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A Strange Friendship: A Story of New Zealand

Chapter XVIII. Alan's Story

page 171

Chapter XVIII. Alan's Story.

When you read these lines, Dolly—this history which I am writing expressly for your eyes—you will know, I have no doubt, enough of the truth to make you very bitter against my brother and me.

I call him my half-brother, for his mother's sake. Strictly speaking, he is no near blood relation of mine at all, and it is a connexionship of which I can scarcely be expected to be proud; but I promised his mother, Dolly, that I would act by Richard as if he were my own brother, and I have tried to keep my word.

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He is ten years younger than I am. He was a mere lad when my father married the widow of his distant cousin Rupert Carewe, and she brought her young son with her when she came to live at Curtis Knowle. Eleanor was only as much older than I as I was of Richard, and she was a very beautiful, very charming woman. I can speak of her now, alas! only in the past tense; she is dead, and whatever Richard does can trouble her no more, thank God!

My beautiful stepmother was the idol of my boyish heart. I am quite sure I loved her far more than her own son did. Richard takes after his father, who was not a good man, and he was always a source of great anxiety to her, and, for her sake, to me. For her sake! I have gone through much for that, but I have been faithful to my promise, Eleanor, and I think you would give your verdict, at all events, in my favour.

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The small fortune which Richard inherited from his father he soon got rid of. He would settle to no profession, would take up no steady occupation of any kind; thus, when he had spent his last farthing, he became dependant upon his mother and on me.

My father was dead by that time, and I had begun my reign at Curtis Knowle. We lived there chiefly; sometimes we went to town for a few weeks, but Eleanor was a country flower, and in town she faded, so we never stayed there long.

I had one uncle living—a man of wealth as my father had been. He had no children, and would, I think, have attached himself to Richard if Richard would have given him a chance.

There was some farmer's daughter in our neighbourhood whom Richard greatly admired. I saw her once—a handsome, coarse-looking girl, openly page 174 angling for a husband above her in rank. What promises Richard may have made her I do not know; however, the next event that came to our knowledge was that he had taken her with him to Paris, and that they were living there in lavish style.

What puzzled Eleanor and myself was, where had he got the money for this escapade? Not from her, and not from me. We were too much on our guard, and knew his character only too well by this time-the morels the pity.

The truth came out at last, however, when Richard stepped suddenly in at the drawing-room window one evening, as his mother lay reading on her sofa, and told her abruptly that he had forged my uncle's name for a considerable amount; that the fraud had been discovered, my uncle was furious, and that the police were at that moment on his track.

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I was in the library which opened from the drawing-room, looking over papers and accounts, when I heard Eleanor's cry, and running in, found her fainting on the sofa and Richard sullenly looking at her without offering to do anything for her relief.

I flung him to the farther end of the room, where he fell against the wall, and knelt down by her and took her in my arms. I seemed to feel, for the first time, the cold shadow of the separation fast approaching between her and me. Who could wonder at it? He had broken her heart.

Later on, when she had recovered a little, we hastily made such, arrangements as we could together for Richard's safety. He was to leave England at once with me, and he was to travel in disguise. His small-featured face, without moustache or whisker, and slightly-made figure, page 176 suggested a woman's disguise as being suitable to our purpose. We tried it at once with some of the plainest costumes in Eleanor's wardrobe, and found it answer so well that our parts were decided on at once.

He was to be my sister, and my name was to be Ainsleigh.

The next thing was to settle where to go. The Continent would not do. The police were on the look-out too closely. We decided on a voyage to Australia. I had often wished to try one, and Eleanor begged of me to take him as far and as much out of the world as I could.

Then she made me promise to guard his safety, as if he were my very own brother. For her sake, with her arms round my neck, I promised. For three years, I was, if necessary, to keep up the disguise; at all events, I was never to disclose the secret to page 177 any one during that time. After such an interval there was no doubt that my uncle's anger would be appeased, and terms with him might be come to.

There was of course no necessity for my remaining away so long. It was settled between us that I was to come home in about a year, leaving Richard safely established in some remote corner of the colonies.

I see Eleanor's blue eyes now, as she looked me through to make sure that I meant what I said, and I hear the tone of her voice as she whispered, “I trust you, Alan. I know you're loyal to the core.”

I kissed her hand as I made my vow. She was mother, sister, and friend all in one to me, and I valued her happiness more than my own.

So we parted; not as we thought for long, page 178 but, as our ship passed down the Channel, Eleanor was lying dead at Curtis Knowle—heart complaint, I suppose they called it; but I know that trouble and anxiety about Richard were the real causes of her death.

The news reached us when we landed in Melbourne, and then I did not care to go home. We came to New Zealand, and established ourselves where you have known us, at Fernyhurst. What had I left to live for now, I said to myself, except to carry out my promise to my dead friend to the uttermost. I did not know at first all that it was to cost me.

Wait a little, Dolly, as you read these lines, and try to separate Alan from Richard in your thoughts. Don't hold me responsible for all that he has done; the only link that ever held us together was Eleanor Carewe, and the sweet briar— page 179 her favourite flower—is growing now upon her grave.

If I could only see your face as you read these lines I should know if I had any chance left with you. If I could only plead with my own voice to you, “As you are strong be merciful!”

* * * * *

Even now, Dolly, you see I cannot clear up everything. I know that your sister has been enticed to Melbourne by the scamp who calls himself Richard Care we, but how her locket came to be lying by the creek, and what connexion there is between that trinket and the drowned policeman is more than I can tell you.

I can only conjecture that the police, whom we imagined when we came here we had baffled, must have been then on Richard's track. He was always wilfully imprudent, and at times would page 180 scarcely keep up the part he had to act at all. He may have had a struggle with the constable, and it may have ended fatally as far as one of the parties concerned. I think I would rather not penetrate too closely into the mystery.

However that may be, I fear it is only too true that he is now living with your sister Violet in Melbourne. A greater scamp of a husband I am afraid she could hardly have bound herself to; but I must take blame to myself for not having foreseen and prevented all this long ago.

My fault lay in not putting a stop to all acquaintanceship between our families from the first.

We ought, if necessary, to have left this part of the country immediately. I had selected it, in the first place, because there were so very few ladies in the neighbourhood, and those few Richard disliked and sedulously avoided.

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But you see we did not go away, as we should have done. We had become settled here; I did not know where else to go. Richard, as I thought, had successfully eluded the police. Last, but by no means least, in the list of reasons, I fell in love with you, Dolly.

When you read these words, however, I shall be gone. I am going to Melbourne to bring Richard to his senses. If I fetch you back your sister, Dolly, and do all I can to atone for the past, will you listen to me then?

Your face comes between me and the paper; I cannot meet its anxious look again till I have done something to make your brown eyes less sad. Do you know that your eyes are the sweetest in all the world to me, Dolly?

Tell your brother what you please of my story. It is better he should know the whole truth at page 182 once, having been shamefully deceived so long. And Richard has so thoroughly failed in his part of the agreement that even Eleanor, I think, would say the promise binds no more. Richard must now fight his own battle for himself. Arrested or not, to me it signifies nothing any longer. Now, till I come back from Melbourne, goodbye, and Dieu, vous garde!