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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter XXIII

page 138

Chapter XXIII.

"I need not take you back beyond a quarter of a century, or rather less," Mr. Elwood began. "At that time I was a partner in a business house in one of the provincial centres of England—Bristol it was. The business was that of merchants and general agents. It was an old-established one, having been carried on under the same title by succeeding members of the same two families for several generations. Hartland and Wilson was the name of the firm, and at that time I was the senior member of it, and about thirty-five years of age. My partner Wilson had but lately succeeded, on the death of his uncle, to a full share in the business, though he had been admitted to a junior partnership a short time before that event took place. He was a young man about nine years my junior, but showed a peculiar aptitude for business, being shrewd and clever, and having a confident air and good address that made him popular with our clients. But he was inclined from the first to mix in transactions of a bold and hazardous character, apart from our own legitimate business, and opposed to the general reputation which the firm had acquired for safe and cautious dealing. These ventures, however, I must admit, when any such were entered into, proved nearly always profitable; and I learnt to form a high opinion of my partner's business capacity, and at length left him too free a hand, perhaps, in the carrying out of his ideas. He acquired a leading position in the management of the firm, partly through his force of character and partly because at this time my family page 139affairs were the cause of grave anxiety to me, and prevented me from giving that close and continuous application to business which I otherwise should have given. I had only a few years previously been married to one whose memory even now shines like a line of sunshine through the gloom that has darkened my life, and whose unchanging love and devoted self-sacrifice were, under God, the means of preserving me from despair and from being dragged down to the foul level of my associates during the long and dreadful years of my bondage. The continual illness of our first child and its subsequent death had preyed upon my wife's health; and after our second was born—my daughter here, who since her mother's death has in love and devotion filled her mother's place as well as a daughter can—it was advised that in change of scene and travel she should seek a return to health. She spent some little time in the south of France, and then crossed over into Spain; and in accompanying her on her journeys, and in subsequent visits, I was a good deal away from home, throwing, in consequence, on my partner the chief control of the business. I had, however, implicit confidence in him; and in any investigations which I from time to time made into the firm's transactions and position, I found everything apparently satisfactory. Of Wilson's private life I must admit I knew but little. He was a bachelor, and did not keep up a house of his own. If I did receive hints once or twice of his gambling at the club or in connection with horseracing, these hints did not come to me from a quarter on which I could place much reliance, and I did not attach much importance to them, believing that, at the most, a friendly game of cards for a trifling stake may have occasionally been indulged in, or a pound or two invested on the Derby or Oaks. I was foolish, alas! and over-confident, and my folly came home to me, bringing ruin in its train.

"For some little time before the crash came, and while I page 140imagined all was well, the position of our firm was becoming deeply involved. Wilson's private losses must have been heavy; and some speculative ventures, as I afterwards discovered, which he had undertaken on our joint account, had also proved failures at this time; and to meet these losses he had converted to his own use, or to that of the firm, moneys which had been placed in our hands on trust. Just before the blow fell, securities, for dealing with which I, as senior partner, held power of attorney, were realised. My signature was forged. Nor was this all. Forged bills on a London house, with which we were in the habit of doing business, had also about this time been placed on the market and discounted. But Wilson must have been preparing for flight when these last acts were committed, for he took the proceeds with him when he went. The account books of the firm had been so manipulated and cooked as to deceive me; and when I left Bristol for the purpose of bringing my wife and child back to England, I went away in happy ignorance of the malpractices which had been for some time carried on. Culpable I was, no doubt, in not making a stricter scrutiny into all the details of our business, but my suspicions had never been aroused; culpable, indeed, but not cognisant of my partner's felonious acts, much less criminally associated with him in any of them.

"A confidential clerk of ours, as it afterwards appeared, must have been acquainted in some degree with what was going on, and, if he was not an active accomplice in some of these nefarious doings, must have been bribed or terrorised into tacit acquiescence in them, and silence concerning them.

"When I took my departure on the occasion referred to, I left Wilson apparently as buoyant and self-confident as usual. He spoke hopefully of our prospects, and urged me not to hurry my return; but, as he said with a laugh, which I afterwards learnt the import of, 'Enjoy yourself for a week or two page 141in the sunny clime of Spain—the finest climate in the world, sir. I only wish I could join you there.' He was there first; or, rather, he reached that country, whereas my journey ended at Paris. I was detained a day or two in London, and then went on to Paris, taking with me, as it happened, a draft on the Bank of France for a considerable sum, to meet a payment falling due by us to a firm in that city. I reached Paris at night, and on the following morning I was arrested. The disclosure had come even sooner than Wilson anticipated. The day I left he had placed further forged bills on the market, but the signature to one of these had aroused suspicion, and discovery of enough to justify warrants of arrest being issued followed. As it was known that I had left with the avowed intention of going to Spain, the French police authorities were telegraphed to, with the result that I was arrested and detained, pending the arrival of the necessary warrant for my extradition to England. Wilson had been too much on the alert, and escaped. In fact, he must have had all his plans for flight arranged beforehand, for with all the plunder he could lay his hands on he left Liverpool, disguised as a Wesleyan minister, by a steamer direct for Barcelona, on the morning of the very day on which I left London. The clerk, mentioned, also disappeared at the same time.

