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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter XXX

page 198

Chapter XXX.

The summer meanwhile wore on. The new year came in, and the weather continued hot and dry. The open lands nearer the coast were beginning to be seriously affected by the absence of rain, and complaints were being made of the shortness of feed. The bush districts, more fortunate in such a season in their more humid climate and richer, deeper soil, had not yet suffered much. Light showers, which had passed over the open country, had fallen at intervals—refreshing the grass, but not penetrating the ground to any depth, and were soon absorbed again by the hot sun and drying winds.

The season promised to be a good one for bush-burning; and those who had bush - felled were congratulating themselves on the prospect of getting excellent "burns," while many, who, in previous unfavourable seasons, had been unfortunate in getting bad "burns," were now hopeful of clearing off much of the timber by means of a second fire.

A few, fearful of a change in the weather, had already burned with fairly satisfactory results; and the general topic of conversation on all sides was of bush-burning.

Log fires in grassed paddocks, amongst timber that had been down for a year or more, had been started in many places where no danger of their spreading into the fallen bush was anticipated. The air was becoming heavy with the smoke of these and of the larger forest fires. Occasionally, near or in the distance, when one of these latter had been page 199lighted, a pillar of dense smoke would be seen curling upwards in vast volume high in air, or till its top reached and became blended with the clouds; and at night the reflection of these and of their after-glow crimsoned the heavens in many directions.

The weather still continued dry. No rain at all had fallen for some weeks. Bush fires were more frequent. Decaying timber, the remnants of former fires, and the dead but still standing trees and stumps were now like tinder.

The grass, too, where it was understocked, or had been allowed to run to seed, was ready to carry fire.

The wind had been westerly, and Ashwin had not yet, burned his bush, for he had been waiting for a change of wind. At length the wind shifted to the east in the night, and on the following forenoon, with a stiff breeze, he and M'Keown fired up, and with splendid results. "Not as much firewood left as would boil the billy," Maurice said afterwards, with much exaggeration.

The latter, as soon as the fire was well under way, started off to look after the burning of the bush on his own section, which lay at a distance of some hours hard riding.

He had seen the smoke of fires in that direction lately, and had heard that several in the vicinity had already burned; and was anxious to see how matters stood, and, if possible, take advantage of the favouring wind, for he, too, was anxious to burn with an easterly one.

But the wind, which had been only moderately strong in the forenoon, gradually increased in force, and before night fell it was blowing a gale. Fires sprang up in all directions. Where, previously, only a smouldering log lay was now a place of raging fire, which sent forward a stream of sparks to catch on other timber, and, there, by the force of the gale to be fanned into flame—each new starting-point of fire, in its turn, sending its glowing emissaries onward to attach themselves, over an ever-page 200widening belt, to log or stump or dry standing tree. One of the latter might be a rata, left standing on account of its enormous size by the bushfaller of a previous year; and now, with the noise of a furnace in full blast, the fire would roar upward through its hollow heart, or coil in lambent delight round its gnarled and interlocked stems, or where, even in death, it still clasped the remains of the former living support to which it had at first clung, but which afterwards, as the long years rolled away, it had slowly but surely strangled in the ardour of its fatal embrace.

Many settlers' houses were threatened with destruction, and in many places stock were in danger.

Round the outskirts of Bloomsbury fires burnt fiercely; and though towards the centre of the township most of the dead timber had been cleared away or burnt up by former fires, yet even here some remaining stumps and logs had caught, and many of the townspeople were out keeping watch and ward, and combating the aggressive foe as it seized on some new vantage-ground, or menaced some building. Few sought their beds on that night. The whole country seemed to be on fire. The heavens were in a glow—deepened and accentuated at several points where a fiercer and more extensive body of flame gave brighter reflection. It was a sight of grandeur. Audible above the roar of the storm might be heard at intervals the crash of falling timber—far-resounding and earth-shaking, when some mighty forest monarch was brought low. Exaggerated reports were current in the township of country settlers' houses having been destroyed, and of heavy losses of stock; but these reports lacked confirmation, for most of the roads loading into Bloomsbury were impassably through fire.

It was a night to be remembered.

Robinsons house was, so far, not threatened, and the page 201logging up and clearing, which he had previously effected round it, rendered it unlikely that it would be endangered. But between his place and the township a broad belt of conflagration had crossed the country in the direction of Ashwin's and Elwood's on the other road.

