In the Shadow of the Bush
The sun on the following forenoon was shining with returning warmth; a soft wind was blowing lightly from the west, and the grass everywhere was showing the deep green of fresh and vigorous growth. The spirit of Spring was abroad, and the earth and all that grew upon it, or walked its surface, felt the subtle influence. It was a day on which everyone who could sought the sunshine and the open air.
Mr. Elwood had been prevailed upon by his daughter to accompany her for a drive to the township. Miss Elwood acted as driver on this occasion, for she had already learned that accomplishment.
"This glorious weather," the old man remarked, as they proceeded at a leisurely pace along the road—" this glorious Weather, in itself, is enough to make existence enjoyable; the pulse of life beats stronger, and hope gains new strength within us, with the coming of spring. We have not, it is true, emerged from the cold and deadness of an Old World winter; the contrast between the seasons is not so marked in this more favoured clime; but, still, the glad renewal of young life in nature is visible on every hand. Look at those lambs at play in the paddocks, racing in groups of three or four in pure exuberance of pleasure; and yet there is not wanting even there some shadow of anxiety for notice how the ewe, with warning bleat, seeks to recall her offspring if, in its heedless frolic, it is carried too far from her side. Earthly happiness, it seems, must be ever tinged with some such shadow of distress.page 107
"But the rough storms with which winter even here sometimes visits us are now left behind; and let us hope, my child," he went on, "that the bitter blasts of adversity which wrecked my life, and have darkened yours, may be left behind now also. Since we entered on this new life here, and especially during the last week or two, I have begun to feel that they have indeed passed, and to look back on that cruel time as on a horrible nightmare, a blood-chilling dream, only to be remembered as such, and no longer exercising its blighting influence over me and mine."
"I have noticed this, father," his daughter answered, with a smile. "I have watched with extreme pleasure the greater interest you are taking in the farm, and the cheerfulness with which you go about what you find to do there. We will agree to blot out that bitter past, and never call up the memories of it again. We shall soon be in the township," she continued, cheerfully, "and I can see another new house going up. Oh, Bloomsbury will be quite an important town before long. Mr. Ashwin says they are going to build a large hall to hold meetings in; and, you know, several new buildings have gone up even since we came. This Cosmopolitan Hotel, that we are coming to, seems to be rather a low place, with generally some half-tipsy men about. I didn't quite like passing it when I was riding in alone the other day, for fear some of them should make rude remarks about my horsemanship, for you know I am not a very good rider yet, and Bob is sometimes so obstinate, you know."
"We must get you a better horse to ride than Bob," replied her father; "but he must be perfectly quiet and safe, above all things. I will ask Mr. Ashwin to look out for one for you, if he will kindly consent to do so."
They were now turning the corner on to the main road at the Cosmopolitan. Old Dan was sitting on the edge of the verandah, smoking his pipe, and Westell was seated there also; while Davie stood underneath it, leaning against the wall of page 108the house, for O'Byrne had not yet consented to return home, though he had promised to do so early in the afternoon.
Davie's bulky form was a conspicuous object where he stood, and conspicuous also were the hard-set features of Old Dan.
"Faster, Maud, faster!—for God's sake, faster!" whispered Mr. Elwood, as he turned his head away, after one terror-striken look at Dan.
Miss Elwood urged the horse past, and then turned to look at her father. The old man sat white-faced and trembling.
"Oh, father! what is it? Are you ill?" she cried. "Or do you know any of those men?"
"One of them, I think, I do know—nay, I am sure of it," he answered, as soon as he had recovered himself. "I could not be mistaken in his evil countenance. Ah, no, indeed! And, Maud, my child, I fear he also has recognised me. One of those men he was with whom I was forced to associate during the black years of misery which, even but now—God help me—we spoke of trying to forget. But we shall not be allowed to forget them. Oblivion in its kindness must not lay its hand upon us. This man was noted amongst the others for his villainy, and, grim and taciturn though he usually was, he would, when annoyed, or when the spirit of evil was strongest upon him, break out into the most loathsome profanities and blasphemous imprecations, and because I remonstrated with him at first, and afterwards shrank from him more, perhaps, than the others, he lost no opportunity of showing me ill will. And now if he has recognised me—as I feel sure he has—he will blazen forth all he knows to my hurt. For myself," he added, sadly, "I would not care, but for you, child, and your brother, it will be hard if you can never escape from the shadow of your father's stain."
