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E. W. Hornung
Young Blood

CHAPTER I
THE OLD HOME

Harry Ringrose came of age on the happiest morning of his life. He was on dry land at last, and flying north at fifty miles an hour instead of at some insignificant and yet precarious number of knots. He would be at home to eat his birthday breakfast after all; and half the night he sat awake in a long ecstasy of grateful retrospect and delicious anticipation, as one by one the familiar stations were hailed and left behind, each an older friend than the last, and each a deadlier enemy to sleep. Worn out by excitement, however, he lay down for a minute between Crewe and Warrington, and knew no more until the guard came to him at the little junction across the Westmoreland border. Harry started up, the early sun in his sleepy eyes, and for an instant the first-class smoking-compartment was his state-room aboard the ship Sobraon, and the guard one of his good friends the officers. Then with a rush of exquisite joy the glorious truth came home to him, and he was up and out that instant – the happiest and the luckiest young rascal in the land.

It was the 19th of May, and a morning worthy the month and the occasion. The sun had risen in a flawless sky, and the dear old English birds were singing on all sides of the narrow platform, as Harry Ringrose stretched his spindle-legs upon it and saw his baggage out of the long lithe express and into the little clumsy local which was to carry him home. The youth was thin and tall, yet not ungainly, with a thatch of very black hair, but none upon his sun-burnt face. He was shabbily dressed, his boots were down at heel and toe, there were buttons missing from his old tweed coat, and he wore a celluloid collar with his flannel shirt. On the other hand, he was travelling first-class, and the literary supplies tucked under his arm had cost the extravagant fellow several shillings at Euston book-stall. Yet he had very little money in his pocket. He took it all out to count. It amounted to five shillings and sixpence exactly, of which he gave half-a-crown to the guard for waking him, and a shilling to a porter here at the junction, before continuing his journey in the little train. This left him a florin, and that florin was all the money he possessed in the world.

He was, however, the only child of a father who would give him as much as he wanted, and, what was rarer, of one with sufficient sense of humour to appreciate the prodigal's return without a penny in his pocket or a decent garment on his back. Whether his people would be equally pleased at being taken completely by surprise was not quite so certain. They might say he ought to have let them know what ship he was coming by, or at least have sent a telegram on landing. Yet all along he had undertaken to be home for his twenty-first birthday, and it would only have made them anxious to know that he had trusted himself to a sailing-vessel. Fifty days instead of twenty from the Cape! It had nearly cost him his word; but, now that it was over, the narrow margin made the joke all the greater; and Harry Ringrose loved a joke better than most things in the world.

The last two years of his life had been a joke from beginning to end: for in the name of health he had been really seeking adventure and undergoing the most unnecessary hardships for the fun of talking about them for the rest of his days. He pictured the first dinner-party after his return, and the faces of some dozen old friends when they heard of the leopards under the house, the lion in the moonlight, and (when the ladies had withdrawn) of the notorious murderer with whom Harry had often dined. They should perceive that the schoolboy they remembered was no longer anything of the sort, but a man of the world who had seen more of it than themselves. It is true that for a man of the world Harry Ringrose was still somewhat youthfully taken up with himself and his experiences; but his heart was rich with love of those to whom he was returning, and his mind much too simple to be aware of its own egotism. He only knew that he was getting nearer and nearer home, and that the joy of it was almost unendurable.

His face was to the carriage window, his native air streamed down his throat and blew a white lane through his long black hair. Miles of green dales rushed past under a network of stone walls, to change soon to mines and quarries, which in their turn developed into furnaces and works, until all at once the sky was no longer blue and the land no longer green. And when Harry Ringrose looked out of the opposite window, it was across grimy dunes that stretched to a breakwater built of slag, with a discoloured sea beyond.

The boy rolled up his rug and changed his cap for a villainous sombrero preserved for the occasion. He then made a selection from his lavish supply of periodical literature, and when he next looked out the train was running in the very shadow of some furnaces in full blast. The morning sun looked cool and pale behind their monstrous fires, and Harry took off the sombrero to his father's ironworks, though with a rather grim eye, which saw the illuminated squalor of the scene without appreciating its prosperity. Sulphurous flames issued from all four furnaces; at one of the four they were casting as the train passed, and the molten incandescent stream ran white as the wire of an electric light.

