In the Shadow of the Bush
Meanwhile rumour, with its hundred tongues, had got hold of Mr. Elwood's previous history, or that part of it which told of his having been a convicted felon. The crime for which he had suffered was variously given, with many circumstantial details, and ranged through the whole list of evil-doing, from murder to bigamy. It was the common topic for a while at hotel bars and afternoon teas; and Frank Ashwin was soon made aware that gossip was busy with his neighbour's concerns and his own. He took occasion sometime to contradict misstatements and exaggerations, and went so far as to avow his belief in the old man's entire innocence; but he made no converts to his opinion, and was only ridiculed for it behind his back. It was hinted, with many a laugh and wink, that the beauty of the daughter had blinded the young man's eyes to the character of the father. Miss Elwood, when she rode into the township with her brother (for the disclosure made no difference in her manner of life), was for a time the observed of all eyes, and many a comment in her praise or disparagement did her appearance give rise to.
Rumour flies fast, and it was only about ten days after Old Pan's recognition of his former fellow-convict that Ashwin got the following letter from his sister Laura:
"Dear Frank,—You will trust a woman's intuitive perception next time, I think. I felt and knew that there as something wrong with those people who lately settled near you; and now you must admit I was right, though I never for a moment imagined they were anything so dreadful as page 163they now are shown to be. Fancy such horrid criminals coming to live in a decent neighbourhood and palming themselves off for respectable people. I really think such a thing ought not to be allowed, or, at least, made punishable by the law when found out. You will of course never see anything of them after this esclanlre, but it is not pleasant to have this class of persons living near one—I should resent it, I know.
"And now to pleasanter topics. The hunt club ball was a great success in every way, and passed off splendidly. I enjoyed myself immensely, and so I think did Kate. I will not give you any description of the dresses, because it would not interest you if I did. There were, of course, one or two that were simply hideous, and two or three decent dresses that were spoiled by the figures they were on. Ours were said to be very becoming. This, I know, you would have taken for granted, for you have found out before now that your sisters, have at least good taste—cela va sans dire. Tom was there, of course, and danced most of the evening with Eva Markham. Do not be surprised if you hear of your brother's engagement in that quarter. Why ever did you not come, Frank? We are all so disappointed, and none more so, I think, than Milly Parsons, for though she had plenty of partners, I don't believe she enjoyed the dance a bit—certainly not like she did the last, when you were there. She looked as nice as any girl in the room, too, but seemed to have lost her usual verve and buoyancy of spirits. Ah, Frank, if you had been there I fancy she would have found them. Young Dalton was of course very attentive to her as usual, and, you know, persistency will often win the day. But seriously speaking, Frank, she is one of the nicest girls in the district, and I believe if you would make up your mind to win her you would succeed. If you didn't you would be at liberty to say that your sister was possessed of no discernment. But, of course, you don't want to let the grass grow under your feet, or lose any time in this matter, for Milly is a girl that will have plenty of offers. Her father is pretty well off, as you know, and there will therefore be something considerable in the way of dot, and this ought not to be despised by a young man starting on a new place. The family is a very good one, also; at least on her mother's side, for she is, I believe, a relative of Lord Corduroys––so that there is nothing objectionable on that score. Think it over, my dear Frank; get a decent house up, and I don't think Milly will object to grace it for you, even though it is in the bush with few nice people near. By the way, I met a Bloomsbury acquaintance of yours at the ball, a Mr. Ponsonby, who, I understand, has been residing there for some time and is on the look out for a large property. He seems very nice, and, judging by his conversation, must be very well connected at home. I will not say that he has paid me any particular attention, but I had three or four dances with him and he dances exquisitely. He says he knows you slightly, and really, page 164Frank, this is a class of acquaintance that I should like you to cultivate more. I am afraid you are inclined to be rather free with your friendship, and not careful enough in selecting your associates. You on won't be angry with me I know for writing to you in this strain, for though I am several years younger than you, still women arrive at mature judgment in these matters sooner then men, and have keener perceptions to what is proper and fitting—in fact, most men remain the veriest infants in this respect to the day of their death. The unfortunate acquaintance, however slight, that you formed with those dreadful people near you should be a lesson to you for the future. You are apt also, I think, to make too much of a companion of your man, M'Keown, or whatever his outlandish name is; but, of course, living together as you do in that wretched little wharé, it is not easy perhaps to keep him in his place. Cultivate the society of Mr. Ponsonby and gentlemen of his stamp. A little more haut ton in your manner would improve you. And now, dear Frank, I expect you are tired of my or some other nasty name; but then, you know, I am actuated only by sisterly friendship in the advice that I have given you, and Il faut de ses amis endurer quelque chose,' as Moliere, I think it is, says. And really, Frank, if I didn't give you some good advice now and then on the subject, I don't know who is likely to do so, for mother is too placid and easy-going to take the trouble, and Kate, perhaps, is not particular enough herself in the choice of her friends. But I have done. Don't let me frighten you from coming to see us soon. I will promise not to sayanother disagreeable word or lecture you on any subject when you come. Milly, I expect, will be staying with us the week after next, so try to give us a few days of your society then.
