In the Shadow of the Bush
Mr. Wilmot was late in returning. Westall followed the road out for some distance past Elwood's, expecting to meet him. He passed Ashwin's place and gained the rise from which he and Davie had first caught sight of the wharé in which they had found lodging for the night.
This point commanded a good view of the road line beyond, and Westall seated himself on a log here, and waited.
The current of his thoughts led backward over the events of his past life—a wasted and useless life, he was forced to admit sadly to himself. Vain regrets over neglected opportunities, over-weak yielding to wrong-doing, took possession of his mind, mingled with doubly-saddening glimpses of what "might have been." The deep reverie into which he fell made him oblivious of the passage of time, or careless of it. Ashwin rode up as far as his own gate and passed in unnoticed, or apparently so. The harsh cry of the kaka as it flew from one block of bush to another before settling into its quarters for the night, or the soft, musical winging of the native pigeon, as it passed overhead, disturbed him not. It was only when the shadows began to close round him, and he heard M'Keown chopping up the night's firewood, whistling the while at intervals, or singing snatches of song, that Westall realised it would soon be dark, and he was some miles from the township. He started off, therefore, in that direction at a smart pace, having come to the conclusion that Wilmot must have returned by the other road, and that he would have to interview him at page 153the hotel that night or early on the following morning. He passed Elwood's again on the way back, and gained the metalled road abreast of Morton's place. It was now dark, and a light shone from the window of Morton's cottage as he passed, and between him and the light he thought he saw someone moving on the pathway outside. Westall pushed on at a brisk pace, for he was now beginning to feel hungry, and knew that he would be late for the evening meal at the Cosmopolitan. He had not, however, proceeded more than a few chains farther when he heard the sound of a horse coming at a sharp canter behind him, and a moment afterwards Wilmot rode up. He was a heavy man, and rode a powerful horse, Westall recognised him, but Wilmot would have ridden on had not the former called out.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" said Wilmot, as he drew up. "It must be something important that has kept you on the road to this hour. Well, I'm sorry I couldn't get back sooner, but the fact is I nearly forgot all about you, and I didn't expect you would be waiting so long here for me. Business must be attended to, you know; and if the day has been a long one, it has not been an unprofitable one. I sold a farm—and there's a good commission hanging on to that—besides looking after one or two other little matters that will bring in the guineas. But I should not, perhaps, tell you this, for I expect it's more money you're after."
"You're mistaken there," replied Westall. "I want no more of your money. I don't intend to touch it again."
Wilmot broke into scornful laugh. "Here's a reformation, to be sure," he said—"William Westall turning over a new leaf—the proffered sponduliks declined with thanks—no more whiskies or long beers either, I suppose—wine and woman alike eschewed—gad, they have ruined many a man—I have been too fond of them myself, perhaps. But out with it, man, there's something at the bottom of this sudden conversion of yours, I'll be bound. Like many a snivelling hypocrite, when page 154asked to do something not strictly puritanical, you would grow unctuous and holy all at once—the greater the sanctimoniousness, the higher the price, I suppose, as usual. But you needn't expect to play that game on me, d——n you!"
"Don't get your evil temper up, and I will tell you what I mean," replied the other. "The old man is here, as I told you last night. That is his place you passed just lately—Elwood is the name he goes by now, I saw him yesterday, and again to-day—changed so that I should not have known him, had not an old limb of the devil, a convict who served his time with him, recognised him as he was driving into the township. This wretch has been out here to-day to blackguard him, for he has some ill-will against him, and to morrow everyone will talk of it."
"Let them talk," said Wilmot; "it will hurt neither you nor me, nor, for the matter or that, the old man himself. I expert he is not so squeamish by this time."