After the works came rank upon rank of workmen's streets running right and left of the line; then the ancient and historic quarter of the town, with its granite houses and its hilly streets, all much as it had been a hundred years before the discovery of iron-stone enriched and polluted a fair countryside. Then the level-crossing, without a creature at the gates at such an hour; finally a blank drab platform with the long loose figure of the head-porter standing out upon it as the homeliest sight of all. Harry clapped him on the cap as the train drew up; but either the man had forgotten him, or he was offended, for he came forward without a smile.

"Well, David, how are you? Your hand, man, your hand! I'm back from the wilds. Don't you know me?"

"I do now, sir."

"That's right! It does me good to see an old face like yours. Gently with this green box, David, it's full of ostrich-eggs, that's why I had it in the carriage. There's four more in the van; inspan the lot till we send in for them, will you? I mean to walk up myself. Come, gently, I say!"

The porter had dropped the green box clumsily, and now sought to cover his confusion by saying that the sight of Master Harry, that altered, had taken him all aback. Young Ringrose was justly annoyed; he had taken such care of that green box for so many weeks. But he did not withhold the florin, which was being pocketed for a penny when the man saw what it was and handed it back.

"What, not enough for you?" cried Harry.

"No, sir, too much."

The boy stared and laughed.

"Don't be an ass, David; I don't come home from Africa every day! If you'd been with me you'd think yourself lucky to get home at all! You just inspan those boxes, and we'll send for them after breakfast."

The man mumbled that it was not worth two shillings. Harry said that was his business. The porter hung his head.

"I – I may have broken them eggs."

"Oh, well, if you have, two bob won't mend 'em; cling on to it, man, and don't drop them again."

The loose-limbed porter turned away with the coin, but without a word, while Harry went off in high good-humour, though a little puzzled by the man's manner. It was not a time to think twice of trifles, however, and, at all events, he had achieved the sportsmanlike feat of emptying his pockets of their last coin. He strode out of the station with a merry, ringing tread. Half the town heard him as he went whistling through the streets and on to the outlying roads.

The one he took was uphill and countrified. High hedgerows bloomed on either hand, and yet you could hear the sea, and sometimes see it, and on this side of the town it was blue and beautiful. Our wayfarer met but one other, a youth of his own age, with whom he had played and fought since infancy, though the families had never been intimate. Harry halted and held out his hand, which was ignored, the other passing with his nose in the air, and a tin can swinging at his side, on his way to some of the works. Harry coloured up and said a hard word softly. Then he remembered how slow his old friend the porter had been to recognise him; and he began to think he must have grown up out of knowledge. Besides accounting for what would otherwise have been an inexplicable affront, the thought pleased and flattered him. He strode on serenely as before, sniffing the Irish Sea at every step.

He passed little lodges and great gates with never a glance at the fine houses within: for to Harry Ringrose this May morning there were but one house and one garden in all England. To get to them he broke at last into a run, and only stopped when the crest of the hill brought him, breathless, within sight of both. There was the long front wall, with the gates at one end, the stables at the other, and the fresh leaves bulging over every intervening brick. And down the hill, behind the trees, against the sea, were the windows, the gables, the chimneys, that he had been dreaming of for two long years.

His eyes filled with a sudden rush of tears. "Thank God!" he muttered brokenly, and stood panting in the road, with bowed bare head and twitching lips. He could not have believed that the mere sight of home would so move him. He advanced in an altered spirit, a sense of his own unworthiness humbling him, a hymn of thanksgiving in his heart.

And now the very stones were eloquent, and every yard marked by some landmark forgotten for two years, and yet familiar as ever at the first glance. Here was the mark a drunken cabman had left on the gatepost in Harry's school-days; there the disused summerhouse with the window still broken by which Harry had escaped when locked in by the very youth who had just cut him on the road. The drive struck him as a little more overgrown. The trees were greener than he had ever known them, the bank of rhododendrons a mass of pink without precedent in his recollection; but then it was many years since Harry had seen the place so late in May, for he had gone out to Africa straight from school.

