In the Shadow of the Bush
They were now opposite Morton's house, and as they passed they saw him smoking on the verandah. It was a small four-roomed place. Another cottage of two rooms was situated a considerable distance in the rear. Here his men slept and cooked their meals, while he sometimes cooked for himself and sometimes had his meals brought in to him.
He had tried the services of a married couple for a short time once, but soon parted with them, and did not repeat the experiment, preferring, so some of his detractors said, the discomforts of housekeeping on his own behalf to having the hateful presence of a woman near him. Apparently well off in this world's goods, he lived here a solitary life, not seeming anxious to mix with his fellow men, and yet not actually shunning them. He subscribed to most of the leading magazines and reviews, and his library, though not large, was select, comprising, however, in great part works dealing with or touching upon abstruse metaphysical questions, and the deeper and more sombre aspect of things. Cynical and misanthropical generally in his utterances, he was not, perhaps, so much so at heart as he appeared to be; but a more kindly and generous nature lay covered deep within than most people gave him credit for.
"Caught on," he said to himself, as he saw Miss Elwood and Ashwin ride past. Ted had scampered on in front, being dissatisfied latterly at the slow pace at which the others were travelling; "Caught on—'The everlasting to be which hath page 70been.' Here is this girl, only a month or two in the place, now, I have no doubt, using all her arts, displaying all her wares, to catch another lover. And the young fool Ashwin catches on; or he it is, perhaps, who is seeking to make a conquest—another scalp in his belt—regardless of heart aches or heart breaks. There are men to be found with this womanish nature in them, I believe. Well, well, perhaps I wrong them, for both the fools may be now in love with each other, or shortly reach that stupid state; may even marry yet—worst fate of all, perhaps—and grind out the gruesome thing called life together to the better end. Oh, the farce of it all. Laughter-provoking it would be, were it not so sad. And still the procession of fools goes on from generation to generation, each individual atom big in its own consciousness, jostling and scheming for its own little advancement. And bright eyes and the bloom of beauty play no small part in it too, as if these would never fade. He possessed a gift, not altogether to be coveted, who amid the pomp and ceremony of courtly halls and brilliant reception rooms, his vision not dazzled or intercepted by the blaze of jewels and costly trappings with which wealth and fashion clothe their votaries, could see only poor humanity caper and posture in abject nakedness, perhaps deformity; but if I look on a form even of female loveliness, am apt to see the voluptuous flesh peel off, and the bright eyes sink from view, and only a grinning skeleton look out at me. Faugh, the beauty of it—the virtue of it! But let those who will love and marry, or follow some other Will-o'-the-Wisp of happiness. They may possibly find some pleasure in life; and those who see the shortest way ahead will enjoy themselves the most. I had my dream like the rest, but awoke sooner. I, too, believed in woman's truth as I believe in nothing else, and had a glimpse of happiness. I found the one rotten, cankered, font, and wormeaten; the other a painted lie. One can enter into the feelings of those who, tired of it all, seek for death as for a great treasure, page 71who 'rejoice exceedingly and are glad when they can find the grave,' and so end the poor play. I may be wronging the world, though ever so little, and truth and honesty may have gained a footing in it after all; but I have found it mainly made up of shams."
Miss Elwood and Ashwin passed on, unconscious of the thoughts which their presence had given rise to in Morton's mind.
"Have you seen anything of your neighbour, Mr. Morton, yet?" asked Ashwin.
"No," Miss Elwood answered; "but my father met him once or twice over some matters connected with the farm. He says he seems kind and anxious to oblige, as, indeed, everyone is with whom we have come in contact—out of pity, I suppose, for our inexperience and ignorance."
"Oh, Morton is not a bad fellow," Ashwin replied. "I have heard of one or two generous actions he did, which he thinks are not known. A bit rough and biting with his tongue sometimes, and he affects a great distrust of mankind—and of womankind in particular; so that any young lady who could overcome that sense of distrust, and bring him to what I might call his proper feelings, would make herself famous. I am sure the task would be a very easy one for you, Miss Elwood. What do you say to trying it? He has only to look into your face to read truth and constancy there; that is, if he is not wholly blind;" and then he added in a low voice: "He would be a happy man who could read love for himself there also."
