possible point, when he looked to see whether Gladys was, or was not, among the girls on the lawn. She was not. That was settled. He got out and rang the bell. He inquired for Mr Barrington; Mr Barrington was playing at lawn-tennis. In answer to a question from the butler, Bligh said that he would rather see Mr Barrington in the house than go to him on the tennis-court. He could wait until the set was finished. He had come from London expressly to speak for a few minutes with Mr Barrington. His name would keep until Mr Barrington came; but he was from Australia.

The last piece of information was calculated to fetch Mr Barrington at once; and it did. He came as he was, in his flannels, his thick hairy arms bare to the elbow: a bronzed, leonine man of fifty, with the hearty, hospitable manner of the Colonial ‘squatocracy.’ Alfred explained in a few words who he was, and why he had come. He had but one or two questions to ask, and he asked them with perfect self-possession. They elicited the assurance that nothing had been heard of Gladys in that quarter, beyond the brief message received on the Saturday. Mr Barrington found the telegram, and handed it to his visitor. It read: ‘Prevented coming at last moment. Am writing — Gladys.’ By the time of despatch, Bligh knew that it was the message she had written out in his presence.

‘Of course she never wrote?’ he said coolly to the squatter.

‘We have received nothing,’ was the grave answer.

‘Yet she started,’ said Alfred. ‘I put her in the train myself, and saw her off.’

His composure was incredible. The Australian was more shaken than he.

‘Did you make any inquiries on the line?’ asked Barrington, after a pause.

‘Inquiries about what?’

‘There might have been — an accident.’

Bligh tapped the telegram with his finger. ‘This points to no accident,’ he said, grimly. ‘But,’ he added, more thoughtfully, ‘one might make inquiries down the line, as you say. It might do good to make inquiries all along the line.’

‘Do you mean to say you have made none?’

‘None,’ said Alfred, fetching a deep sigh. ‘I came here straight. I could think of nothing else but getting here — and — perhaps — finding her! I thought — I thought there might be some — mistake!’ His voice suddenly broke. The futility of the hope that had sustained him for hours had dawned upon him slowly, but now the cruel light hid nothing any longer. She was not here; she had not been heard of here; and precious hours had been lost. He grasped his hat and held out his trembling hand.

‘Thank you! Thank you, Mr Barrington! Now I must be off.’

‘Where to?’

‘To Scotland Yard. I should have gone there first. But — I was mad, I think; I thought there had been some mistake. Only some mistake!’

The squatter was touched to the soul. ‘I have known her, off and on, since she was a baby,’ he said. ‘Bligh — if you would only let me, I should like to come with you.’

Alfred wrung the other’s hand, but refused his offer.

‘No. Though I am grateful indeed, I would rather go alone. It would do no good, your coming; I should prefer to be alone. So only one word more. Your daughter was a great friend of Gladys; better not tell her anything of this. For it may still be only some wild freak, Mr Barrington — God knows what it is!’

It was evening when he reached London. A whole day had been wasted. He stated his case to the police; and then there was no more to be done that night. With an eagerness that all at once became feverish he hastened back to Twickenham. It was late when he arrived at the house; only Granville was up; and, for an instant, Granville thought his brother had been drinking. The delusion lasted no longer than that instant. It was not drink with Alfred: his excitement was suppressed: he stood staring at Granville with a questioning, eager expression, as though he expected news. What could it mean? What could be the explanation of such fierce excitement in stolid Alfred, of all people in the world?

Granville thought of the one thing, or rather of the one person, likely, and threw out a feeler:—

‘Have you heard from Gladys?’

‘No,’ said Alfred, in a hollow voice. ‘Have you seen her?

This was the last idea that had possessed him: that Gladys might have come home, that he might find her there on his return. It was the second time that day that he had cheated himself with vain, unreasoning hopes.

‘Seen her?’ Granville screwed in his eyeglass tighter. ‘Of course I haven’t seen her! How should we see her here, my good fellow, when she’s down in Suffolk?’

Alfred turned pale, and for an instant stood glaring; then he burst into a harsh laugh.