"And am I to stand by and see him, a man who never wronged anyone, held up to scorn and reproach?" Westall answered, with some show of manly spirit "while you remain here honoured and respected. The cruel sufferings inflicted on him are not enough, but persecution must follow him and his family here—Not hurt him? Hurt or no hurt, I've made up my mind to tell all I know, in order to clear his name, as far as lies in my power. Brought face to face with him in this strange manner in this out-of-the-way place, I will keep silence no longer, even though I suffer for it. He was in Western Australia before I knew he had been arrested, or I might have spoken at the first."
"And who will believe you now if you do speak?" asked Wilmot, with rising anger, "The public-house loafer and companion of every low vagabond won't get much credence for anything he may say."
Westall felt the truth of the retort, but answered: "That may be very true, but other evidence might be forthcoming to page 155substantiate mine. I don't want to drag you under if I can help it, and I will do nothing openly in the matter for a month from now, so that you can get away if you don't like to run the risk of discovery. You could set his innocence beyond a doubt if you were brave enough to do it."
Wilmot listened to him with rising wrath. He had come to like his life here, and had attained to a position of respectability and importance. Must this be now forfeited, together with the prospect of the higher honour to which he aspired? Even if Westall should seek to screen him, and not make known his true name and history—and it was doubtful if he would do this—Wilmot felt that it would not be safe to remain here. Suspicion might be directed against him as having been connected in some way with Westall through his having supplied him with money, once the latter made himself known to Elwood and attempted to establish the old man's innocence. His old partner, Wilmot thought, might even recognise him, though this was hardly likely. But if Westall kept silence Elwood would probably part with his farm and leave the country, in order to free himself from the presence of his former convict associate and the consequent exposure.
These thoughts passing rapidly through Wilmot's mind, he suppressed his anger, and said: "The world is wide—let the old man seek fresh fields. There are plenty of places where he can spend the rest of his days in peace without fear of recognition, if he does not care to live on here. He is pretty well off, it seems, and can go where he likes. As for you, Westall, it's too late for you to do anything for him now. Leave him alone, and I don't mind doubling the allowance I have been giving you—provided, mind you, that you clear out of New Zealand. You know I was never stingy to a friend, though a man had better not make me his enemy. It's a little more money you have been trying for all this time, isn't it now?"
"No,"Westall answered firmly; "I have said I will not page 156touch your money again, though I starve. I will do all I yet can to clear my old master's reputation, to remove the stain from his name—late, all too late though it may be. My duty is clear, though I should be thrown into prison myself as your accomplice, I am determined, in any case, to rid my conscience of what has been lain on it too long."
"D——n you and your conscience!" cried Wilmot, in a passion. "I never knew a sneaking hound that was going to do a mean trick and round on one who had been his friend that didn't make a scapegoat of his conscience. I have dragged you out of the gutter more than once when I might have left you there to starve, and now you turn round on me with your conscience. D——n your conscience! If you won't take payment in the way I offered—take it in that shape." And, rising in his stirrups, overpowered with rage, he dealt Westall a murderous blow on the head with the heavy butt of the whip that he curried. He aimed a second blow, but his victim dropped before it fell; and Wilmot was about to spring from his saddle, with what purpose he himself, in his present state of mind, did not perhaps clearly comprehend, when the sound of footsteps hastily approaching brought him to a sense of his position, and, putting spurs to his horse, he galloped off in the darkness towards Bloomsbury.
When Wilmot arrived in the township he went straight to the police-station and laid an information, the purport of which will be gathered from the startling item of local news which appeared in the Bloomsbury Guardian of the following day under the heading
"Dastardly Attempt at Sticking-up!