"I at first looked on my arrest as the outcome of some ridiculous mistake, and telegraphed at once to Wilson and to our solicitors. From the former I, of course, got no reply, but that which I received from the latter caused me to take a more serious view of the situation, especially as it informed me that my partner could not be found.

"I still could not bring myself to believe him guilty of the crime with which we were charged, and hoped that all would yet be well. I chafed at each hour's delay that kept me in France, and was peevishly anxious to be again in England, so that I might probe to the bottom the charges brought against me, and refute them, as I felt sure I should be able to do. page 142But when I arrived there, and realised the grave nature of these charges, and saw day by day further investigation unfold still blacker and more heinous pages of villainous fraud, and came to see also the toils and implications under which I had to struggle, I then felt in its full force the awful position in which I stood. God have mercy upon me, it was a fearful awakening! Why should I dwell upon the subsequent events—the trial, the evidence; the address of counsel, the verdict. It all comes before me now as clearly as if it had occurred but yesterday—each detail is burnt in upon my brain. My friends—I had still a few, a very few, who believed me innocent—and my counsel did all that could be done, but without avail. The forgery of my signature to the transfer of the trust securities had been so skilfully done, that even the cleverest expert was deceived. I had, indeed, been misled myself into signing one of them. In my hurry of departure from the office on one occasion, a document had been placed before me for signature, purporting to be the transfer to Wilson of a few shares held by me, whereas it was in reality the far more valuable securities of another.

"My supposed flight, as it was called, into Spain, between which country and ours no extradition treaty existed, was also made to appear in its blackest aspect, especially as, when arrested, I had in my possession a considerable sum in drafts on the Bank of France.

"My poor wife's residence in Spain for the few previous months was also dwelt upon by the prosecuting counsel as being damning evidence of guilty preparation on my part. Some other circumstances, trifling in themselves, were also brought out as tending to throw discredit on my plea of innocence. Whether or not my partner had laid a snare for me in connection with one or two of these, I shall never now discover, but it appeared to me at the time to be not improbable that he had. He, to be sure, may have expected that I could have reached Spanish soil before the frauds were discovered; and had, indeed, urged me at last to hasten my departure. page 143Would to God I had reached Spain, for then I should at once have returned and faced the charges made against me; and this, at least, would have shown that I had no desire to flee from justice, and might have turned the scale in my favour. However, the evidence against me was too strong, and I was found guilty and received a heavy sentence.

"I had broken the news of my arrest gently to my wife, but not till after I had been brought back to England, making as light of the charge as I well could, and advising her to still remain in Spain, and await events. But she was with me in England as fast as express trains and night and day travelling could bring her.

"'My place, dear, is to be near you in trouble," she said, when I remonstrated with her for coming. 'The darker the hour of trial, the closer must affection cling. There is no blow so heavy but love can lighten it.' And she kept her resolution to be near me. Through the dreadful ordeal of the trial I could look round and see in the court one face across which no shadow of doubt regarding my innocence ever passed, but whose smile of love and hope ever strove to cheer me. And when the verdict fell, and I bowed my head and thought of her only, I heard no tragic shriek, and there was no fainting away, but when I was led from the dock I looked up and saw, even then, struggling through her tears, a message sent to me of love and encouragement.

"At the last sad meeting that was allowed us I was the weaker of the two.

"'You must bear up, for my sake,' she said. 'The years will pass, and you will find me waiting for you when you are released, if God will spare my life till then.' And then she unfolded to me her further plans. If I should be sent out to Western Australia, as was thought likely, it was her intention to follow me there. She had some little property of her own, settled upon herself, and this she purposed disposing of so as to be provided with means for the journey, and for maintaining page 144herself and our child in the distant colony. It was in vain that I tried to dissuade her from the course she had resolved to follow. I pointed out to her how much better it would be for her to still remain in England, where the sympathy of friends would in some degree lighten the affliction, and where time would pass less heavily for her than amongst strangers—coarse, unsympathetic strangers, most likely—in the far-off land. It was in vain, I say, that I reasoned thus.