"You must not say such things," she answered; "you must not pay silly compliments, Mr. Ashwin. I really thought you had too much good sense to do that. Besides, you know, it wouldn't be right in me to attempt to captivate Mr. Morton, even if he were ever so susceptible. I have made up my mind long ago to lead a single life, and nothing could change my resolution, not even the many excellent qualities and qualifica-page 72tions which Mr. Morton would no doubt possess as a husband. Good-bye!" she added, for they had reached the gate leading to her house. Ted had already opened it, and was waiting for them.
"Good-bye!" he answered, taking her proffered hand and looking into her eyes. On her face a faint blush, called up by the words which she had just spoken, was dying away. "Good-bye! "he said; "and you must not accuse me of paying empty compliments, for I spoke in all sincerity and sober earnestness. —Good-bye, Ted!"
"Back again, dear!" said her father, as she reached the house; "I am always anxious when you are out of my sight, and glad when I see you returning. Over-anxious, I suppose, and foolishly apprehensive lest some accident might happen to you; for what would I do if any ill befel you—or Edwin? Life would then be dismal indeed."
She kissed him tenderly, and told him there was no cause for alarm, "for I am now quite a skilful horsewoman," she said; "and then I have Ted to take care of me, you know."
"I see Mr. Ashwin rode home with you to-day," her father said.
"As long as she rides Bob," broke in the boy, "there's not much fear—if anything went wrong he would only stop dead, and be glad of the chance. Mr. Ashwin rode home with us, and, I am sure, would have liked to come in, but Maud never asked him. He is always doing something for us, I am sure, and I think a lot of him," he added as he led the horses away.
"Yes," said Mr. Elwood to his daughter as they entered the house, "the young man has indeed been very kind and useful to me in many ways in my ignorance of farming; and I must consult him about these new sheep-yards that people tell me I should put up before shearing. But," he added sadly, "on this evening we are better alone."
"I know it, father," his daughter answered; "though I had almost hoped that in the distractions which our new life here page 73affords, the day might have passed over without bringing to your remembrance what anniversary it is. We must try to efface as much as we can the old and bitter memories of the past."
"I should, indeed, be glad for your sake, my child, if this could be done; and I would give what little of life may remain for me if the recollections of the cruel past could be blotted out from your mind, and only the bright and tender impressions left. As for me, the record has been burnt in too deeply to be effaced, though smoothed and softened by time, and by the loving devotion of her who has gone from us, and of you, my daughter. Edwin, too young as yet to fully comprehend, has been kept from the knowledge of these things, and it is better, perhaps, that he should remain in ignorance for a little longer. Your love and care, Maud, has taken the place of that of her whom we have lost, whose devoted self-sacrifice was the means, under God, of preventing me from breaking down altogether—from losing every trace of self-respect, every vestige and ray of hope, every remnant of faith in God or man. Do you know you are very like your mother, Maud? I seem to see a greater resemblance every day, and, God knows, I love you, if possible, all the more for it."
"Father," she said, kissing him, the tears which she strove to check springing to her eyes, "I will try to be worthy of her, and will do all I can to make your days brighter and happier. Our life here, with its new duties and fresh surroundings, will, I am sure, help to make you forget the bitterness of the past, and may, perhaps, make some amends for it. But, even as it is, there are many sweet and loving memories enshrined which we can always recall with reverent thankfulness."
"True, my dear," the old man replied; "these years have not all been dark or a waste, but have been brightened and redeemed by a love and devotion that has-rarely or never been equalled. Were it not that the present, for you especially, my child, is, and must continue to be, blighted in some degree by the shadow page 74of the past, I could look back upon it now without distress."
"You must not distress yourself on my account, father," his daughter answered; "for, indeed, that would be very foolish and without cause. I am quite happy and contented in this new home of ours here, which, I believe, we shall all come to like very much, and can wish for nothing further, satisfied in being useful to you and Ted, and in knowing that you love me."
"Always true and loyal and forgetful of self, you are your mother's very spirit returned to me," the old man said, with feeling.