"As our respected townsman, Mr. Wilmot, was riding home after dark yesterday evening by the Melton Road, when a few miles from this township, he was stopped and accosted by a man who made some enquiries as to the way and the distance to the nearest accommodation house. Mr. Wilmot gave the information wanted, and was about starting on again when the fellow suddenly seized hold of the horse's bridle, and, presenting a pistol at page 157the rider, demanded his money or his life. Our townsman, who generally curries a heavy riding-whip, nothing daunted, and without a moment's hesitation, struck the man over the head with it, and felled him to the ground. Mr. Wilmot would have dismounted and secured his assailant, and attended to his injuries, had not just then an accomplice of the first desperado rushed out from the side of the road; and seeing that he had more than one villain to deal with, perhaps several, Mr. Wilmot, leaving the fellow where he fell, hastened into Bloomsbury and at once informed the police. Mr. Wilmot feared from the force with which he struck the man that the blow might have even proved fatal, and dreading this, or that serious injury had been inflicted, he, in company with our energetic police officer, Constable O'Flaherty, returned to the scene of the encounter the same night, but no trace of the fellow could be discovered. Further investigation this morning, however, found marks of blood at the spot indicated; and on a track lending into the standing bush, which borders the road on one side at this place, further traces of blood were seen, clearly showing that the man must have made his way or been carried in that direction; but careful search, continued to-day, has, up to the time of our going to press, failed to afford any clue to the whereabouts, dead or alive, of the would-be highwayman. Suspicion has fallen on a rather disreputable character who has been living at Mr. Brasch's Cosmopolitan Hotel for some months past, and who was observed during the afternoon near the scene of the outrage. Mr. Wilmot inclines to the opinion that it was this man who stopped him, though he was muffled up and disguised. It seems that the man has been in receipt of some small remittances through Mr. Wilmot, from friends at home, and that he knew of Mr. Wilmot's intention to travel yesterday by this road. What gives additional force to the suspicion is the fact that he did not return to the Cosmopolitan last night, nor has he yet returned. However, the event has no doubt been a lesson to the assailant, whoever he may have been, as we hope it will be to others of his class; and we must compliment our worthy fellow-townsman on the pluck and courage he so signally displayed, and congratulate him on his escape in an encounter which might have had a serious termination for him, but far the ready exercise of these qualities."
Weeks passed, and still Westall did not return to the Cosmopolitan; neither could any trace be found of Wilmot's "assailant," the supposed highwayman. The police had made enquiries in all directions after the culprit, who was thought to be hiding from justice; if, indeed, he had not succumbed to the blow (as was deemed probable), and been quietly buried page 158by his "accomplices"; or had, himself, crawled into the adjoining bush, and in some of its tangled recesses lain down and died. The block of bush, which belonged to an absentee, contained two or three hundred acres, and though search had been made through it, it was felt that in its fallen timber, in its interwoven masses of undergrowth and vines, or in some of its hollow trees, the body of a man might be concealed till the startled bushfaller came upon the bleached bones, or the subsequent forest fire exposed the calcined remains to view.
Wilmot felt disquieted and anxious. He could not account satisfactorily to himself for Westall's disappearance. Had he really wandered into the bush, weak and bleeding, to lie down in some concealed spot and die? This result would have been, for Wilmot, the least annoying termination of the affair; and though he may have felt some twinges of remorse for the homicidal blow which he dealt in his passion, yet in his secret soul he hoped that Westall's tongue had been silenced for ever. One other apparent solution of the mystery had at first given him grave concern: Westall might have recovered sufficiently to have made his way back to Elwood's, and making his identity known there, be lodged and shielded from observation till he was fit to charge Wilmot with the murderous assault, and to carry out also his intention of making his threatened disclosure. Wilmot could not share his suspicions with the police, for he intended, if the worst came, to put on a bold front, and deny all knowledge of the accusations that might be brought against him touching his past life. What reliance, he thought, would be placed on the testimony of Westall, himself accused of an attempt at highway robbery, even if the evidence of an ex-convict tended to corroborate it? If afterwards the aspect of things should take a more alarming turn, he still would have the resource of flight left; and even now he was beginning to make secret and skilful preparations for that eventuality.
