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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter XIII

page 78

Chapter XIII.

The Elwoods saw little of their neighbour Morton. He seldom visited anywhere except where business led him, and that was but rarely from home.

He had tried life under many different conditions, for his means were ample. Travel he had found wearisome, with mankind very much the same wherever he went. "Selfish, grasping, greedy," he said; "of many different coloured skins, but all very much alike underneath them."

Life in the cities of the Colonies he had soon tired of. "There is pretence everywhere," he would say; "but it is more glaringly apparent in the towns than in the country. Their houses are mostly built for show, their shops are a snare, and the wares in them not what they are represented to be. Their politicians are generally unmitigated shams, pandering in turn to every selfish cry of the hour; their parsons, or most of them, are shams, preaching in a make-believe way against sin, but, Brahmin-like, for fear of defilement, gathering their robes of sham righteousness about them, and turning their back on sinners. Their religions—from the Roman's and his next-door neighbour and near relation, the Anglican High Churchman's, with their misleading symbolisms, with their pomp and ritual and apostolic assumptions, begotten of human vanity, down to the Salvationist's, perhaps the most genuinely sincere of any, with his wild, uncouth fanfaronade of worship—are chiefly made up of pretence. Mammon is the god of the cities; and the wealth they worship, or the appear-page 79ance of it, is often unreal. Unreality leavens nearly everything there except poverty, degradation and crime, which are all too real."

To this new settlement in the bush, where he hoped to find mankind dwelling in a more primitive state, and living in greater simplicity of life, he had come; but, even here, he had discovered, or thought he had discovered, though in a less marked degree, the shams and unrealities which he had been seeking to escape from.

"To aching eyes each landscape lowers"; and the warped and biased mind cannot take in with clear and comprehensive vision both the good and ill, both the lights and shadows of life.

Morton, however, about the time at which this tale has now arrived, did pay a visit to Elwood's place, but going no farther than the sheep-yards. It had been found necessary to bring in the dry sheep, the hoggets and wethers, and in doing this Frank Ashwin and his dogs had helped, or, rather, had done nearly all the work, for Mr. Elwood's man and his dog were very often at such times in the habit of working at cross purposes; and mustering amongst the logs is at best a difficult operation at any time.

It was expected that a few of Morton's sheep might have got through the dividing fence since the last muster, and notice had been given him so that he could claim and take away any of his that might have found their way in. His man, who acted as shepherd among other duties, and generally took charge of work of this kind, happened to be away, and Morton himself went over in the afternoon. He had met Mr. Elwood before, and Ashwin he had known for some time, and had, indeed, formed a closer intimacy with him lately than his reserved nature was in the habit of doing.

The yards were small and inconvenient, and of a temporary character, and the work of drafting was difficult. Two or three of his sheep, however, had been already caught and put page 80in a pen by themselves when he arrived. The boy, Ted, was busy helping in his way, and taking a keen interest in earmarks and brands.

"I know your ear-mark, Mr. Morton," he said—"two punch holes and a back bit;" and then immediately afterwards he exclaimed: "I see another of your sheep, I think. Yes, there he goes," and darting in among the mob the boy succeeded, after some trouble, in catching a sheep by the leg; but it was rather too strong for him, and was dragging him about the yard when Morton went to his assistance, and found the sheep was really one of his.

"A smart boy, Mr. Elwood," Morton remarked. "He has got a quick eye in his head, and knows how to catch a sheep, too."

"Yes," replied his father, "he is a smart boy in some things; and I suppose will soon learn more about sheep than I shall be ever able to know. A good boy, too, in general; but, like most Colonial lads, rather too self-assertive. They think they know everything, and like to give their opinions on every subject—too cheeky, in fact, and requiring to be kept well under by a firm hand."

"Cheek, my dear sir," replied Morton in his caustic way; "cheek should be developed by every means. If you want success in life you must have cheek. All the virtues are as nothing compared with it. Your modest merit will stay in the background and hang its head there; while cheek, the brazen, though wanting in worth, and barren in brains, will step past it into the front rank, and make itself at home there. Give me assurance without merit, rather than merit without assurance; and if a man has any talent in him, it wants cheek to crown the edifice of success. Don't disparage cheek, Mr. Elwood. If I were a family man, and had boys, and wished them to get on in the world, and if I believed in the efficacy of prayer, I would put up my earnest petitions daily that the Giver of all things would in an especial manner highly endow them with cheek."

page 81

"Ah, Mr. Morton, I cannot agree with you in all you say," Mr. Elwood answered. "Assurance and self-assertion may be aids to worldly advancement, and no doubt often are; but then, it does not follow that we should wish to see these traits in our children take the place of worthier qualities of heart and mind. There are nobler aspirations than after worldly prosperity—it is not everything in life that we should desire it above measure."

"It is, nevertheless, the goal for which most people seem to be striving, the prize towards the attainment of which they appear to be directing their best energies," replied Morton. "They may, perhaps, have some high, holy, and heavenly motives for seeking wealth and worldly advantage, but I, for one, don't give them credit for them. I may be as bad as the others, but with this difference: I, at best, can see no goal worth striving for; no prize worth the winning; and a man may as well, I suppose, follow this hollow deception as any other."

"I do not hold with you at all there, either," replied the old man, with some warmth. "Believe me, sir, life, even this life, has objects worth striving for; love and truth, and mutual faith and fellowship, and kindly purpose towards others—and, in spite of your bitter words, I will not for a moment think, Mr. Morton, that you are a stranger to all of these. I have suffered from wrong and falsehood as much, perhaps, as anyone, but I have found also truth and constancy and self-denying affection, and these have compensated for much that I have lost; and then we can strive for and hope to attain to a life where falsehood is unknown and wrong is not."

"I envy you your trust," said Morton, "for one is better to have something of the sort, even if there is not much to build it on, than to have none at all."

Their conversation was here interrupted by the appearance of Miss Elwood and the hired girl, who came out to the yards with some tea and cake for those at work with the sheep. Mr. page 82Elwood introduced his daughter to Morton, who in a pleasant enough way, entered into conversation with her for a moment or two, making some commonplace remarks about the weather and the roads, etc., looking at her with his keen glance from time to time.

She went back to the house almost immediately; and shortly afterwards Morton left, saying that he would send his man round for the sheep that evening, or early on the following morning.

"A fair face," he soliloquised, as he rode homeward. "A fair face, with some appearance of truth in it; and honest eyes if one could put faith in woman's looks, or believe that they afford any index to the heart. The polished surface of the gem, they may be, but I doubt it; paste, counterfeit, tinted glass, more likely. And the old man—older in body than in years, perhaps—has evidently seen sorrow, but has found, so he thinks, some consolation in life—well, I am glad of it—and looks forward to something better hereafter: rest for the wearied spirit. Rest should be welcome, if it would bring forgetfulness with it. But the soul may swelter in its own everlasting unrest and oblivion be not found. We shall some day, perhaps, fathom the mystery, if there is a bottom to it; solve the problem, if it is capable of solution; find some utility in it all; or die like a dog and know no more about it. Meanwhile they are happiest who cannot see into the hollow heart of things, who can love and trust and play the fool generally without finding out the folly of it. And yet that girl's eyes had an honest look in them, and someone may find love and truth there. Pah! I am a fool myself for thinking so; there is truth in nothing."