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- In Kedar's Tents - 3/47 -
'What is it?'
'I don't know yet; ruin, I think.'
'Nonsense, man!' said Conyngham cheerily. 'There is no such thing in this world. At least, the jolliest fellows I know are bankrupts, or no better. Look at me: never a brief; literary contributions returned with thanks; balance at the bank, seventeen pounds ten shillings; balance in hand, none; debts, the Lord only knows! Look at me! I'm happy enough.'
'Yes, you're a lonely devil.'
Conyngham looked at his friend with inquiry in his gay eyes.
'Ah! perhaps so. I live alone, if that is what you mean. But as for being lonely--no, hang it! I have plenty of friends, especially at dividend time.'
'You have nobody depending on you,' said Horner with the irritability of sorrow.
'Because nobody is such a fool. On the other hand, I have nobody to care a twopenny curse what becomes of me. Same thing, you see, in the end. Come, man, cheer up. Tell me what is wrong. Seventeen pounds ten shillings is not exactly wealth, but if you want it you know it is there, eh?'
'I do not want it, thanks,' replied the other. 'Seventeen hundred would be no good to me. '
He paused, biting his under lip and staring with hard eyes into the fire.
'Read that,' he said at length, and handed Conyngham a cutting from a daily newspaper.
The younger man read, without apparent interest, an account of the Chester-le-Street meeting, and the subsequent attack on Sir John Pleydell's house.
'Yes,' he commented, 'the usual thing. Brave words followed by a cowardly deed. What in the name of fortune you were doing in that galere you yourself know best. If these are politics, Horner, I say drop them. Politics are a stick, clean enough at the top, but you've got hold of the wrong end. Young Pleydell was hurt, I see-- "seriously, it is feared."'
'Yes,' said Horner significantly; and his companion, after a quick look of surprise, read the slip of paper carefully a second time. Then he looked up and met Horner's eyes.
'Gad!' he exclaimed in a whisper.
Horner said nothing. The dog moved restlessly, and for a moment the whole world--that sleepless world of the streets--seemed to hold its breath.
'And if he dies,' said Conyngham at length.
'Exactly so,' answered the other with a laugh--of scaffold mirth.
Conyngham turned in his chair and sat with his elbows on his knees, his face resting on his closed fists, staring at the worn old hearthrug. Thus they remained for some minutes.
'What are you thinking about?' asked Horner at length.
'Nothing--got nothing to think with. You know that, Geoffrey. Wish I had--never wanted it as I do at this moment. I'm no good, you know that. You must go to some one with brains--some clever devil.'
As he spoke he turned and took up the paper again, reading the paragraph slowly and carefully. Horner looked at him with a breathless hunger in his eyes. At some moments it is a crime to think, for we never know but that thought may be transmitted without so much as a whisper.
'"The miners were accompanied by a gentleman from London,"' Conyngham read aloud, '"a barrister, it is supposed, whose speech was a feature of the Chester le-Street meeting. This gentleman's name is quite unknown, nor has his whereabouts yet been discovered. His sudden disappearance lends likelihood to the report that this unknown agitator actually struck the blow which injured Mr. Alfred Pleydell. Every exertion is being put forth by the authorities to trace the man who is possibly a felon and certainly a coward."'
Conyngham laid aside the paper and again looked at Horner, who did not meet his glance nor ask now of what he was thinking. Horner, indeed, had his own thoughts, perhaps of the fireside--modest enough, but happy as love and health could make it--upon which his own ambition had brought down the ruins of a hundred castles in the air--thoughts he scarce could face, no doubt, and yet had no power to drive away, of the young wife whose world was that same fireside; of the child, perhaps, whose coming had opened for a time the door of Paradise.
Conyngham broke in upon these meditations with a laugh.
'I have it!' he cried. 'It's as simple as the alphabet. This paper says it was a barrister--a man from London--a malcontent, a felon, a coward. Dammy, Geoff--that's me!'
He leapt to his feet. 'Get out of the way, Tim!' he cried to the dog, pushing the animal aside and standing on the hearthrug.
'Listen to this,' he went on. 'This thing, like the others, will blow over. It will be forgotten in a week. Another meeting will be held--say in South Wales, more windows will be broken, another young man's head cracked, and Chester-le-Street (God-forsaken place, never heard of it!) will be forgotten.'
Horner sat looking with hollow eyes at the young Irishman, his lips twitching, his fingers interlocked--there is nothing makes so complete a coward of a man as a woman's love. Conyngham laughed as the notion unfolded itself in his mind. He might, as he himself had said, be of no great brain power, but he was at all events a man and a brave one. He stood a full six foot, and looked down at his companion, who sat whitefaced and shrinking.
'It is quite easy,' he said, 'for me to disappear in such a manner as to arouse suspicion. I have nothing to keep me here; my briefs-- well, the Solicitor-General can have 'em! I have no ties--nothing to keep me in any part of the world. When young Pleydell is on his feet again, and a few more windows have been broken, and nine days have elapsed, the wonder will give place to another, and I can return to my--practice.'
'I couldn't let you do it.'
'Oh yes, you could,' said Conyngham with the quickness of his race to spy out his neighbour's vulnerable point. 'For the sake of Edith and the little devil.'
Horner sat silent, and after a moment Conyngham went on.
'All we want to do is to divert suspicion from you now--to put them on a false scent, for they must have one of some sort. When they find that they cannot catch me they will forget all about it.'
Horner shuffled in his seat. This was nothing but detection of the thoughts that had passed through his own mind.
'It is easily enough done,' went on the Irishman. 'A paragraph here and there in some of the newspapers; a few incriminating papers left in these rooms, which are certain to be searched. I have a bad name--an Irish dog goes about the world with a rope round his neck. If I am caught it will not be for some time, and then I can get out of it somehow--an alibi or something. I'll get a brief at all events. By that time the scent will be lost, and it will be all right. Come, Geoff, cheer up! A man of your sort ought not to be thrown by a mischance like this.'
He stood with his legs apart, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, a gay laugh on his lips, and much discernment in his eyes.
'Oh, d---n Edith!' he added after a pause, seeing that his efforts met with no response. 'D---n that child! You used to have some pluck, Horner.' Horner shook his head and made no answer, but his very silence was a point gained. He no longer protested nor raised any objection to his companion's hare-brained scheme. The thing was feasible, and he knew it.
Conyngham went on to set forth his plans, which with characteristic rapidity of thought he evolved as he spoke.
'Above all,' he said, 'we must be prompt. I must disappear to- night, the paragraphs must be in to-morrow's papers. I think I'll go to Spain. The Carlists seem to be making things lively there. You know, Horner, I was never meant for a wig and gown--there's no doubt about that. I shall have a splendid time of it out there--'
He stopped, meeting a queer look in Horner's eyes, who sat leaning forward and searching his face with jealous glance.
'I was wondering,' said the other, with a pale smile, 'if you were ever in love with Edith.'
'No, my good soul, I was not,' answered Conyngham, with perfect carelessness, 'though I knew her long before you did.'
He paused, and a quick thought flashed through his mind that some men are seen at their worst in adversity. He was ready enough to find excuses for Horner, for men are strange in the gift of their friendship, often bestowing it where they know it is but ill deserved.
He rattled on with unbroken gaiety, unfolding plans which in their perfection of detail suggested a previous experience in outrunning the constable.
While they were still talking a mutual friend came in--a quick- spoken man already beginning to be known as a journalist of ability. They talked on indifferent topics for some time. Then the new-comer said jerkily:
'Heard the news?'
'No,' answered Conyngham.
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