In the afternoon, when the wind increased to a gale, and fires began to spread, Ashwin collected his stock into the paddock by the wharé, where the timber was less plentiful, and the grass more closely eaten down, and afterwards rode down to Elwood's to render any assistance that might be needed there. By his advice and help the stock there also were removed to the situation offering the greatest safety.

But when this had been done it was nearly dark, and the vanguard of the fire from Robinson's direction had reached the road. On the section through which it had just come, a great many dry trees had been left standing, and the grass was long, for the owner did not live on the section, and had not fully stocked it. These trees, when the fire caught them and ran up into their tops, sent forward a far-reaching shower of flaming bark and branchlets. The fire was here, therefore, rapid in its progress, advancing by long leaps, and by the time Ashwin returned from shifting Elwood's sheep, it was raging on the road between him and his own place, and Elwood's house and outbuildings were beginning to be in danger.

The house lay on the edge only of the fiery belt, and the garden and cultivation in front saved it from any actual approach of fire along the surface of the ground, but the sparks from a burning tree on the opposite side of the road were borne at times against the buildings, as the wind, in fierce gushes, swept across, varying occasionally a few points in its direction.

Prompt measures were taken. Water was dashed against the boards and into all seams and crevices where a spark page 202was likely to find lodgment. Some incipient fires among the timber on the road abreast of the house were also watered out. Tubs and casks were filled in readiness for any sudden outbreak, should such occur, in the buildings, and a keen watch was kept over all. In these measures everyone assisted, though the task was a most unpleasant one, for blinding smoke often enveloped them. They felt the emergency to be great, and that it was necessary to put forth all their efforts. Miss Elwood and the young servant, when the danger was at its height, drew water and carried it, first, however, placing damped coverings on their heads, and wrapping wetted ulsters round themselves, so as to minimise the risk they ran from flying sparks. Ted was in great form, and worked like a Trojan. He was in a state of intense excitement, and enjoyment also; and, had the house caught fire, would, no doubt, have felt great pleasure in watching the blaze. The old man was alarmed and flurried, and not able to be of much service.

On the hired man and on Ashwin devolved the chief exertions; and the latter directed everything. The measures taken were successful so far, and the greatest danger seemed past, for the wind now appeared to have shifted slightly, and carried the sparks in great measure clear of the house, though still alarmingly near. The tree, also, from which these sparks had issued in most dangerous volume, at length fell—but with a crash, and an upspringing of fiery fragments that struck terror for the moment into the minds of the watchers. Afterwards, however, the risk from this source practically ceased, for the sparks were now less numerous and not so far-reaching.

Night had set in some hours back, but the glare from the flaming tree-tops and from the other innumerable fires made the scene almost as light as day. It was a grand and awe-inspiring sight, as now with fascinated eyes they found time to gaze on it. From where they stood to a little beyond page 203Morton's was the only part that seemed to have escaped. Here, the green bush which, as has been previously mentioned, bordered the road on the opposite side, and stretched back for nearly a mile, stopped the advance of the fire. It also, where it rose over a swell of the downs some little way from the road, sheltered even Elwood's house in some degree from the full fury of the gale.

But beyond Morton's, away towards Bloomsbury, and in every other direction, the ruddy glow of countless fires lit up the sky; while, near at hand, towards Ashwin's, and backward now through Elwood's paddocks on that side, the still standing trees, forked with flame and gleaming red from base to summit, swept by the unchecked force of the wind, stood out in conspicuous brightness above a thousand lower centres of scattered fires.

"It's, a good job we got the sheep out of that back paddock, Mr. Elwood," said Ashwin; "see how the fire is raging among the timber there now. Well, it will do it a lot of good, and make clear ground of it now; and though some of the fencing may go, and some grass seed be needed, you'll find that the benefit afterwards will far more than compensate you."

"If it had not been for you, Mr. Ashwin," replied the old man, "I should have lost a good many of my sheep to-night. You have saved my house also from destruction. This but adds to the heavy debt of gratitude which I already owe you."

"And, oh, Mr. Ashwin," exclaimed Miss Elwood, "while you have been doing all this for us, what has become of your own place. Look at the dreadful fires in that direction. Oh, how selfish we have been," she added, with much concern.

"Do not distress yourself, I beg of you, Miss Elwood," he answered. "I expect everything is safe over there. I put the stock in a paddock where there is virtually no risk, and no doubt they are all right. I could have done nothing more for page 204them even if I had stayed there. It is pretty clear of timber round the wharé and the shed—there are no standing trees anywhere near. The fire from my burned bush would not spread in that direction; and if this fire from the other road has got into my back paddock, it will not have travelled as quickly as it has done here. I don't think the wharé is in any danger yet; besides," he added, laughing, "if it has been burnt down, it would not be a very serious loss—not but there are several things in it I shouldn't like to lose—and, as you are pretty safe here now, I think I shall try and make my way over, and have a look at things. Maurice may have returned. If all is right I shall be back again before long."

