In the Shadow of the Bush
On a pleasant afternoon, about two months after the date of the opening of this narrative, the girl who has been mentioned as having lately arrived in the district with her father, and who was, indeed, the same that Davit; had drawn Westall's attention to as they journeyed towards the township on the morning in which they left Ashwin's wharé, was riding into Bloomsbury in company with her brother, a boy about eleven years old.
The riders having traversed at a slow pace the unmetalled portion of the road, extending for half a mile or more from the house, started off at a brisk canter as soon as they reached the metal. The young lady sat her horse fairly well, though she was evidently not quite at home in the saddle, and lacked that skill in the management of her horse and that ease and confidence on horseback which are only acquired by constant practice, and in which colonial girls as a rule excel.
Her horse, which had been taken over along with other stock on the place when the property was bought, was by no means a perfect lady's hack. Though quiet and strong and useful, he needed a rather too frequent application of the whip to be pleasant, especially when on the way from home and ridden by one who, he felt, had not full mastery over him.
"Give it to him, Maud; lay it into him!" cried the boy. "Bob's a lazy beggar, and wants a lot of touching up at the start. Keep him up to it now the road's good."page 63
Thus encouraged, Miss Elwood—for that was the young lady's name—gave the horse a cut or two with her whip, but with less vigour and force withal than her brother thought the occasion required; and they proceeded at a fair pace for a quarter of a mile or more, when Bob thought it was high time to again indulge in a walk.
"That was a good canter, wasn't it, Ted?" Miss Elwood said, her face glowing with the exercise. "Good Bob," she said, patting the horse's neck. "What a pity it is that you are just a little bit rough and won't canter along nicely without me being obliged to hit you with the whip."
"I could make the beggar go," said Ted, flourishing a lithe supplejack with which he was furnished, and which, doubtless, the pony that he was riding had felt the weight of. "Bob's too knowing an old stager for a girl to do much with," he added, with importance. "Girls don't know how to manage a horse. If a horse does get into a good canter, a girl begins at once to feel if her back hair isn't coming down, and, of course, a horse thinks he ought to pull up till she finds out."
"Mine's all right, isn't it, Ted?" said his sister, putting, however, her hand up so as to make sure.
Her wealth of brown hair with a golden sheen in it was all right, fastened up, as it was, in many a mysterious coil.
She was about twenty-two years of age, of a sweet and gentle cast of countenance, over which, however, and in the depths of her soft, grey eyes, a pensive look would steal at times, as if her young life had been clouded and chastened by a heavy sorrow. But a natural brightness of disposition and the glad impulses of youth and health were ever ready to banish this pensive shadow from a face where smiles, and laughter too, found a fair and fit playground.
Bob was after a little urged into a canter again, and after two or three spurts of this kind they reached at length the outskirts of the township.
"Stir him up now, Maud, and let us have a good canter page 64down the main street, just to show the people how well you can ride," said Ted.
But Maud was not to be prevailed upon as yet to display her skill in the way suggested before the eyes of Bloomsbury, and would not go out of a walk.
"That is Miss Elwood," said Mr. Ponsonby after the riders had passed Wilmot's office, outside of which he and two or three others were lounging. "Now, didn't I tell you she was a deuced nice-looking girl, though, as I said, not quite my style."
"Sour grapes, Ponsie—because she wouldn't return your ardent glances, or cast her eyes, in fact, in your direction at all, the day she arrived here with her father," said Spalding, who had just walked over from the Bank after closing it for the day,
"Not a bit of it—quite out there, my dear boy," replied Ponsonby. "Not smitten in that quarter at all—heart-whole; though, egad, I've seen a girl lately worth two of this one—stunning, by Jove—not exactly a lady, you know, but a sweet little woman with a face all sunshine, who's going to help me to break the monotony of life here if I can manage it. Egad."
"Look out for a rustic lover then, my boy," said Spalding. "We'll be having you brought home on a stretcher some of these days, battered and bruised beyond recognition, the result of the jealous rage of one of the fair one's admirers, and serve you right, too.
'Where shall the traitor rest, he the deceiver,
Who would win woman's breast, ruin and leave her?'"
"Oh, come now, that's going too far, egad," drawled Ponsonby. "My intentions may be strictly honourable, for all you know; and as for the wrath of angry lovers, why I can take care of myself if it comes to that. But why don't you go in and capture Miss Elwood yourself, Spalding? Get page 65the Bank authorities to erect palatial premises for the Bloomsbury manager; give up hotel life, marry and settle down, and live happily ever afterwards—not forgetting to entertain your old friends pretty often, of course; or, Wilmot, there's a chance for you—prime of life, plenty of tin, you need a wife, go in and win."
