In the Shadow of the Bush
Mrs. Powlet was not without some trouble of her own. About this time her married daughter, Mrs. Heskett, came back to her mother's house with her two children. Her husband had proved to be a useless ne'er-do-well, who now, after getting through all that he and his wife had ever been possessed of, had taken to ill-using her.
As long as he could draw on her father's purse, he had preserved some show of kindness for her. But Bob, after consulting with Mrs. Powlet, had latterly refused to make any further attempt at keeping Heskett's head financially above water; and now their daughter, after much persuasion, had come back to live with them.
They had helped to start him on a farm at first, in another part of the district; and when he had well-nigh melted the farm away, and saw an opening to get into a public-house in that neighbourhood—a line of life for which he thought he was peculiarly well fitted, Powlet again subsidised him with the necessary funds. But disaster followed him here also, and after a couple of years, during which he took still more to drink, and became a constant drag on his father-in-law's means, he was sold up. He then, with what he could lay his hands on out of the wreck, took a cottage in his township, and lived for a few weeks there with his wife and children. Generally in a half-drunken state, he was now constantly grumbling at his wife, and complaining of the way in which he was treated by her "close-fisted old father" and her "shrew page 190of a mother," and began to ill-treat her more than he had ever previously done. She was at length prevailed on to leave him and return to her old home, for Powlet had sworn that the fellow would never receive another sixpence of his.
The private apartments of the Criterion now, therefore, resounded with the voices of children; and their white heads and noisy mirth might be seen and heard occasionally in some of the passages, into which they were apt to make incursions if opportunity offered and if their grandmother was out of the way.
Their mother was a saddened, broken-down woman; and, as Powlet remarked to one of his friends, "Gad, she's as old-looking as her mother, every bit; and I'll be bound to say there's more life in the old woman yet, and ten times the spirit."
Mrs. Powlet was kind to her daughter and very fond of the children, but she kept The latter under strict discipline. She was apt to get angry at the very mention of Heskett's name.
"I never want to hear the fellow's name again," she said one evening to Wilmot and two or three others when reference had been made in some way to her son-in-law and his doings. Frank Ashwin was there. He had been passing through, late, and had stayed for dinner at the Criterion. It was the same evening as that in which Ponsonby made acquaintance with the "lawyers," as detailed in the preceding chapter, and his absence at dinner, and since, had given rise to some comment.
Ashwin was anxious on Mary Robinson's account, for Spalding had told him that he had seen Ponsonby strolling out in the direction of Robinson's and that Mary had been in the township. Frank had intended to give Ponsonby a word of friendly advice and warning, but had hitherto neglected to do so, or had lacked the opportunity.
"I never want to hear the fellow's name again," Mrs. page 191Powlet said—"the miserable, low-lifed scoundrel, that's what he is! He'd better not show himself within Powlet's reach or mine; I don't say within reach of my hands—not but I would like to lay my mark on him—but he'll get the weight of my tongue, at any rate, if he comes near enough. I never liked the fellow, and it wasn't with my will that my daughter married him. I did all I thought I ought to do to stop it; but when love gets into a young girl's head and heart you know it's hard to get it out again—sense and reason are just pitched clean away. She'll have her own way if she can, and it's not much use trying to turn her. If you stop the steam coming out of the spout of the boiling kettle it'll only lift the lid. My daughter made her bed, and she has lain in it; but she'll never want as long as Powlet and me has anything—nor the children either. I hope they'll not take after their father—the boy's something like him in feature—but a lot depends on the bringing-up. And here's Mr. Ponsonby at last," she exclaimed, as that gentleman passed the door of the sitting-room.
"Hallo, Ponsonby," Spalding cried, "come in and give an account of yourself."
He had had a long beer at the bar, and had washed himself at a creek on the road; but the marks which the "lawyers" had made were plainly visible on his face and hands.
"Well, I never," Mrs. Powlet cried, when she had a look at him after he entered the room; "wherever have you been? You're scratched and torn about, and bitten with mosquitos or something, till you're a sight to see."
And the others gathered round him, and plied him with questions, and made comments on his appearance, laughing the while.
