In the Shadow of the Bush
It was late when the party broke up, and later still when Wilmot retired to his room and to undisturbed communion with his own thoughts.
"Westall," he mused, as he'-sat on the edge of his bed, "has turned up again, then, d——n him! and is bent on disclosure and revenge. Could money buy him even yet? I am afraid not. Naturally weak and easily led, yet, when we last met, he seemed bent on vindicating the character of the old man, and he isn't likely to have altered his mind in the meantime—doubly determined he doubtless is now, and with no wish to screen me. He has now a grievance of his own to avenge, though money might make amends for this—it has salved many a sore head. But with whom has the fellow consorted since his disappearance? How many has he taken into his confidence? He may even have set the law in motion; but this is hardly likely, else he would not seek for the interview in the morning. His coming here openly and appointing a meeting in this house shows that he conies prepared, and that he has probably somebody at his back—Hartland, I expect, or Elwood as he is called here. This would account for the farm having been withdrawn from sale, and yet it was not placed in the market for a fortnight after Westall had disappeared. If the fellow had not turned up for another few days, I should have been away from here and have eluded him. Why should I not give him the slip even now?"page 288
Wilmot's horse, not yet disposed of, was in a paddock near, and he knew where to lay his hand on his saddle and bridle. He could ride off that very night, he thought, leaving a note for Powlet making some excuse for hurriedly visiting one of the distant townships, but in reality proceed to Wellington, or, better still, one of the northern ports, and leave New Zealand before his absence had given rise to suspicion, or at least before steps could be taken to detain him. No credence would be given to Westell's unsupported testimony with regard to the assault—in fact, the fellow, if he laid an information against Wilmot, would be taken into custody himself on the charge of attempted highway robbery, for which he was still wanted; while Wilmot knew that, with respect to the more serious disclosures threatened touching the misdeeds of his former life, the machinery of the law would be slow to set in motion after the long lapse of time. He had good hopes, therefore, that if he got a day or two's start from Bloomsbury he would be able to get clear away without molestation. He could mention in his note to Powlet that, his stay would probably be prolonged for a few days in one or other of the townships to which he would make the pretence of going. He had arranged his monetary affairs so as to enable him to make a hasty departure from the Colony, if he found it necessary to do so.
The other course open to him, and it was one that was more congenial to his temperament, was to stay, meet Westali and defy him, hand him over to the police on the former charge, and let him see whose was the strongest mind and the readiest of resource.
The thought, however, of having to face his old partner, who would now, no doubt, come forward, was a great deterrent. He shrank from meeting again the man who had undergone the penalty that should have been his to suffer, the man whose life had been so cruelly blighted. Wilmot felt that if he were forced to meet Elwood now, his only page 289safe course, under the present circumstances, would be to disclaim all previous acquaintance with him or with Westall in years gone by in England, and with a bold front and high hand turn the tables on the latter, and have him arrested and thrown into prison. He himself could then find time and opportunity for leaving the colony. But he was doubtful if he should altogether succeed in this course, and was averse to encountering Elwood, and having to brazen the lie out in his presence. He was ignorant, also, as to what steps Westall might have already taken, and what evidence he might be prepared to bring forward. Wilmot therefore decided to leave Bloomsbury at once—that night. He thought he possessed skill and cleverness enough to hide his tracks for a few days, and mystify anyone who might be making enquiries after him. In the note which he proceeded to write, he told Powlet of his intention to leave at daylight, so as to get well on his journey before the heat of the day, and dropped a hint that business might lead to deviation from the direct route and detention on the way, but that he hoped to return at the latest on the afternoon of the second day. He had not undressed; and, having written the note, and put a few things into a valise, he cautiously opened the door of his room, and crept out. The house was in quietness. He was just stooping down, valise in hand, to pick up his boots, which he had left outside, when the door of the adjoining room opened softly, and Mr. Brown, who occupied it, stepped out, also ready dressed, candle in hand.
Wilmot drew back, and again closed the door of his room.