‘You know how odd she is, Gran! I thought she might have tired of her friends and come back. She’s capable of it, and I feared it — that’s all!’

He left the room abruptly.

‘Poor chap!’ said Granville, with a sentient shake of the head; ‘he is far gone, if you like.’


Next morning Alfred walked into Scotland Yard as the clocks were striking eleven. His appointment was for that hour, and he had striven successfully to keep it to the second; though commonly he was a far from punctual man. In point of fact, he had been sitting and loitering about the Embankment for a whole hour, waiting until the moment of his appointment should come, as unwilling to go to it a minute before the time as a minute late. So he entered the Yard while Big Ben was striking. And this was a young man with a reputation for unpunctuality, and all-round unbusinesslike, dilatory habits.

Moreover, for a man who, as a rule, was not fastidious enough about such matters, his appearance this morning was wellnigh immaculate. Yet, perhaps, he had only sought, by a long and elaborate toilet, to while away the long, light hours of the early morning: for, on looking at him closely, it was impossible to believe that he had slept a wink. The fact is, abnormal circumstances had conduced to bring about in Alfred an entirely abnormal state of mind. In a word, and a trite one, he was no longer himself. A crust of insensibility had hardened upon him. Had there been no news for him at all at the Yard this morning, possibly this crust might have been broken through: for he was better prepared for one crushing blow than for the bruises of repeated disappointment. Thus, the very worst news might have affected him less, at the moment, than no news, which is supposed, popularly, to be of the best. But there was some news.

Official investigation had thus far discovered what a person of average intelligence, with a little more presence of mind than Alfred had shown, might have ascertained, perhaps for himself. Yet the information was important. Gladys had left the train, with her luggage, two stations before her destination. This was testified by the guard of the train. But there was a later fact still. It was certain that Gladys had returned to town by the next up-train: for she had personally deposited her luggage in the cloak-room at Liverpool Street between the hours of six and seven on the Saturday evening. There all trace of her was lost, for the present; but it was extremely likely that fresh traces would be forthcoming during the course of the day.

The simple nature of the inquiries that had elicited the above information will be at once apparent; but Alfred went away with an exalted opinion of the blood-hound sagacity of the police. In his present condition of mind, his opinion, good or bad, was not worth much. He went to a club which he had not been in for years, and of which he had long ceased to look upon himself as a member; but his bankers, doubtless, still paid his subscription; and in any case it was not likely that he would be turned out. He would find some quiet corner and sit down and wait until the messenger came from Scotland Yard; for, of course, something more would be discovered during the course of the day — had they not promised as much? The quiet corner that he chose was an upstairs window, from which there was a fair glimpse of the river. The river fascinated him most strangely today. During the hour he had loitered on the Embankment, between ten and eleven, he had raised his eyes but seldom from the river.

He sat long at the window — so long that minutes ran into hours and the summer afternoon melted into the summer evening. The room was a reading-room; the windows were in snug recesses. Alfred had his recess to himself for hours and hours. He was conscious of no other presence; certainly no one spoke to him: very possibly, with his beard, no one recognised him.

The sun was sinking. He could not see it from this window; but he could see the heightened contrast of light and shadow among the ripples of the river, and the shadows deepening far away under Westminster Bridge. This was where his gaze rested. It was a stony gaze; his lips were compressed and bloodless, his features pointed and pale. A hideous vision filled his mind; but it was a vision only; it had no meaning. He did not realise it. He realised nothing. . . . Some one came and asked if he was Mr Bligh. It was a club servant. A man awaited him below. Alfred went down; the messenger from Scotland Yard was come at last.

The messenger was the bearer of these few words:—

‘A lady’s hat and jacket have been found in the river below Blackwall. If you wish to see them, they are here.’

Five minutes later Alfred walked into the office in which he had heard the result of the investigations that morning, and identified instantly the jacket and hat awaiting his inspection.

Gladys had gone away in them on Saturday.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hornung/ew/bride-from-the-bush/chapter16.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 20:51