As for the dear house, the creepers had spread upon the ruddy stone and the tiles had mellowed, but otherwise there seemed to be no change. It would look its old self when the blinds were up: meantime Harry fixed his eyes upon those behind which his parents would still be fast asleep, and he wondered, idly at first, why they had given up sleeping with a window open. It had been their practice all the year round; and the house had been an early-rising house; yet not a fire was lighted – not a chimney smoking – not a window open – not a blind drawn – though close upon seven o'clock by the silver watch that had been with Harry through all his adventures.

His hand shook as he put the watch back in his pocket. The possibility of his parents being away – of his surprise recoiling upon himself – had never occurred to him until now. How could they be away? They never dreamt of going away before the autumn. Besides, he had told them he was coming home in time to keep his birthday. They were not away – they were not – they were not!

Yet there he stood – in the sweep of the drive – but a few yards from the steps – and yet afraid to ring and learn the truth! As though the truth must be terrible; as though it would be a tragedy if they did happen to be from home!

It would serve him right if they were.

So at last, with such a smile as a man may force on the walk to the gallows, Harry Ringrose dragged himself slowly to the steps, and still more slowly up them; for they were dirty; and something else about the entrance was different, though he could not at first tell what. It was not the bell, which he now pulled, and heard clanging in the kitchen loud enough to rouse the house; he was still wondering what it was when the last slow tinkling cut his speculations short.

Strange how so small a sound should carry all the way from the kitchen!

He rang again before peering through one of the narrow ruby panes that lighted the porch on each side of the door. He could see no farther than the wall opposite, for the inner door was to the right, and in the rich crimson light the porch looked itself at first sight. Then simultaneously Harry missed the mat, the hat stand, a stag's antlers; and in another instant he knew what it was that had struck him as different about the entrance. He ought not to have been able to peer through that coloured light at all. The sill should have supported the statuette of Night which matched a similar representation of Morning on the other side of the door. Both were gone; and the distant bell, still pealing lustily from his second tug, was breaking the silence of an empty house.

Harry was like a man waking from a trance: the birds sang loud in his ears, the sun beat hot on his back, while he himself stood staring at his own black shadow on the locked door, and wondering what it was, for it never moved. Then, in a sudden frenzy, he struck his hand through the ruby glass, and plucked out the pieces the putty still held in place, until he was able to squeeze through bodily. Blood dripped from his fingers and smeared the handle of the unlocked inner door as he seized and turned it and sprang within. The hall was empty. The stairs were bare.

He ran into room after room; all were stripped from floor to ceiling. The sun came in rods through the drawn blinds: on the walls were the marks of the pictures: on the floors, a stray straw here and there.

He cried aloud and railed in his agony. He shouted through the house, and his voice came back to him from the attics. Suddenly, in a grate, he espied a printed booklet. It was an auctioneer's list. The sale had taken place that very month.

The calmness of supreme misery now stole over Harry Ringrose, and he saw that his fingers were bleeding over the auctioneer's list. He took out his handkerchief and wiped them carefully – he had no tears to staunch – and bound up the worst finger with studious deliberation. Apathy succeeded frenzy, and, utterly dazed, he sat down on the stairs, for there was nowhere else to sit, and for some minutes the only sound in the empty house was the turning of the leaves of the auctioneer's list.

Suddenly he leapt to his feet: another sound had broken the silence, and it was one that he seemed to have heard only yesterday: a sound so familiar in his home, so home-like in itself, that it seemed even now to give the lie to his wild and staring eyes.

It was the sound of wheels in the gravel drive.

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Young Blood

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На этой странице вы можете прочитать онлайн книгу «Young Blood», автора Ernest Hornung. Данная книга имеет возрастное ограничение 12+, относится к жанрам: «Классические детективы», «Зарубежные детективы».. Книга «Young Blood» была издана в 2017 году. Приятного чтения!