In the Shadow of the Bush
Ashwin wrote home, telling his mother of his mishap. But he made light of it, and said he expected to be himself again in a week or two, when he would go down to Harefield for a few days. He also gave some account of the fire, and particulars of losses which some settlers had sustained, stating that he, fortunately, had escaped without loss of stock or buildings. But his mother, placid and easy-going as she generally was, was not quite satisfied regarding her son's state.
Indeed, the first news which they had of the affair, and which reached them the day before they received Frank's letter, was sufficiently alarming. It was reported that he had been a heavy loser of stock through the fire, and had nearly lost his life in rescuing Miss Elwood from a burning building; but it was further stated by way of compensation that he and that young lady were to be married as soon as he recovered from his injuries.
His letter gave contradiction to part at least of the statements which rumour had furnished, and the minds of his people were in some degree set at rest, but not wholly; for it was now certain that he had met with an accident, though he appeared to consider it of little consequence; and his mother felt some anxiety, thinking it might be of a more serious nature than he, like most young men, was inclined to admit.
His sister, Laura, thought she saw danger of another kind, and believed that rumour could not he altogether at fault in mixing up Miss Elwood's name with the circumstances page 215of the accident; and the absence of her name from Frank's letter only tended to increase her suspicions.
"Depend upon it, mother," she said, "that girl has inveigled Frank into her toils again, or rather, he has never got clear of them. I feel it, and am sure of it. When he was here at Christmas, we could get no satisfactory answer from him, you know. Though he would admit nothing, neither would he deny anything; and though he tried to turn it all off with chaff and fun, I could see—if nobody else could—that there was a serious side to it. And then his talk about selling out and trying his fortunes in South Africa or somewhere else—why, if he had any real intention of doing so, he meant to take the girl with him, that I'm positive of. If other people can't see, I'm not quite blind. Take my word for it, he's still running after that girl, convict's daughter though she be, or she's running after him. Oh, the disgrace of it all."
"Well, my dear," said her mother, "though I don't think there is much ground for alarm about Frank, one way or another; still, I think I will drive up and see how he is, and you had better come with me. Perhaps your father will drive us; if not, we can get Tom—I don't think they are very busy just now. We shall have to stay at the hotel in Bloomsbury for the night, and can return the next day; and we can bring Frank back with us, if he should be able to stand the journey."
Mrs. Ashwin's resolve was carried into effect; and the following forenoon saw the party start on their fifty miles' journey in a comfortable, roomy buggy, behind a pair of wellbred, serviceable horses, with Tom, Frank's brother, in charge.
Their way for a good many miles lay through the open country, which, in the brown and bare appearance of the pastures, showed how dry the season had been. When they got well into the bush country, the effects of the late fires, and of the storm which had been the cause and accompaniment of these, began to be everywhere visible, page 216Fences were burnt down in many instances; and in several places where standing bush bordered the road, trees had been blown down, and traffic stopped; but men had already cut a passage-way through these, or had made a temporary road round them. The atmosphere was still dimly charged with smoke.
Nearing Bloomsbury, the destructive effects became more apparent. In one place some carcasses of sheep, scorched and blackened, lay in a corner of a paddock where the timber had been plentiful, and they had been hemmed in by the fire. In another place a settler was seen mournfully gazing at the charred remains of what had been his home.
But though a good deal of present individual loss and much temporary inconvenience resulted from the fire, yet, on the whole, and looking to the future, there would be a gain. Clear pastures, never again to be swept in the same way by fire, would take the place of ground lately thickly strewn with timber, through which stock had with difficulty fed, and out of which they had with still greater difficulty to be mustered.
The travellers rested and lunched at an inn about half-way; and it was nearly five o'clock in the evening when they drove up to the Criterion, in Bloomsbury, where they were met by Bob Powlet, who handed the ladies over to the charge of his wife, while he himself gave instructions regarding the feeding and care of the horses.
Frank Ashwin, who had been lying down on one of the couches in the upstairs sitting-room, was surprised, though much pleased, to see his mother and the others.
"I didn't expect you would be so anxious about me as to come all the way up here, mother. It isn't often that you make such a long journey, and I am afraid you have found this one very tiring," he said, after the first greetings were over. "You see there is not much the matter with me after all."
"A good deal the matter with you," his mother answered, page 217"with your arm in a sling, and that nasty cut on your head. I'll not be content unless you come back home with me."
"Not for a week or so," he said. "I have got to keep very quiet for a little, it seems. But you can leave me without any anxiety in Mrs. Powlet's hands. Isn't that so, Mrs. Powlet?" he said, as that good woman appeared at the door, intent on the comfort of her newly-arrived guests, and waiting to show them to their rooms.