"Too old, my dear sir; too old," replied Wilmot. "My chances have gone by; besides, I have always liked to keep a free foot, and be able to come and go on short notice. The trammels of matrimony wouldn't have suited me at all, and I don't think I shall draw them round me now. Don't let me, however, discourage any young gentleman who is desirous of entering upon that blissful state. But," he added, "I see this Miss Elwood—Elwood, I knew a young lady of the same name about a quarter of a century ago—I set she has picked up a cavalier at the Post Office in young Ashwin, who evidently means to ride home with her; so Spalding, or Ponsonby, if either of you has serious intentions of entering for the prize, you will probably find a rival in that quarter."
Ashwin had met Miss Elwood before. He had called on her father soon after his arrival, and having found that Mr. Elwood had little or no knowledge of farming as carried on in New Zealand, and was almost wholly unacquainted with the management of stock, had freely placed his advice and his assistance at his neighbour's service at any time he might require them; and he had already found occasion to make several friendly visits. Mr. Elwood had a hired man on the farm, and Ted was beginning to make himself useful in riding round the sheep, and in other respects; but there were questions of stock management upon which Mr. Elwood was glad to consult with anyone of experience, and dealings with them for which he was grateful for help given. Ashwin, indeed, after the first visit or two, seemed very well pleased to be useful to the new-comers, and neglected no opportunity of making a friendly call.page 66
He had been away at his father's place for a day or two, and now, returning, met Miss Elwood and her brother at the Bloomsbury Post Office; and they subsequently rode homeward together.
Bob, his head having been turned towards home, and incited perhaps to some degree of rivalry by the presence of Ashwin's horse, stepped out more freely.
"Maud couldn't get the lazy beggar along at all, going in," said her brother.
"Oh, I am sure he didn't do so badly," Miss Elwood said. "We got along quite fast enough, Mr. Ashwin, for I am not a very capable horsewoman yet. But Bob does seem to move along much better now—I suppose it is because he is going homeward—you knowing Bob."
"You must try my horse some day, Miss Elwood," Ashwin replied, "he is very quiet and easy in his paces. My sisters sometimes ride him when I am down at home—the eldest rode him after the hounds once, and liked him as well as her own, she said. He carried her over anything she put him at; and she is pretty daring in the saddle."
"Oh, indeed, I should be frightened to trust myself on him, inexperienced as I am; though it is very good of you to offer him to me, Mr. Ashwin," Miss Elwood replied. "Bob is better suited to my humble attainments as a horsewoman, I am afraid; and I must be satisfied with him."
"By the way," Ashwin went on, "my sisters talk of riding up here with one or two others next Thursday; and may call on you if they have time. They will be returning the same day—staying at a friend's house for the night both on the way up and in going back. It will be a fifty miles ride for the day, but they won't mind that."
"Oh, what a distance! It is quite far enough for me to ride into the township and back," Miss Elwood said, and then she added, in a tone in which a little sadness was perceptible, with some embarassment, and blushing deeply as she page 67proceeded, "It is very kind of you, Mr. Ashwin, and of them, that they should think of calling on me, but—but my father has a disinclination for society, and, indeed—indeed—it is perhaps better that we should not—I mean—oh, Mr. Ashwin I know that I must appear ungrateful—but we are anxious to remain very quiet here."
"Forgive me," he said, "I would not do anything to cause you a moment's unpleasantness; but I thought you would like to make acquaintance with some girls of your own age, and hoped that you might have made friends of my sisters—I am sure that they would have found you to be everything that they could wish for."
Ashwin was puzzled at this apparent desire to shun companionship. It could not be pride on the part of Miss Elwood that gave rise to this, for there was not the slightest approach to that feeling disclosed in the tone in which the objection was uttered; but there was rather, indeed, he thought, a trace of self-depreciation mingled with the hesitating and confused manner in which that objection was expressed.
It must, he argued, be her father, who, in a selfish spirit of seclusion, had shown a disinclination to his daughter making girl friends. And yet the old man seemed to regard her with the fondest affection, to follow her every movement with loving eyes. Perhaps it was this more than ordinary degree of affectionate regard, which indeed appeared mutual, that made him jealous of any other influences which might weaken or estrange in the least the devoted attachment with which his daughter waited on him.
Yet, if this were so, Ashwin could hardly understand how Mr. Elwood should have looked with no disfavour on his presence during the few visits that he had made to the house, but had welcomed him in a must friendly, though quiet way.
These visits were made, of course, in connection with page 68advice and assistance relative to the farm; still Ashwin thought, and smiled to himself as he thought, that, if the old man's jealous care over his daughter was so great, there might be more danger to his peace of mind in the visits of a young and not bad-looking fellow than in those of the young fellow's sisters. He was, therefore, still much puzzled, but determined that he should at least not discontinue his visits to his neighbours till he saw clearly that his presence was not wanted.