The constable, it is true, had made enquiries from the page 159settlers on the road as to whether they had seen anything of the suspected individual, either before or after the time of the alleged sticking-up. Ashwin had seen him in the afternoon, going in the direction opposite to the township, and later, had again noticed, near his own place, the same man, as he thought, seated on a log; but since then had seen nothing of him. Morton had also noticed the man passing in the afternoon, "but did not think he looked much like a highwayman"; and wanted to know if the constable was certain that Wilmot was sober when he reached Bloomsbury.
"It is just possible," he said slowly to O'Flaherty, and with a satirical gleam in his eyes." It is just possible that a man of fervid imagination, such as Wilmot may be, might—especially if he had a few whiskies aboard—have mistaken one of these black stumps on the road for a robber, and belaboured it over the crown, under the impression that he was killing a man. The strongest of us have hallucinations at times; and I don't believe there was any sticking-up at all."
"Lord save us," O'Flaherty said; "look at the blood we found on the road—wheriver now did that same come from if there was no stickin'-up?"
"Oh, the blood's nothing," answered Morton;" there was a fellow shooting pigeons in the bush during the afternoon—out of season you know, constable—and it may have been the blood of one of the birds you saw. No one, it seems, has seen anything of the wounded highwayman, and till he is produced, I won't believe that any attempt has been made on Mr. Wilmot's life or purse. The whole thing," he continued, with a laugh, "may have been got up in the interest of the local paper—in which Wilmot has a big share, I believe. When news is scarce and copy short, a startling incident like this is often manufactured. Look at the praises, too, that will be lavished on 'our respected townsman,' and the kudos he will get for his wonderful courage,—why, page 160Wilmot will be puffed out into bigger importance than ever. You're on the wrong track this time, constable, take my word for it."
"It's a funny man ye are, Mr. Morton, an' a quare one," replied the constable, as he rode away; and added to himself," a bit gone in the upper storey yoursilf, I'm thinkin."
Mr. Elwood, when asked, denied having seen anything of the suspected individual on the day in question, or since. But Wilmot's suspicions were not allayed till after he had taken means to have the young girl questioned who acted as servant at Elwood's, and whose parents resided in the township.
Upon her showing unmistakably that no one could be in hiding at Elwood's, and as the weeks went by and no tidings could be heard of the missing Westall, Wilmot was fain to believe that he had seen the last of him.
The sticking-up affair, which had been in everyone's mouth for a week or two, soon ceased to afford much interest, and became well-nigh forgotten. Morton, certainly, never lost an opportunity of referring to it when he met "Wilmot.
He had been on another visit to Wellington a few days after the affair occurred, and subsequent to his return he seemed, contrary to his usual habit, to throw himself in Wilmot's way, and never failed to make some reference to the adventure—at one time, chaffing him in his keen satirical way over the cock-and-bull story, as he would call it; at another time, appearing to treat the affair in all seriousness, and making particular enquiry into each detail of it,—the height of the assailant, the kind of weapon, whether pistol or revolver, that he was armed with, what the fellow said, and so forth.
"We must be careful of ourselves in the future, Mr. Wilmot," he said on one occasion. "Evil characters are abroad, and honest men are scarce, therefore the few we page 161have ought to take extra care of themselves. I would go further, and say that, in these days, when so many are advocating the extension of State interference and State protection in all sorts of new directions, it should be the peculiar duty of the State to look after its honest men more than it has hitherto done; and with that particular object in view, a Department might be formed whose officers would attend on and guard every honest man in the community. And," he continued, with a laugh, "even if a separate officer were detailed to wait on each honest man, I don't think the expense would be found very burdensome; though," he added, looking Wilmot full in the face, and bowing to him, "we should need one or two of these officers in Bloomsbury."
If Morton happened to be in the township after dark, he would then, if he saw Wilmot, solicit his company and protection home, expatiating on the extraordinary courage which he had displayed in his single-handed encounter with the high-wayman. Wilmot was riled by all this, but could not well show open displeasure at it. He would try to pass it off in his high-handed, pompous way; but at length he began to hate the very sight of Morton, and to shun his presence when he possibly could.