"Jack Rutledge's horse came down with him lately, and Jack is cut about the face, and looks dreadful.
"The pater is well, but in a bad humour over his last returns of frozen mutton. I wanted to have a 'hop' here shortly, but am afraid to ask for it in his present mood. Kate would also like to see you soon, and sends her love—Mother, also, and she wishes me to say that she has made you some under-flannels, and will send them first opportunity.
"Ever, dear Frank,
"Your affectionate sister,
"P.S.—I suppose those wretched people will leave now that their true character is known."
Ashwin read this letter with feelings of anything but page 165pleasure, and the comments he made were not complimentary to his sister.
"Weak and shallow," he said, when he had finished, "and impressed only with the outside show of things, like most women, I am afraid—bitter and unreasonable in their prejudices, and cruel in their hates." But here Ashwin stopped short, and, breaking into a laugh, said: "Why, I'll be as great a misanthrope and woman-hater as Morton if I go on like this; I must have been too much in his company lately. This will never do. Laura's right enough, only just a bit too much taken up with the trumpery vanities and superficial fripperies of her much-valued society. It's a blessing that all women are not so. Ah, Maud! sweet Maud Elwood! how few of your own sex can value you at your true worth! 'Horrid criminals' and 'dreadful people,' indeed. Convict's daughter though you be, you are worth a hundred thousand such heartless creatures as—but, there, I'm off again, railing at women, after Morton's fashion. The man's a fool that tries to interpret the motives, or find consistency in the conduct, of most of them. Laura is evidently still a little anxious about me and the state of my feelings towards Miss Elwood, and shows sisterly concern in trying to lead me away from danger, as she deems it. The position is a trying one for me, and will be beset with difficulties; but they have got to be faced. The course of true love may never run smooth, but it also cannot very well be dammed up or turned aside. Even with the criminal slain upon her, and her father guilty, the girl I love would be good enough for me—too good she is—though my people and their friends mightn't think so—too good for Laura and her set; and I would write and tell them so if I had good hopes of winning her, but that, I am afraid, will not be an easy task.
"Laura lectures me soundly (I don't envy her husband, if she ever gets one), and lauds me with 'good advice'—Ponsonby held up as a model to be imitated—ha, ha, ha! If she knew him as well as I do, I don't believe she would think him such page 166a paragon. I hope pretty Mary Robinson isn't going to be led into any indiscretion through him, but from what Spalding says, Ponsonby is evidently sweet on her, and will try to make her acquaintance if he can. His attentions could only mean mischief, but I think Mary has more sense than to listen to the fellow, and if Mr. Ponsonby isn't careful he'll get the conceit shaken out of him in a way that will astonish him some or these days."
Ashwin did not pay the visit to his father's place just then which his sister asked him to make. Busy at the time with his sheep, and in preparations for shearing, he made this his excuse for deferring it; but he really was averse, in his present state of mind, to meeting his sisters or their expected visitor. He found occasion, however, to make several calls on his neighbour, and was received by Mr. Elwood with his usual courtesy. The old man had, indeed, again, in his gentle way, remonstrated with him for seeking to continue the intimacy, but afterwards, seeing that remonstrance was of no avail, and feeling grateful fur Ashwin's unchecked friendship, he showed plainly the pleasure which these visits afforded him. His daughter was perhaps a little more reserved in her manner than before, and seemed disinclined to give Ashwin an opportunity of speaking with her alone. He indeed saw but little of her at home; but in the rides to the township in company with her brother, which Miss Elwood sometimes found it necessary to take, it was not at all extraordinary if Ashwin overtook them on the way.
Miss Elwood once or twice rode in alone, when the boy for some reason was prevented from accompanying her, for she was now a fairly capable horsewoman and felt at home in the saddle.
It was on one of these occasions that, riding homeward at an easy pace which just suited Bob's sluggish disposition, she was overtaken by Ashwin, while still not far from Bloomsbury. She had recognised his horse's long swinging canter before he page 167came quite up, and had urged her own horse forward. But her companion, us soon as he joined her, seemed disinclined for further fast travelling; and she was compelled to allow Bob to again drop into a walk.
Whether it was that after the first greeting there was any constraint noticeable in the young man's voice and conversation, or whether it is that a woman, when an avowal of love is about to be made to her, has, as a rule, some subtle discernment and foreknowledge of its approach, or whether a man at such a time, even to ordinary observation, looks and behaves in a manner more than usually foolish, it were idle to discuss; but Miss Elwood felt before she had been many minutes in Ashwin's company that he was about to make some embarrassing declaration of the kind; and could she have exchanged horses with her companion, it is to be feared that poor Frank would have been left to make it to the wind, for the desire was strong within her to escape and hurry homeward with all speed. As it was, she made an effort to again get her horse into a canter, but as the attempt was not seconded by any increase of speed on the part of the one Ashwin was riding, Bob positively declined to go forward, for he had a rooted and grounded objection to parting company with any of his species with which he had foregathered on a journey, when that parting meant an increase of speed on his part. It would, at least, have required a more vigorous application of the whip to induce him to do so than Miss Elwood cared to exercise.