"D——n the fellow!" he thought. "What is he poking about for at this time of night, when he ought to be asleep in bed. I didn't want Powlet and the rest of them to know that I went away in the middle of the night—it looks too suspicious—but to think that I left at daylight, just before the house began to stir. And now this d——d fellow must catch me on page 290the move, with the valise under my arm. Well, perhaps it's for the best. This sneaking away was never much to my taste. A bold course is more to my liking, and will be the best to follow. I'll stay and face the music, and if Mr. Westall doesn't dance to my playing before the day is out, I'll deserve to break stones for a living. My resources are not exhausted yet. A bold front and a cool head have brought me out of worse scrapes than this. This Brown, now I think of it, has been paying me a good deal of attention since he came here. He has made himself very friendly; seems fond of my society; appeals to me for information on every subject; plays a good game of cards; takes his glass in moderation, and makes himself agreeable; was at the dinner, too, and seemed to enjoy himself; and now he pokes his nose out of his door in the middle of the night as soon as I open mine. Bah! there's nothing in it. Poor old Hartland! I had rather not face you. If the Bristol business is to be revived after all these years, I may find it hard to shake myself clear of it. To be dragged back to answer for it would be a bitter pill now. The thrall, the narrow bounds, the long years of slavery. Ugh! it were better to take the readier way of release, play the last stake, and cry quits. Hard work, rough fare, and a fettered foot wouldn't agree with me. The game has got to be played out now, but I'll keep the 'joker' up my sleeve. We'll see how things shape in the morning, and, till then, I'll trust in the star of my good fortune that never deserted me yet."
With these reflections Wilmot turned into bed, and in spite of the dangers that now enveloped him, slept soundly till morning. He got up at his usual hour, dressed with more than ordinary care, and went down to the breakfast room, closely followed, as it happened, by Mr. Brown.
Morton was there, having just finished his breakfast, and greeted them on entering.
"Ha, Mr. Wilmot, and you, my friend Brown, I see the dissipation of the night has not kept you in bed late, or spoiled page 291your appetite for breakfast. If there is one thing in the world that a man should wish for more than another, and value highly if he has got it, it is a good digestion. The consciousness of uprightness and honesty cannot give the satisfaction that it does, and the consolations of religion are not half so comforting. The possession of wealth is poor compensation if the digestion is impaired; and the cares of life sit lightly when this is vigorous. A night of late feasting and unlimited champagne, such as you have just indulged in, gentlemen, would spoil my appetite for a week. This knowledge consoles me when I think that I am never likely to be the honoured guest of such an occasion—nobody would ever think of banquetting me, though I were preparing to leave the country. Ah! what it is to be popular—to catch the people's favour, and have your praises sung by a discerning public. This recognition of your worth, Mr. Wilmot," he went on, "must afford you extreme gratification, now that you are about to leave Bloomsbury for a time, especially so, as you must feel that it is only your due—a slight, but well-earned recompense for the unselfish devotion to the interests of others, which, we may take it for granted, has always characterized your actions. Merit has so often to go unrewarded, neglected, or despised, that it is refreshing to meet with an exception in your case."
"My poor services to the public," Wilmot replied, "have, I fear, been overvalued; my actions looked upon in a too favourable, too friendly light. I may be conscious of a wish, a desire, an aspiration to live not entirely for self; to be of some little service, however small, to my fellow-creatures; to the community, as here, in which I have had the privilege to dwell. But, after all, what can one achieve, what accomplish?"
"A philanthropist at heart you must be, at least," Morton replied. "'The heart aye's the part that's either right or wrong.' Some of us, I believe, have formed quite a wrong page 292estimate of your character, Mr. Wilmot; but we'll see you in your true light yet," he added, as he rose and went out.
After breakfast Wilmot wrote a long letter, and also sent a note over to Constable O'Flaherty, stating that he might require his presence at the Criterion, and asking him, if possible, to be in attendance and within call at ten o'clock, but without mentioning the particular purpose for which he required him. (Mr. Wilmot was a Justice of the Peace, and used to take his seat on the local Bench with much dignity on all possible occasions.) The constable, however, had received intimation from another quarter that his attendance was needed, and had, in fact, been keeping the hotel under his observation all the morning.