"But surely you will not attempt to get there now—past all those raging fires on the road, and through that blinding smoke—you surely will not attempt it, Mr. Ashwin. Oh, pray do not," she said, anxiously.

"The task would not be quite so difficult as it looks," he answered. "The wind appears to have lulled a little, and the fires are not burning so fiercely as they were—and some of them must have pretty well burnt themselves out by this time. I think I can manage to get through. I can only make the attempt, and if I find it too hot I will return. There were no trees that could have fallen and blocked the track. My horse is quiet, and I can soon rush him through the thickest of the smoke, or past a burning log or two."

Mr. Elwood also entered his protest against what to him appeared little short of madness. But Ashwin was not to be dissuaded, and ridiculed their fears for his safety, looking softly, with eyes of love, at Miss Elwood, as, in her concern for him, she forgot, for the moment, the reserve in speech and manner which she had lately maintained when in his company.

Before leaving, however, he took the man—Jim was page 205his name—and they, together, again saturated the hoards of the buildings, sending water into every crack and cranny. Ashwin instructed Jim to do the same again after some time, in the event of his not returning.

"The wind may shift slightly back again, or increase in force; and it is always best to be on the safe side," he said. "Don't waste water—a pannikinful, well directed, will do more good than a bucketful thrown away."

Elwood and his daughter and Ted went out to the road with Ashwin when he was leaving. Looking along the line of it, it appeared a terrible gauntlet of fire that he would have to run.

"Do not go, Mr. Ashwin—do not go—there is too much danger," pleaded Miss Elwood.

"The danger is nothing," he answered lightly; "and if I find there is much risk, I can easily turn back."

He mounted and rode forward, with his dog following close on the heels of his horse, and they watched him till the thick smoke enveloped and hid him from their sight, and they then turned back towards the house.

"I trust he will find all safe at his own place—if he is able, indeed, to reach there. It would give me life-long regret if his help to us here should have been the cause of loss to him at home," Mr. Elwood said, and added, after a pause: "The wind has increased in violence again. Look at the tall trees yonder, how the fury of it has re-awakened them into intensity of glow and lengthened shoots of flame. What a grand but awful sight it all is. Hark! What a crash! Another giant tree has been brought down. 'The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedar trees, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.'"

They had barely reached the house when the furious gallop of a horse startled them, and a moment afterwards the one Ashwin had ridden swept past the gale, snorting in fear, and with bridle rein and stirrups flying in the wind.

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"He has been thrown, and may be lying injured, or killed. Oh, the cruel fires, too—What can be done?" cried Miss Elwood; and then, instantly collecting her thoughts, she called out: "Ted, run down to Morton's—tell them there what has happened—fly for your life—where is Tim?—Father, Jim ought, perhaps, to stay with you, he may be needed here, or you can send him after me. But I will go, I may be of help before the others arrive." And without waiting for reply she sped away on the wings of love and fear.

"Come back, Maud, my child, come back. What madness is this?" cried her father. But the words were unheeded. He then went hurriedly to look for his man, but it was some little time before he found him, and could explain what had occurred, and what he wanted him to do. The old man was breathlessly excited, and could hardly find utterance, and Jim was somewhat dull of comprehension and slow in his movements.

Meanwhile, Miss Elwood proceeded at a rapid pace along the road, now pausing for a moment to recover breath after hurrying through a denser mass of smoke, now gathering all her courage to rush past a spot of more than ordinary danger, where the flames almost blocked the track Once or twice she was compelled to wait for a momentary lull, or at least the cessation of a fiercer gust, before darting past. But still she sped ever anxiously onward, braving dangers of which she was hardly conscious of the magnitude, and the least of which at another time she would have shrunk from encountering.

It was a few short, sharp barks from Ashwin's dog that first told her she was near the object of her quest; and, a short distance farther, the dog himself met her joyously, and turned and ran before her to where his master lay.

