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

Chapter 17

Waiting for the Worst

For the second time, it was Granville whom Alfred first encountered on his return from town. They met in the twilight. Dinner was over, and Granville sauntered alone in the bit of garden between the house and the road, smoking a cigarette. Suddenly the gate was opened, and the one brother, looking up, saw the other coming quickly towards him through the dusk.

It was too dark for the ready reading of faces; but it struck Granville that the approaching footsteps were hasty and unusual. He recalled Alfred’s unaccountable manner of the night before. Indeed, all his movements, during the past two days, were mysterious: up to London first thing in the morning, back late, and not a word to any one; whereas the whole household, as a general rule, were in possession of most of Alfred’s private plans and hopes and fears. But Granville had no time to speculate now. Alfred came straight up to him.

‘I want to speak to you, Gran,’ he said. ‘I’m glad I found you here.’

The step had been suspicious; the voice was worse. It was calm enough, but it was not Alfred’s voice at all. Something had happened. Granville put up his eyeglass; but in that light it did not avail him much.

‘Let us sit down, then,’ said Granville, leading the way to a seat under the trees.

‘What is it about?’

Then Alfred began, in set tones and orderly phrases. The affectation of his manner was almost grotesque.

‘I want a kind of professional opinion from you, Gran, about — let us say, about a case that interests me, rather. That will be near enough to the mark, I think.’

‘Delighted to help you, if I can.’ Granville lounged back carelessly on the garden-seat, but his keen glance lost not a line of the other’s profile, as Alfred bent forward with his eyes upon the ground; and those lines seemed strangely hardened.

‘Thank you. The case is, briefly, this,’ Alfred continued: ‘somebody — no matter who — has been missing for some days. The number of days is of no consequence either. The police were not informed immediately. They only heard of it last night. But, this afternoon, they found ——’

Alfred checked himself, sat upright, shifted his position, and met Granville’s gaze.

‘What should you consider incontestable evidence of drowning, Gran?’

‘The body.’

‘Of course. But you have to look for bodies. What should you find, to make you search with the absolute certainty of discovering the body at last?’

‘Nothing else could make it an absolute certainty. But lots of things would set you searching — a hat, for instance.’

‘They have found her hat!’ said Alfred, through his clenched teeth.

Her hat! Whose?’

Alfred stretched over, caught Granville’s arm in a nervous grip, and whispered rapidly in his ear. In a moment Granville knew all. But he did not speak immediately. When he did speak, it was to ask questions. And there was another unnatural voice now, besides Alfred’s — Granville’s was quite soft.

‘Was she unhappy at all?’ he asked.

‘Just the reverse, I thought, until last week. You know what happened in the Park yesterday week. She said some very wild things after that, and spoke as though she had never been quite happy here; she vowed she would never forgive herself for what she had done; and she said she wished she was dead. Well, I did not think much about her words; I thought more of what she had done; I put down what she said to the shame and temper of the moment, not to real unhappiness. But, when I said good-bye to her, then she was unhappy — more so than I ever knew her before.’

From his tone, no one could have guessed that he was speaking of his wife.

‘And you think she — she ——’

Granville could not bring his lips to utter the words.

Alfred could. ‘I think she has drowned herself,’ he said calmly.

Granville shuddered. Callous as he was himself by nature, callousness such as this he could not have imagined possible; it was horrible to see and to hear.

Neither spoke for some little time.

‘Did it never occur to you,’ said Granville, at last, ‘that she might have drowned herself without all this trouble, simply by walking to the bottom of the garden here?’

‘What?’ cried Alfred, sharply. His fingers tightened upon Granville’s arm. His voice fell, oddly enough, into a natural tone.

Granville repeated his question.

‘No,’ said Alfred, hoarsely, ‘that never crossed my mind. But there’s something in it. God bless you, Gran, for putting it into my head! It’s almost like a ray of hope — the first. If I hadn’t seen the things and identified them as hers ——’

‘The things! You did not say there was anything else besides the hat. What else was there?’

‘The jacket she went away in.’

‘You are sure it was hers?’

‘Yes.’

‘You could swear to both hat and jacket?’

‘Yes.’

Granville leapt to his feet.

‘Who throw their things into the water’— he asked, in strange excitement, for him —‘the people who mean to sink or the people who mean to swim — or the people who mean to stay on the bank?’

Alfred stared at him blankly. Gradually the light dawned upon him that had entered Granville’s quicker intelligence in a flash.

‘What do you mean?’ whispered Alfred; and, in a moment, his voice and his limbs were trembling.

‘Nothing very obscure,’ replied Granville, with a touch of contempt, which, even then, he could not manage to conceal (Alfred’s slow perception always had irritated him); ‘simply this: Gladys has not drowned herself. She was never the girl to do it. She had too much sense and vitality and courage. But she may mean us to think there’s an end of her — God knows with what intention. She may have gone off somewhere — God knows where. We must find out ——’

He stopped abruptly, and nearly swore: for Alfred was wringing his hand, and weeping like a child.