"I will bear it patiently and even contentedly as before, if it should fall openly on us again," replied his daughter, "never doubting fur a moment your own innocence and goodness. Why should we care so much for the opinions of others when page 109they are unworthy of respect? Our own inner consciousness of rectitude ought to sustain us when we are unjustly aspersed."
"Ah, Maud, it does, no doubt, and will, in a measure," Mr. Elwood answered; "and it is well to reason thus: but to be shunned and slighted, and looked down upon—or even to be pitied with a self-satisfied condescension, by those whom we are forced to meet in the world, is hard to bear—hard for me, indeed, only in so far as the disgrace affects my children, especially you, Maud, for a boy can battle his way in life, and the world for him is wide, but a stigma, whether merited or not, clings more closely to a girl,"
"Never fear for me," his daughter replied brightly (though the tears were not very far from her eyes), and laying her hand fondly upon his, "the path of my duty is clear before me, and whatever may happen I can follow it with cheerfulness."
"God in heaven bless you!" Mr. Elwood said fervently, and then continued with anxiety, "We must not return past that place again. Is there not some other way by which we can get home without passing the Cosmopolitan again?"
"There is an unformed cross-road or street at the back of the township which leads on to our road," Miss Elwood answered. "Ted and I rode that way the other day—it is all right for riding on, and I think we can get along it with the buggy. The timber is cleared off the centre, but it is not formed."
And by that route, with some difficulty, they returned; after calling at the post office and the store at which they dealt.
"I seem to be haunted to-day with the presence of the past," Mr. Elwood remarked sadly on the way home. "I saw another face in the township that reminded me somehow of one I used to know; but it was only fancy, no doubt, that led me to think so, excited by the previous recognition of the man on the verandah of the public-house."
"That too may have been only the effect of imagination, page 110working on some slight resemblance between him and the man you knew many years ago," said his daughter.
"It may have been, it may have been; but I fear it was not so, dear," replied the old man. "The resemblance was too striking; and I am afraid that he too knew and remembered me."
"Our fears mislead us often," replied his daughter;" and even if yours should be justified in this instance, what harm can this man do us now? He may make known to the little world here the secret of your past life; but what of that? It might have been better, perhaps, to have made it known unreservedly on our coming here. I can truthfully say that neither in act, in word, or in look, have I conducted myself otherwise than I should have done had your life-history been laid open to the knowledge of everyone whom we have met; nor do I think have you, father."
"Perhaps not," he answered. "We have indeed seen very few. We have kept to ourselves, as I purposed we should in coming here, saying nothing of my previous life—averring nothing and denying nothing; yet I must confess that lately in conferring with Mr. Ashwin, who may be called our only friend here, I have been inclined to forget myself a little, indulging in hopes and dreaming of a future for our life here in which the baneful influence of the days gone bye should not be felt. But these hopes were vain, and must now be cast aside. The present, the future, must ever be the thrall of the past and under bondage to it. There is no place on earth, it seems, where I may flee away to and be at rest."
His daughter tried to cheer him with loving words of comfort and hopeful assurances that, even if his fears were realised, they could still by uprightness of life and mutual affection defy and in the end live down the uncharitable chatter of the world without; but the old man, though he blessed her for the words of hope and consolation, was still cast down in spirit.page 111
Nearing home, they met Frank Ashwin, who was riding towards the township, and who drew up pleasantly, and made polite enquiries after Mr. Elwood's and his daughter's health. Showing a friendly interest in the operations on the farm, and a hopeful concern as to the prospects of the season, he seemed inclined to detain them in a lengthy chat, during which, though his words were oftener directed towards the father, yet his eyes nearly always were attracted to the fair face of the daughter. But Mr. Elwood appeared out of sorts, and evinced little of the usual interest which he took in the subjects broached. The face of Old Dan still haunted him. Miss Elwood, too, Ashwin thought, seemed even colder and more self-withdrawn, in her manner towards him than she had lately become. He could not understand it; and taking his leave he cantered off towards Bloomsbury, while the buggy proceeded slowly in the opposite direction.
"It will be a relief to me when he knows all," thought Miss Elwood, and, in spite of her resolve to be cheerful, there came a look of wistful sadness into her eyes for a moment as she gazed far out away towards the horizon.