"'Where you go, there will I go,' she said, with her arms thrown round my neck, just as the moment of parting drew near, her tearful eyes looking into mine, that were half blinded with the bitter grief. 'Wherever you may be you will know that I am near you still—as near to you as I can, as near as they will allow me.

"Oh, God," cried the old man, as the memory of the touching scene grew strong upon him, "Thy ways are past finding out. Thy hand has been laid heavily upon me in affliction, but the love of her thou gavest to me upheld me from going down into the pit."

His daughter was much affected also, and even Ashwin rose from his seat and went to look out of the window for a moment, to hide the dew of sympathy in his eyes.

"Yes," continued Elwood, "during the first months of my imprisonment while I was still in England, when the harsh and bitter experiences of my new existence were fresh to me, with its hard fare and harder toil—in the labour of the day, in the solitude of my cell at night—the remembrance of my wife's devotion sustained me. And in the dreadful voyage out—never to be recalled without a shudder—when cooped up within the narrow confines of the crowded ship, without escape, day or night, from contact with all that was vilest in humanity—where foul obscenity was rampant, and whence I looked back on even the nightly cell of my previous prison-house, by contrast, as on a haven of rest—even there her presence seemed to be near me, and the vision of her sweet face shone page 145in upon my soul like an angel's, and lifted me out of the depth of degradation into which I otherwise should have sunk. And when at last the voyage, with all its horrors, was over, and we landed at Freemantle, first among the small crowd that watched us as we were marched off the wharf, it was my wife's face that I saw, full of yearning tenderness, that would have rushed to meet me, but was held back by the stern barrier of the law; for after we left she had taken the mail and had arrived a few weeks before us, and remained eagerly watching from day to day for the coming of the convict ship.

"It was long before we were granted the sad happiness—the sorrowful joy of an interview; but I knew she was always near me, and on many occasions I saw her, generally with our child in her arms or by her side.

"Years passed, and then I was allowed a restricted freedom on 'ticket of leave,' but was at first sent up country on a station. We met several times then, and could write to each other without restraint; and I need hardly say that we availed ourselves fully of the privilege. Subsequently I found employment near town, where I had the happiness of being near my wife and seeing her frequently. She had been provided by a friend in England with a letter to a gentleman of position in Path, and by his advice had invested her capital in house property there. She herself lived in the outskirts, where she kept a school, teaching a few day scholars music and some of the higher branches of education. Though she was known as the wife of one of the convicts, yet her sweet face and amiable life made friends for her even there, and, joined with her skill as a teacher, brought her after a time a goodly number of pupils. She could have lived without teaching, as the income from her property would have been sufficient in itself to provide for her small expenses. But it was her great wish to increase her capital; and when I remonstrated with her on the toilsome life she led and on the strict frugality which she exercised, she would reply that, when the time came, we should page 146want something wherewith to make a new start in life. And when that time came and I could go where I would a free man, but with the brand of felony upon me, it was found that her investment had been a very profitable one, bringing in when realised enough to save our future from the prospect of want overtaking us, if due care were exercised.

"We left West Australia, and after some indecision as to whether or not we should remain in the Colonies, settled down in Victoria near the New South Wales border.

"I took my wife's maiden name of Elwood; and here, on a few acres of land, in gardening and in the culture of the vine, in the sweet society of my wife and children—for, soon after our arrival there, our boy Edwin was born to us—I found solace for past hardships; and in the contentment of the home which she had provided, my wife found some reward for what she had undergone for me. We lived to ourselves and saw but little of our neighbours, content with the quiet happiness of our own home; and if we did not feel called upon to disclose the history of my past life, we were not painfully anxious that it should remain unrevealed. Though, indeed, as time passed, and I found myself further removed from the dark episode of my convict life, and looked back upon it across the later years of peace and happiness, I may at length have begun to be morbidly sensitive lest it should be made public, and desirous to blot out, if it were possible, the record from my mind. My wife was braver than I, and behind the shield of her unwavering faith in my innocence and of her high-souled devotion, she would have met the taunts and frowns of the world unmoved. The years went by happily in that new home, but, towards the last, not without apprehension, for my wife's health declined. And when at last she lay down in mortal sickness and passed away, I felt that light had left the world. Willingly, most willingly, would I have given my life for hers—my miserable life that must drag on, carrying disgrace with it to all who are dear to me.

page 147

"After this I continued for some months to reside in the same place, but the home was cold and desolate to me, even though the mantle of my wife's affectionate devotion descended on her daughter. And when one of the former associates of my convict days appeared there and recognised me, I fled from the place, no longer sustained, as I should have been had my wife been still alive, by the strong comfort of her presence. After several short residences in different places, we came here—still, even here, to be followed, as it seems, by the unsatisfied persecution of the past."