Granville hated this, but bore it stoically. It was now plain to him that Alfred had been driven very nearly out of his senses: and no wonder — Granville himself could as yet scarcely realise or believe what he had heard. And this outburst was the natural reaction following upon an unnatural mental condition. But was there any ground for hope? Granville was less confident than he appeared when he amended his last words and said:—

‘I will find out.’

Alfred wrung his hand again. He was calmer now, but terribly shaken and shattered. The weakness that he had been storing up during the past two days had come over him, as it were, in the lump. Granville led him to his room. Alfred had never in his life before known Granville half so good-natured and sympathetic; he blessed him fervently.

‘You were her friend,’ he said, huskily. ‘She thought no end of you, Gran! You got on so splendidly together, after the first few days; and she was always talking about you. Find her — find her for me, Gran; and God bless you — and forgive her for this trick she has played us!’

Granville did not often feel contrition, or remorse, or shame: but he felt all three just then. He knew rather too well the measure of his own kindness to Gladys. For the first time in his life — and not, perhaps, before it was time — he disliked himself heartily. He felt vaguely that, whatever had happened, he had had something to do with it. He had had more to do with it than he guessed. ‘I’ll do my best — I’ll do my best,’ he promised; and he meant his ‘best’ to be better than that of the smartest detective at Scotland Yard.

He left Alfred, shut himself up alone, and reviewed the situation. An hour’s hard thinking led to a rather ingenious interview — one with the girl Bunn. It took place on the stairs, of all places. Granville saw her set foot upon the bottom stair; he immediately sat down upon the top one, produced a newspaper, and blocked the gangway.

‘Bunn, you have a sweetheart in Australia. Don’t pout and toss your head; it’s nothing to be ashamed of — quite the contrary; and it’s the fact, I think — eh?’

‘Lor’, Mr Granville, what if I have?’

‘Well, nothing; only there is something about it in this newspaper — about Australia, I mean; not about you — that’s to come. You shall have the newspaper, Bunn; here it is. I thought you’d like it, that’s all.’

Bunn took the paper, all smiles and blushes.

‘Oh, thank you, Mr Granville. And — and I beg your pardon, sir.’

‘Don’t name it, my good girl. But, look here, Bunn; stay one moment, if you don’t mind.’ (She could scarcely help staying, he gave her no chance of passing; besides, he had put her under an obligation.) ‘Tell me now, Bunn — didn’t Mrs Alfred know something about him? And didn’t Mrs Alfred talk to you a good deal about Australia?’

‘That she did, sir. But she didn’t know my young man, Mr Granville. She only got his address from me just as she was going away, sir.’

‘Ah! she wanted his address before she went away, did she?’

‘Yes, sir. She said she would name him in writing to her father, or in speaking to Mr Barrington, or that, any way, it’d be nice to have it, against ever she went out there again, sir.’

‘Oh, she gave three reasons all in one, eh? And did she say she’d like to go out again, Bunn?’

‘She always said that, sir, between ourselves —“between you and I, Bella,” it used to be. But, time I gave her the address, she went on as if she would like to go, and meant a-going, the very next day.’

‘Yet she didn’t like leaving this, even for a week — eh, Bunn?’

‘Lor’, no, sir! She spoke as if she was never coming back no more. And she kissed me, Mr Granville — she did, indeed, sir; though I never named that in the servants’ hall. She said there might be a accident, or somethink, and me never see her no more; but that, if ever she went back to Australia, she’d remember my young man, and get him a good billet. Them were her very words. But, oh, Mr Granville! — oh, sir! ——’

‘There, there. Don’t turn on the waterworks, Bunn. I thought Mrs Alfred had been cut up about something; but I wasn’t sure — that’s why I asked you, Bunn; though I think, perhaps, you needn’t name this conversation either in the servants’ hall, or tell any one else what you have told me. Yes, you may go past now. But — stop a minute, Bunn — here’s something else that you needn’t name in the servants’ hall.’

The something else was a half-sovereign.

‘It was worth it, too,’ said Granville, when the girl was gone; ‘she has given me something to go upon. These half-educated and impulsive people always do let out more to their maids than to any one else.’

He went back to Alfred.

‘There was something I forgot to ask you. How much money do you suppose Gladys had about her when she went away?’

‘I have no idea,’ said Alfred.

‘Do you know how much money you have given her since you have been over — roughly?’

‘No; I don’t know at all.’

‘Think, man. Fifty pounds?’

‘I should say so. I gave her a note or so whenever it struck me she might want it. She never would ask.’

‘Do you think she spent much?’

‘I really can’t tell you, Gran; perhaps not a great deal, considering everything; for, when I was with her, I never would let her shell out. I never knew of her spending much; but she had it by her, in case she wanted it; and that was all I cared about.’

And that was all Granville cared about. He ceased his questioning; but he was less ready to leave Alfred alone than he had been before. He had found him sitting in the dark by the open window, and staring blankly into the night. Granville had insisted on lighting the gas: only to see how the room was filled with Gladys’s things. In every corner of it some woman’s trifle breathed of her. Granville felt instinctively that much of this room, in the present suspense, might turn a better brain than Alfred’s, in Alfred’s position.