"Bushed," he answered, succeeding with an effort in preserving his slow and somewhat affected style of speech. "Got into this infernal New Zealand bush of yours, and, egad, I was nearly spending the night in it, too; but, luckily, page 192I never quite lost my bearings, and managed to get out before it got dark altogether—but not before I tripped and tumbled into one of your infernal, horrid 'lawyers,' with the result you see."
"And missed dinner, too," said Mrs. Powlet; "but I'll soon get you something nice to eat," she added, as she hurried off for that purpose.
"It's a demmed, disgusting country—the whole of it," Ponsonby continued, "and not fit for a gentleman to exist in. Its only fit for a lot of demmed bushwhackers and hulking clodhoppers to get about in—a demmed disgusting country."
"Come, come, Ponsonby," said Ashwin, "you mustn't rail at the country, and run it down in that way, because, you got among the 'lawyer' bushes. They're apt to lay hold on one, and leave their mark, like the lawyers of flesh and blood sometimes do. Those scratches of yours won't heal for a month. What piece of bush did you get lost in?"
"How do I know?" Ponsonby replied. "One infernal piece of bush is the same as another to me."
"You couldn't have gone very far," remarked Spalding; "for I saw you turning down Robinson Road about five o'clock, and there's not much standing bush near that road for a good way out."
"I hope you haven't, been trying to poach on somebody's preserves. I had a mind to give you a bit of advice on that head, but I fancy, from the way you talk, you don't need it now. Poaching's a dangerous thing sometimes."
"The unlawful pursuit of game," said Spalding, and laughed. "You'll be getting among the lawyers in earnest if you try on that sort of thing."
"Have your joke, gentlemen; have your joke—it doesn't hurt me, and, I suppose, amuses you," Ponsonby replied, rather annoyed at the turn the conversation was taking, but determined to pass it off lightly. "I didn't say I kept that page 193road. I might have turned off through the paddocks to get across to Ashwin's road here, and he knows there's some bush there."
"Yes, to be sure," said Spalding, who seemed bent on tracing Ponsonby's movements; "but I should have thought you wouldn't have had time to get there, and would have had more sense than go into that big block so near dark. Besides, you might have seen the ghost of that fellow Westall—eh, Wilmot? His bones are lying in it somewhere, I suppose."
"Ghost be demmed!" said Ponsonby; "I'm going to have a wash and something to eat." And he left.
Wilmot started at the mention of Westall's name, and felt called on to make some reply.
"I do not believe that what you say is at all likely to be correct," he said, in the rather stiff and pompous manner of speaking which he generally adopted. "The man, aided by some accomplice, no doubt got clear away, and has, so far, evaded pursuit and capture. I should indeed be grieved to think that my hand, though raised in self-defence, had inflicted mortal injury upon a fellow creature. The blow struck was not, I now think, sufficiently heavy to inflict such an injury. The fellow, whoever he may have been, has had a lesson which he will not soon forget—and there is no actual proof that he was this Westall, who certainly has disappeared from the district—and I have communicated this fact to the firm of solicitors at home, from whom I received the small allowance which I was instructed to measure out to him. The fellow, I say, has had a lesson, and I really now sincerely hope that he may remain at large. Mr. Ashwin," he proceeded, "I believe I could have sold your property—and could sell it now—at the price first named. It is a somewhat unusual procedure on the part of a seller to raise the price to the extent to which you did—so suddenly."
"Well," replied Ashwin, who was beginning to feel a little confused, "on second consideration I thought the place ought page 194to be worth more than I first asked—in fact, I—a—changed my mind, I suppose, and thought it might not be advisable to sell out—just at present—except at a really good price, you know."
"Why, Ashwin, I was surprised to hear that you had any idea of selling out," remarked Spalding.
"Oh, sometimes I take the notion in my head that I had better. I have had hankerings now and again lately after South Africa. I was born in New Zealand, you know, and sometimes I think I ought to see a little more of the world."
"It was a remarkable coincidence," Wilmot went on, "these remarkable and wholly unconnected coincidences will sometimes occur—a remarkable coincidence, that your neighbour—a—Elwood, about the same time advertised his property for sale also, and as suddenly withdrew it." ("Confound the man," thought Ashwin, "I wish Morton was here.") Wilmot continued: "The man, I understand, is a retired—I mean an expiree convict—and was lately recognised as such by one of his old associates here; and this was supposed at the time to account for his desire to dispose of his property. Do you, who have, I believe, some acquaintance with the man—being his near neighbour—do you know of any reason why he should have changed his intention of leaving, as he appears to have done?"