"Indeed, I'll do the best I can for him," said Mrs. Powlet, in her cheery way, "as long as he likes to stay. But the difficulty with young people is to keep them quiet enough. They will be exerting themselves and doing what they oughtn't to do, instead of keeping quiet and getting better as fast as they can. If Mr. Ashwin here would only keep in his bed for a week or two, as the doctor told him, he would get well twice as fast. But, no—he must be up and dressed, as if there was nothing the matter with him, and him with broken ribs, too."
"Ah, Frank, you did not tell me that—my poor boy!" his mother said.
It was not till later in the evening, after dinner, that Miss Ashwin broached the subject that lay nearest her heart. She and her mother and Frank were then seated in the private sitting-room together.
"We heard such a dreadful account of your accident, Frank," she said; "and that it all occurred through your helping those disreputable people, the Elwoods, and trying to rescue that girl from some danger. But we were relieved to find that you said nothing of this in your letter. We were glad to know that you were not mixed up in any way with these people again."
"Not even, Laura, though it was for the purpose of saving them, or any of them, from danger or death—very charitable of you, I must say," replied Frank, and laughed somewhat bitterly. "No, I did not meet with my mishap through saving 'that girl,' as you call her, from danger; but I must acknow-page 218ledge with gratitude that 'that girl' risked her life to save mine. If it had not been for her, I might, before other help arrived, have been burned to death, perhaps, beside the log against which I was thrown and lay stunned."
"I knew it!" his sister exclaimed; "did I not tell you, mother, that this girl was mixed up with it in some way?" and, addressing Frank, she continued, "and, no doubt, out of thankfulness, you then and there, or subsequently, rewarded your fair rescuer—ha, ha, ha!—by making her the offer of your hand and heart, as we heard you had."
"Don't be foolish, Laura," said her mother. "I am sure we should all be grateful to the young person, if she was able to render any assistance to my poor Frank here, under the very trying circumstances. I am sure I owe her a debt of gratitude for what she did. But Frank is not going to allow a feeling of thankfulness to lead him into doing anything rash or foolish; and I am certain he will never do anything to disgrace himself or us."
"Oh, that's right!" Laura answered, with an injured air; "back him up in his infatuation with this designing creature. He isn't the first she has entrapped, I suppose."
"Look here, Laura!" Ashwin said, forgetful of his injuries for the moment, and rising with a jerk that caused him to make a wry face, "I will not hear Miss Elwood's name defamed in this way by you—though you are my sister. I will not, without protest, suffer a word of disparagement to be thrown at her. I did not then and there offer her my hand and heart, as you say—for the reason that I had offered them to her on a previous occasion, and she had refused the honour, as you would call it,"—here Laura laughed incredulously, and he proceeded.—"If her father's name should ever be cleared of the stain—the unmerited stain—that attaches to it, I would follow her to the world's end to make that offer again, for I know that she will never listen to any such proposal till that stain is removed. Now you know all, You said, dear mother, that you did not page 219think I would do anything to disgrace myself or you. If I could make Miss Elwood my wife, I should not disgrace you. A pure, refined, unselfish, and noble-minded girl for your daughter-in-law could not disgrace you, even though her father had been guilty of all he was charged with and suffered for. I wish you could see her and know her. I do not say that she is too good for you, but I feel that she is too good for me, and immeasurably so for this sister of mine, who would defame her though wholly unknown to her—and who, I am sorry to see, is developing into one of those heartless, artificial, character stabbing, fashionable things, that no sensible man would care to make a wife of. I'll go and find Tom," he added, and walked out.
"Such ingratitude!" Laura said, much offended, and almost giving way to tears; "such dreadful ingratitude, when all I said or did was for his good. Well, I have done with him after this; I only hope he will leave the country with his doxy. It will be disgrace enough even then. I am sure I don't care if ever I set eyes on him again; such base ingratitude, after all I have tried to do for him. A nice errand we have come upon, indeed. Couldn't we start back home again to-night? I don't wish to be another minute in the place."
"Don't be foolish, Laura," said her mother, "and don't be so bitter against Frank, poor fellow. He was put out, and said things that he didn't mean and will be sorry for. This Miss Elwood is probably in no wise objectionable in herself; but, at any rate, she has refused him, and that is an end to the affair—for which I am thankful. But we must not say anything to excite his anger, or hurt his feelings, in his present dejected state—weak, also, as he is, from his accident."
"Very well, mother," Laura replied, in mock resignation; "I have already said that I will never broach the subject to him again. His feelings must not be hurt, poor fellow!—it does not matter how mine are wounded. Oh, no! But if you think the—the girl has definitely refused him, you will find page 220your mistake. Refused him, indeed!—Not likely! She may have checked his too ardent advances—idiot that he is—just in order to make the prize—prize, indeed!—more highly valued when he gains it. She's a designing minx, and that you'll find. But I will say no more—I wash my hands of the business." And Miss Ashwin had recourse for a time to a dignified silence.