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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter XXIV

page 148

Chapter XXIV.

"I have told you my story, Mr. Ashwin, for it was your due that I should do so," Mr. Elwood (as we shall still call him) continued, after a pause. "Your kindness to me since I came here has been great, and can never be repaid. I do not now lay my past life before you from a desire to excite your sympathy, or create a belief in my innocence in your mind. I have no right to expect that you should be so influenced by the narrative; the ex-convict's tale must always be received with doubt and suspicion. But you, amongst those whom we have met in this place, have seen most of us; you alone may be said to have associated with us in any degree; and some explanation of the scene you to-day witnessed, and of the words spoken of me, is due to you. The avowal should indeed perhaps have been made sooner—in confidence, to you. Had I carried out my daughter's wish, expressed some little time since, the avowal would have been made; but I deferred doing so, or shrank from the ordeal. The exposure will now for a while afford talk for every idle tongue. The finger of reproach will be pointed at us by those who knew us not, and whom we never sought to know; and some of that reproach would be cast even on those who might be intimate with us. Therefore, while I thank you from my heart for all the help and advice that you have given me, and that I trust I have profited by, yet I would now, in all kindness, knowing more of the world's ways than you do, ask you for your own sake to leave us to page 149ourselves—seeing just as little of us as it is possible for a neighbour to do."

"With your permission, sir," replied Ashwin, warmly, "I will do nothing of the kind. You have my heartfelt sympathy," he added, rising and giving the old man his hand, "I believe every word you have told me. You have been deeply wronged. Believing this I should be indeed a cur if I allowed the sneers or cold looks of others to influence me in my behaviour towards a man I felt for and esteemed. My disregard for the opinions of others, and my respect for you, ought to make me seek for and show a warmer friendship than before. I will take my leave now, but, if you will allow me, I will come over to-morrow and help to shift the ewes and lambs into the front paddock—they want a change now."

"Heaven bless you at any rate for your kindly sympathy," said Mr. Elwood, as he bade him good-bye; "but think better of associating with one who can only bring discredit on you."

Did the sweet face of Maud Elwood and her soft eyes, that unconsciously beamed approval on him when he spoke as he had done, have anything to do with the warmth of Ashwin's feelings towards her father, or with his desire for a closer intimacy? If they did he could hardly be oblivious of the difficulties of the position in which he would find himself, But he was of a frank, Impulsive nature: and as he sat and listened to the father's story, and saw the daughter's face, beautiful in the affectionate regard and sympathetic concern with which she watched the old man as he told his tale of wrong and sorrow; as a new light was thrown on much that her words and manner had puzzled him in the past; and seeing her now as she truly was—a noble, unselfish woman—and lovely withal, his whole heart went nut to her; and, regardless of consequences, of opposition, of the felon stain, he knew that he had found his fate, and that he could never love another as he now loved her. He had admired her page 150before—been "smitten" with her as young men will be with a pretty girl, but this was now something deeper, stronger, life-enduring.

He might never win her—probably would not; she might go from here and be lost to him, and after years would no doubt bring other ties of love and affection—true affection and wedded happiness—but the fairest and purest temple in his heart would still be for her, and to the end he must continue in secret to worship there. But

"'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all,"

when that love is a pure and soul-elevating one, and Ashwin, as he took his leave, realised something of the truth of this, for he felt that it was better for him to have known and loved her, even though she should not be for him, than never to have known her. He was determined, however, to win her if he could.

Miss Elwood accompanied him to the front door, and, as he bade her good-bye there, he said in a low voice:

"I know now, Miss Elwood, why it was that you shrank from forming an intimacy with others—why you declined my sister's visit—and much more that I failed to comprehend the motive for at the time. Though I may think you have been over-sensitive in this, yet I must respect you all the more for it. All I have listened to to-day has only made me think more highly of you in every way. You are too good for any you are likely to meet here. Even if your father had been guilty of the crime for which he suffered—and I believe him to be as innocent of it as I am—it would not, could not, lower you in my eyes. Good-bye,—I will not trust myself to say more now."

"Good-bye," she said, with sadness in the look with which she met his eyes for a moment. "We shall always remember your kindness; but I can only say with my page 151father—and, oh, do not take it unkindly—it will be better for you—for all of us—if you leave us to ourselves."

"That I could not bring myself to do," Ashwin answered, and picking up his stockwhip from where he had thrown it, he hastily took his leave.

The boy, Ted, had been back on the farm during the time these events had been taking place, and when he returned his sister gently and lovingly gave him to understand, as well as he could, the nature of the cloud of shame and sorrow that lay upon their lives.