‘Look here,’ said Granville, at last: ‘I have been thinking. Listen, Alfred.’

‘Well?’ said Alfred absently, still gazing out of window.

‘I have got a theory,’ went on Granville —‘no matter what; only it has nothing to say to death or drowning. It is a hopeful theory. I intend to practise it at once: in a day or two it ought to lead me to absolute certainty of one thing, one way or the other. No matter what that one thing is; I have told you what it is not. Now, I shall have to follow out my idea in town; and if I find the truth at all, I shall most likely come across it suddenly, round a corner as it were. So I have been thinking that you may as well be in town too, to be near at hand in case I am successful. If you still have a club, you might hang about there, and talk to men, and read the papers; if not —— Why do you shake your head?’

‘I am not going to town any more,’ said Alfred, in low, decided tones. ‘If you are right, and she is not dead, she may come back — she may come back! Then I shall be here to meet her — and — and —— But you understand me, Gran?’

‘Not very well,’ said Granville, dryly, and with a shrug of his shoulders that was meant to shift from them all responsibility for Alfred’s possible insanity. ‘In your case I should prefer to be in town rather than here. However, a man judges for himself. There is one thing, however; if you stay here all day ——’

‘What’s that?’

‘The question whether you should tell the Judge and the mater.’

‘No,’ said Alfred, resolutely; ‘I shall not tell them — not, that is, until the worst is known for certain. They think she is at the Barringtons’. I shall say I have heard from her. I would tell a million lies to save them the tortures of uncertainty that I am suffering, and shall suffer, till — till we know the worst. Oh, Granville! — for God’s sake, find it out quickly!’

‘I’ll do my best — I’ve already told you I would,’ said Granville almost savagely; and he left the room.

Granville’s best, in matters that required a clear head and some little imagination, was always excellent. In the present instance his normal energies were pushed to abnormal lengths by the uncomfortable feeling that he himself had been not unconcerned in bringing about that state of unhappiness which alone could have driven his sister-in-law to her last rash, mysterious step; by a feverish desire to atone, if the smallest atonement were possible; and by other considerations, which, for once, were unconnected with the first person singular. Nevertheless, on the Wednesday — the day following the foregoing conversation — he found out nothing at all; and nothing at all on the Thursday. Then Alfred made up his mind that nothing but the very worst could now come to light, and that that was only a question of time; and he fell into an apathy, by day, that Granville’s most vigorous encouragement, in the evening, could do nothing to correct. Thus, when the news did come, when the terrible suspense was suddenly snapped, Alfred was, perhaps, as ill-prepared for a shock (though he had expected one for days) as it was possible for a man to be.

It was on the Friday night. Lady Bligh and Sir James were deep in their game of bezique. Alfred sat apart from them, without a hope left in his heart, and marvellously altered in the face. His pallor was terrible, but perhaps natural; but already his cheekbones, which were high, seemed strangely prominent; and the misery in his large still eyes cried out as it sometimes does from the eyes of dumb animals in pain. He was conscious of his altered looks, perhaps; for he sedulously avoided looking his parents in the face. They did not know yet. It added to his own anguish to think of the anguish that must come to them too, sooner or later — sooner now — very soon indeed.

The door opened. Granville entered, with a brisk, startling step, and a face lit up — though it was Granville’s face — with news.

Alfred saw him — saw his face — and rose unsteadily to his feet.

‘Speak! Say you have found her! No — I see it in your face — she is there. Let me come to her!’

As Alfred stepped forward, Granville recoiled, and the light left his face.

Alfred turned to his parents. The Judge had risen, and glanced in mute amazement from one son to the other: both were pale, but their looks told nothing. Lady Bligh sat back in her chair, her smooth face wrinkled with bewilderment and vague terror.

‘It is Gladys come back,’ said Alfred, in tremulous explanation; ‘it is only that Gladys has come back, mother!’

Even then he chuckled in his sleeve to think that they had never known, and never need know, anything of this, the worst of his wife’s many and wild escapades.

But Granville recoiled still farther, and his face became gray.

‘I have not seen her,’ he said, solemnly. ‘She is not here.’

‘Not seen her? Not here?’ Alfred was quickly sobered. ‘But you know where she is? I see it in your face. She is within reach — eh? Come, take me to her!’

‘She is not even within reach,’ Granville answered, squeezing out the words by a strenuous effort. ‘I cannot take you to her. Gladys sailed for Australia last Monday morning!’

Alfred sunk heavily into a chair. No one spoke. No one was capable of speech. Before any one had time to think, Alfred was on his feet again, tottering towards the door.

‘I must follow!’ he whispered, in hoarse, broken tones. ‘I will follow her to-night! Stand aside, Gran; thanks; and God bless you! Good-bye! I shall know where to find her out there. I have no time to stop!’

Granville stood aside in obedience; but for one instant only: the next — he sprang forward to catch in his arms the falling form of Alfred.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hornung/ew/bride-from-the-bush/chapter17.html

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