Ashwin had proceeded thus far with safety, though page 207his horse was showing, more and more, symptoms of fear as an advance was made into the region of smoke and fire. At this point further progress seemed to be completely arrested. In front the flames from a heavier mass of timber were driven almost across the cleared track, while a still standing rata tree, just over the fence on the left, sent forth a thick and continuous stream of sparks, the smoke from both of these being intense, and, in itself, forming an almost insuperable obstacle to further advance. The horse refused to venture near, and Ashwin was about to dismount in order to make a closer inspection of the difficulty in front of him, and, if possible, to lead his horse past it, when, with a noise like thunder, the burning tree came down, striking the wire fence and sending a shower of sparks and flaming fragments across the road. The horse, terrified out of all control, leaped wildly away from these, and, falling over a log himself, threw his rider heavily against another, and then, regaining his feet, turned and galloped madly back the way he had come.

Ashwin lay stunned against the log. Happily it was not on fire where he lay, though burning dangerously near. His dog, conscious that something was wrong, tried to rouse him, and licked his hands and face; and then, finding this of no avail, he would set up a series of sharp, anxious barks, as if desirous of calling assistance and directing it to the spot, and then again cease barking and make his mute appeal as before.

Miss Elwood found Ashwin still lying unconscious where he had been thrown, and, exerting all her strength, she drew him round a little from the log, placing him in a more comfortable position, and raised his head, and spoke wild words of endearment and self-reproach. She ran to a stream that fortunately crossed the road near by, and brought water and bathed his brow and his wounded head. She had to go more than once for water, for the only way page 208she could carry any was in her boot, and it did not hold very much; and when she returned the second time the stocking was torn, and the poor foot bleeding through contact with a sharp root. Her efforts, however, were rewarded, for with a sigh Ashwin returned to consciousness—dimly at first and with muttered words of vague import.

"Where am I?" he said, at length, struggling to rise but only able to sit up with Miss Elwood's help. "What is this?—ah! now I remember—stupid horse. But you here, Miss Elwood?" he exclaimed, as he realised who it was that was so near him—"all alone, too? Oh, loved one, what is this?—How could you come here—through the fires—all alone, too? You risked your life for me."

"I only hurried on here first," she replied. "Help will soon be here. Ted ran to Morton's when we saw your horse gallop past, and Jim will be here immediately. But you are hurt—badly hurt. Oh, how glad I was when your senses returned—I was afraid you were killed."

"Oh, I'll soon be all right," he answered. "Stunned a bit, I must have been, and this shoulder feels stiff. But what an angel of mercy you have been to come to me here, through all the fire and smoke. You risked your life for me," he said again. "Oh, my love, my love! you make me wish to die even here now with you beside me, rather than go through life without you."

"Hush," she answered, "you must not speak like this. I will fetch more water and bathe your head again—the wound is still bleeding." And she hastened to the stream again, and soaked her handkerchief in it, and filled the dainty boot again, and returned and knelt by him, and wiped the blood from his temple and bathed the wound.

The dog now began to prick up his ears and show other signs of expectancy—but in the opposite direction to that in which they looked for help to come—and at page 209length leaped forward with a joyful bark to meet someone who came with a rush through the dense body of smoke and fire which had checked Ashwin's advance. It was Maurice.

"Ugh!" he said, as he stopped to expel the smoke from his lungs, "that was just about hot enough. Hallo, Scot! what has brought you here? Your master's not far off when you're about;" and then, as he caught sight of Ashwin seated on the ground with Miss Elwood standing beside him, he exclaimed, "Good heavens! what has happened? Are you hurt, sir?—much hurt? How was it?"

Ashwin told him in a few words.

"I am feeling fairly right now, though," he said, "thanks to my kind nurse and deliverer. But," he added, "we must get Miss Elwood back again out of this as soon as possible. Just help me on to my feet, will you? Ah, the other side, Maurice—there is something not quite right with the left. Ah, now I'm right—just a little giddy, though, for a moment. I'll be able to walk now—but not very fast, perhaps."

"I'll carry you every inch of the way, if you'll let me," Maurice said.

"I know you would, good fellow that you are," Ashwin replied, "but I can walk all right;" and he added, as Miss Elwood turned away a few steps to draw on her wet boot, "I'm a bit hurt on this left side and shoulder, Maurice—ribs and collar bone or something gone wrong—and I must try and walk along quietly. I couldn't bear you to carry me, even if I wasn't able to walk."

They set out slowly back, Ashwin steadying his steps with the aid of a light sapling that M'Keown cut for him. Miss Elwood, by his advice, damped her dress again at the stream, and also her hair and the cap that partly covered it, for they had yet some fiery ordeals to pass through before they reached the house.

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Ashwin made as light as he could of his injuries.

"What made you come through, Maurice? and how did you leave the wharé and everything?" he asked, as they proceeded.