Making love, or a declaration of love, on horseback, it has been said by someone, is attended with some difficulties; yet such is the perversity of young people in unnecessarily facing these, that it is pretty certain, in the colonies at least, a good deal of love-making takes place there—and first avowals of love also. There is often an unsteadiness, a want of continuity, about the proceeding which is tantalising. The horses nearly always fail to enter into the spirit of the thing. One or other of them may stop at perhaps a critical moment, or turn aside to page 168crop a tempting mouthful of grass, the riders, of course, having for the time being lost all control over the reins. While if the consummation of a kiss is desired, the attempt is often, in a ludicrous way, attended with partial or complete failure. But practice in this, as in other feats, will generally make the thing easy of accomplishment, and it is wonderful what adepts some engaged couples become at bringing their lips together under the trying circumstances.
"Shall we canter a bit?" said Miss Elwood. "My horse does not seem inclined to go on alone."
"I must be thankful to him on this occasion," Ashwin replied with some hesitation; "for indeed—indeed, Miss Elwood, I want to speak to you—I have something to say to you—something that I have lately been very anxious that you should listen to, but that I have not had the opportunity before to tell you." And Ashwin told his tale—how he had admired her the first time he saw her; how further acquaintance had strengthened his feelings of admiration and regard; how the disclosures relative to her father's past life, and the recital of his unhappy history, had only resulted in placing her character and worth in a truer, higher and purer light before him, and in making her immeasurably dear to him—that he loved her now with the whole strength of his nature as he never could love another; and ended by asking that she would not deny him some little gleam of hope that he might yet win her love and make her his wife, or at least grant him the privilege of trying to do so.
Miss Elwood was much affected by the avowal. The warm blushes that overspread her face when he first began to speak soon vanished; and it was with a paler cheek than usual, and in a voice of deep feeling, not untinged with sorrow, that she answered him:
"Mr. Ashwin, I am sorry, deeply sorry—you should have saved yourself and me from this, for what you ask for is impossible—it is indeed. I could not be your wife. I will page 169not say that your avowal of love for me has not deeply affected me, or that it does not do you honour—foolish and blameable though it might appear in the eyes of the world; and much as I regret that it has been made—for it proves, what indeed you have shown before, that you possess a generous nature. But, indeed, what you ask can never be—it never could, even if—if I cared for you. My place is with my father and my brother, and I shall never marry. I can not be your wife, but neither shall I be the wife of any other."
"I know why this is," he answered; "but is it right? Why should you care for the opinions of others that are not worthy of a thought from you? I hold them in scorn. Even if your father had been guilty—and you know I believe him to be innocent, and deeply wronged—it would not lessen my love for you. I love you for yourself alone—your own true, noble, sweet self. Ah, Maud—Miss Elwood—have pity on me and give me some hope. We can leave this place if you do not care to remain here. There are other countries than New Zealand, with brighter skies, perhaps, and better openings for the exercise of brain and muscle. I am not bound to it; and I would pass my life in a desert with you, rather than in the fairest spot on earth without you."
"This is folly," Miss Elwood replied, "great folly; and in kindness to yourself and—and to me say no more, I beseech you, Mr. Ashwin. This infatuation may have taken strong hold of you for the moment, and you may think your feelings will undergo no change, but time and sober reflection will show you the folly of this. Even if—if I cared well enough for you, and yielded to your wishes—which, believe me, is not to be thought of—after years might bring to you something of regret, and the unwisdom of the step you had taken might be made apparent to you when it was too late."
"That could never be," Ashwin cried; and, bending over towards her, he continued, with the warmth of deep passion in his voice: "Oh, Maud, my heart's delight, truest and best of page 170women, give me leave to win you. This infatuation, as you call it, has not come upon me suddenly, nor will it ever leave me. It is interwoven with my very life. I can read my own heart, and know the undying love it bears to you. Give it some reward. Your father would not withhold his consent. Bid me wait—for years if you will—but do not, beloved one, tell me to abandon all hope."
Miss Elwood was moved, in spite of herself, by the vehemence of her lover.
"For pity's sale forbear," She said. "I will not listen to you. What you ask for I cannot grant. If you have any regard for me you will be silent on this subject, and never speak of it to me again. It would pain my father also if he knew of this. We are nearly home now," she added, and urged Bob into a canter, for that steed was not so disinclined for a spurt when he knew that it must terminate in a short distance at his won gate.
Ashwin opened the gate for her, and took leave of her there.
"I can always have the sorrowful satisfaction of loving you," he said as he parted from her.