Ted now came in, and his sister went about her household duties; for though she had a young girl from the neighbouring township to assist her, yet all the cares of the household and a great deal of lighter work devolved upon her. Since their arrival here she had also undertaken the education of her brother, who was advanced for his years and quick at learning, though, it must be admitted, not always a very diligent student, preferring at most times to help with any work going on upon the farm, or to ride into Bloomsbury on every possible occasion, rather than pursue his studies.
Mr. Elwood himself, old beyond his years, was not able to do much manual labour on the farm, but busied himself in the garden and orchard and in occasionally looking round the stock, and was beginning to take a great interest in farm life, with which he had evidently but little previous acquaintance. He kept a hired man, it is true, but he was not to be relied on in all things; and Frank Ashwin's experience in all matters connected with stock was therefore found of great service, and was gladly availed of; and that young man continued to visit at the farm and give both advice and assistance.
He spent an evening or two there, and on the first of these, subsequent to the occasion already mentioned, of his ride home from the township with Miss Elwood, she, at her father's page 75request, played and sang a song or two—plaintive old melodies they were, with much deep feeling in them. Ashwin found himself looking forward to these meetings with Miss Elwood with increasing pleasure, and was apt, indeed, after a time, to deceive himself into framing plausible excuses for bringing them about. He was, in fact, fast falling into that distracting state of bliss or misery called love—launching, or already launched, on the perilous deep, there
Tossed on a sea of doubts and fears,
Love's hapless mariner to sail.
But any, even the remotest attempt at love making, a tender word or look on his part, met with no response, save by a shrinking into a greater reserve, or by a look in averted eyes, which spoke perhaps of pain rather than displeasure.
His people at home heard of his doings by some means, and, as is generally the case, in an exaggerated form, and on his next visit to Harefield he was unmercifully quizzed by his sisters. Laura, the elder of the two who were grown up, a tall, dashing girl, and a clever horsewoman, who could take a fence as well as any of her brothers, was particularly severe on him.
"Well, Frank," she said, "I did think better of you than that—making up to these people that no one knows anything about, all because the girl has got a pretty face—some designing creature, I suppose, who is trying to entrap you. Poor, softhearted Frank !"
"Rattle away," replied Frank, "you can make as much game of me as you like, but don't say anything against Miss Elwood, whom you haven't even seen. What busy-body has been filling your silly heads with all this nonsense? A fellow can't do a neighbour a kindness without being taxed with falling in love with the neighbour's daughter, if he happens to have one. You girls must be thinking of nothing but love and love making. You'll find Miss Elwood is of a different stamp, if ever you should have the privilege of knowing her."page 76
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Laura, "that is a privilege that I shall be in no hurry to avail myself of. You remember, mother," she went on, appealing to Mrs. Ashwin, who sat placidly knitting, and smiling at all this, "you remember how Frank, when we were going up to his place lately, wanted us to call and see these people, and after we got there made some excuse about their not being quite settled in their new home? I suppose, really, he was ashamed on second thought to let us see this lady love of his. I am sure I shall want to know more about them before I call, though probably the more I should know about them, the less likely would I be to make their acquaintance. But it will be some time before I ride in that direction again, at any rate."
"You can trust Frank not to do anything to disgrace you, girls," said his mother; "besides, he has no intention of taking a wife, I know, for a long time yet. Don't be annoyed at what they say, Frank."
"Oh, I don't mind their chatter in the least," Frank replied. "I am not going to ask anyone to marry me just yet. The wharé would hardly be the place to take a wife to," he added, laughing. "Besides," he continued, "if I asked Miss Elwood, I don't think she would have me. She is not like some girls I know, who are always setting their caps at some one. It would be a good thing if there were more like her."
"It is easy to see he is badly struck," his sister said; "over head and ears already—love at first sight—mutual attachment, no doubt—ha, ha, ha!—very romantic, I am sure. Well, all I hope is that he won't do anything dreadful in his present infatuated state of mind. He has been warned at any rate." And Miss Ashwin left, satisfied at having done her duty, and in having the last word.
It is doubtful if all this had the effect intended. A little ridicule is very potent sometimes, but the disparaging allusions to Miss Elwood which his sister had indulged in, and which he knew to be wholly unmerited, causing a feeling of resent-page 77ment in Ashwin's mind on her behalf, an inclination to protect her from every aspersion, however slight; and the consequence was the young girl was more in his thoughts than ever.