"Everything is right, so far," Maurice replied. "When I got back there was a bit of fire rather near the wharé—a stump or two had caught somehow. But I watered them out, and gave the wharé itself a good soaking, and the shed also. There is a lot of fire in the back paddocks—I came through that way—but very little towards the front at that end—I saw you had shifted the sheep; and they are all right. And as things looked pretty bad down this way, and help might be needed, I thought I would come on. I expected you were down here."

M'Keown had found his bush just catching alight from a neighbour's fire, and had proceeded to light it further along the windward edge, so that the fire might sweep it in a body; and then, the gale increasing in force, he had ridden hurriedly back, and at considerable risk, for the road he travelled was on fire in many places. He left his horse at Robinson's, and came across the paddocks on foot.

"I wonder Jim has not come up, or some of the others," said Miss Elwood, when they had gone some little distance; "but I suppose they have hardly had time to be here yet. All has passed so quickly—in a few minutes, really—though, looking back, it now seems quite a long time since we saw the horse gallop past."

Maurice here went forward to reconnoitre, for a more than ordinary obstacle in the way of smoke and sparks and forks of flame lay in front of them, and seemed to check further advance, or make it very difficult and dangerous, especially for Miss Elwood; and Ashwin, speaking in low and loving tones, said:

"Your courage, beloved one, outstripped all the others. page 211You risked your life for me. You braved dangers which others may have feared to face. I would strive to repay you with a life's devotion, but you will not accept it. Oh, dearest one, must my love still be without hope?"

"If the barrier, which you complained I had raised between us, is ever removed, speak to me then; but speak not another word of love till that time comes, if—if it ever should come," she answered, a deeper glow than the forest fires shed overspreading her fair features.

"I must not speak to you at all, then," he answered.

"It would, perhaps, be better if you did not," Miss Elwood replied with a smile; "for since you have not let the present opportunity pass without speaking of love—under novel and trying circumstances, amidst all these fires, yourself hurt—very much hurt, perhaps," she added, anxiously,—"how can I expect you to keep silent on the subject, if you speak to me at all?"

"I would tell you of my love with my dying breath, if you would stoop down to listen," he said.

Maurice now returned, and reported that their passage past the obstruction in front would be attended with much unpleasantness and some risk, but that he did not see any other course than to watch for an opportunity between the gusts, and hurry past, "for," said he, "if we tried to get through the fence into the paddock on either side, things are not much better there—there is fire in every direction—and, so long as we keep the road, we are safe from falling timber. It is a marvel to me," he went on, "how Miss Elwood got past here on her way out."

It now, indeed, appeared a marvel to Miss Elwood herself, as she looked at the roaring fire which bordered the track and shot out tongues of flame across it, and at the stream of sparks and blinding smoke. Her courage seemed to fail her now in looking at a danger which she had previously faced without hesitation. As they drew near page 212she viewed with dismay the peril she would be exposed to; but a favourable, momentary lull just then taking place, Maurice, with a "by your leave, Miss," picked her up in his arms and bounded past, and, before she was well aware of what had been done, placed her in a safe position on the other side. Here they found Jim. He then returned for Ashwin.

"You don't stand on much ceremony, Maurice," Ashwin said, with a smile.

"Oh, bother ceremony," replied Maurice. "Ceremony may be a nice chap to take along with you when you have plenty of time on hand, but he's a bit of a hindrance in a place like this."

Ashwin's passage was attended with more difficulty, for he was not able to put on much speed. Maurice wished to take him on his back or in his arms, but Ashwin preferred to make the best of it on foot; and though the exertion gave him great pain, he managed to make a run and get past.

Their dangers were now nearly over. A little farther they met Ted and Mr. Elwood, and also Morton's man and boy whom Ted had roused out of bed. Morton was away from home, else, doubtless, he would have come over earlier in the evening to Elwood's to render assistance.

The old man had been in extreme anxiety for his daughter's safety, and his delight at seeing her again, and uninjured, was great, though damped by regret on account of the accident that had befallen Ashwin.

It was impossible for the doctor to be brought out that night to examine Ashwin's injuries, for the road between Morton's and the township was blocked with fire; and though Maurice offered to make his way in, it was thought better to wait till the morning. Rain came on before daylight, and the wind dropped, and Ashwin was driven in to Bloomsbury in Elwood's buggy.

It was found that besides the wound on his head— page 213which was not very serious—two of his ribs were broken and his shoulder injured. Mr. Elwood wished him to lie up for a week or two, but Ashwin would not be prevailed upon to do so; and said he would put himself under Mrs. Powlet's care for a short time—which he accordingly did.