"I do not;" replied Ashwin, "nothing definite. He was insulted by this man whom he had known formerly, and who for some reason bears him much ill-will, and may have formed a sudden resolution to leave the place, annoyed, as no doubt he was, by the fellow's presence in the neighbourhood; and afterwards—well–changed his mind. I believe Mr. Elwood to be a deeply injured man, incapable of perpetrating the crime for which he suffered, and entirely innocent of it."
"Ha, indeed," said Wilmot, "how very extraordinary, if it should be so. Yet, I believe, innocent men before now have had to atone for the wrong-doing of others— page 195but such cases are rare. The law, as at present administered, is quick at detection, and keen and skilful in searching out and sifting evidence, and is rarely at fault. You have been made acquainted with—a—Elwood's history, then?"
"Only a brief outline of it," Ashwin replied. "He suffered through the roguery of his partner, who got clear away with his ill-gotten gains, leaving Elwood to meet charges of misappropriation and forgery, which he then knew of for the first time. These had been carried out with such cleverness and cunning—with the design, probably, of throwing suspicion on Elwood, or of compelling him to share in them or preserve silence concerning them, if Elwood himself had previously made the discovery—that he could not clear himself of participation in the frauds; and was convicted and sent out as a convict to Western Australia."
"Very sad, no doubt," said Wilmot, "if true—and—probably it is. And what became of this partner of his?" he enquired.
"He does not know, I think," replied Ashwin. "He got away at first to Spain, but since then Elwood, I believe, has had no tidings of him. I have seen the old man once or twice just lately, and I fancy—it may only be fancy—that his manner is brighter and more hopeful than it was before. Who knows? he may have some expectation of even yet clearing his character."
"Ha!" said Wilmot, "do you think so? Well, it would be only right that he should have the opportunity—if his case is such as you believe it to be."
Ashwin shortly afterwards left, and rode home. M'Keown was late in returning to the wharé that night, but on the following morning he could not conceal his happiness, and told his friend and employer that Mary had promised to be his wife. Ashwin congratulated him warmly, and said, "I suppose I shall soon be losing you now, Maurice?"page 196
"Oh, not for some time yet, Mr. Frank, if you want me to stay," he replied. "This year's felled bush has to be burned yet, and some sort of a house put up. Besides, there's not much use in a chap going on to land—especially if he takes a wife with him—without a bit of money to stock it and keep the pot boiling for a while. Another year on wages would just about put me straight; and Mary would rather wait a bit."
Maurice also told Ashwin how he had pitched Ponsonby head-first into the bramble bushes on the previous evening for forcing his company on Mary and offering rudeness to her on her way home, but asked Ashwin not to mention the matter, as he did not wish his sweetheart's name coupled in anyway with Ponsonby's.
Ashwin laughed heartily over Ponsonby's discomfiture, and understood clearly then in what manner that gentleman had got "bushed."
"Wilmot was given some uneasiness by what Ashwin had said relative to Elwood. It has been stated that immediately after Westall's disappearance, Wilmot had begun to quietly make some preparations with a view to a speedy departure, should such be found necessary. Since then, however, he had to some extent abandoned his purpose, for owing to the continued absence of Westall he had begun to indulge with some confidence in the hope that he would see him no more; and his mind had been still further relieved when Elwood's intention of going away was made apparent. The change of purpose on Elwood's part had certainly puzzled and annoyed him, but he had hoped that the withdrawal of the farm from sale would only be temporary. But now when he heard from Ashwin of the old man appearing brighter and more hopeful, his fears inclined him to associate the change in demeanour and purpose, in some way, with Westall, and he determined to got in readiness for any emergency—for it was page 197his boast that he was always prepared for any fate. During the next few weeks he sold two or three of his sections in the township, and also influenced a Wellington investor to take over some of the mortgages which he held on properties in the district. Whatever course he might ultimately follow, he felt the necessity of having ready money at command. He also threw out some hints that it might be necessary for him to take a run home before long. He saw that his continuance here was likely to be attended with risk; and though he still clung to the hope that circumstances would yet permit of his remaining, he nevertheless deemed it wisest to make preparations for departure.