In the Shadow of the Bush
Punctual to the hour appointed, Wilmot entered the sitting-room designated in Westall's note of the evening before, a comfortable, large, and well-furnished apartment, the same that Mrs. Ashwin and her daughter had made use of during their stay at the Criterion.
The room was already occupied. Westall was there, of course, but decently dressed now and looking quite a different person from the seedy individual who used to board at the Cosmopolitan. He was not quite recovered from his recent illness, and the past effects of dissipation were still visible in his face; but there was a resolve apparent there, a light in his eyes, an uprising to be seen of a better, stronger moral nature, which his features gave little evidence of when he first made the acquaintance of the reader.
Wilmot walked in with a firm step and confident bearing, casting a bold though careless glance around as he advanced into the room; then turned and bowed to the assembled company. Westall he expected to see, and he was not surprised to see Elwood and his daughter there, for he had noticed their arrival at the hotel a short time previously, and guessed their errand; but when his eye rested on Morton and Frank Ashwin, who also were there, he allowed a sharp look of surprise and displeasure to cross his features.
"Mr. Westall," he began, "in answer to the note which I received from you last evening, I am here to meet you—for what purpose I am at a loss to understand. At the same time, page 294I hardly expected that it was to, what one might call, a public meeting of this kind that my attendance was invited. Were it not for the presence of the lady," and he bowed to Miss Elwood, "one might suppose, from the fact of the gentlemen I see before me being here, that it is some question of agricultural or pastoral importance which we have met to discuss—the establishment of a farmers' club, a dairy factory, or something of the kind. However, let the object be what it may, I have no reason to shun publicity. But I should have thought that you, Westall—remembering what took place at our last meeting—would have sought an interview with me in strict privacy, if, indeed, you ventured to meet me at all."
"The gentlemen who are here," answered Westall, with some tremor in his voice, "are interested—one of them intensely interested—in that which brings us together. Richard Wilson, look at that old man there—old beyond his years—and say if you know who he is."
Elwood, as we may still call him, had been seated beside his daughter when Wilmot entered, and had eagerly and fixedly scanned the features of the man.
"It is he," he said, in a low voice only heard by his daughter; "it is my old partner, the cause of all my suffering."
At Westall's words he now rose and stood before the other. With no very great disparity in years, the contrast between them was strongly marked. Elwood, prematurely aged, his scanty hair whitened by the hand of affliction rather than by time, bowed and broken in body, the lines of care and sorrow deeply drawn on cheek and brow, stood a wrecked and marred likeness of what he might have been. Wilmot, on the other hand, erect, portly in form, his eye undimmed, fresh and florid in face, with but few lines there to mark the touch of time, stood in vigorous manhood, full of health, of the sap and springs of life—a well-preserved man with whom the world had dealt kindly.
When Wilmot looked on the face of the other, and met the page 295eyes of the man who had been made the victim of his crime, there might have been seen in his own a momentary irresolute shrinking, but only momentary; and as he turned again to Westall, it was with a bold front that he answered.
"If you address me," he said—"though, in doing so, you have made a slight mistake in my name—I can only say that the gentleman is, I believe, a Mr. Elwood, a settler in this neighbourhood."
"You are right so far," replied Westall, "but in the man before you, you see also your former partner, Charles Hartland. He was no partner, however, as you know, in the felonies that you committed; and yet he was made to undergo the penalty for them, or for complicity in them."
"What melodrama is this that we are brought here to rehearse?" asked Wilmot, with a loud, well-feigned laugh of incredulity. "How is the play to end? Is tragedy, or comedy, or a screaming farce to be the development of it? The elements of either, or all of these, seem ready at hand. It is pretty plain to me, however, that this fellow," he went on, pointing at Westall, "for whom the police have been looking for some time, will make the acquaintance of the inside of the lock-up hefore many minutes have passed. I did not come here unprepared—Constable O'Flaherty is waiting to take him in charge. I admit that I made the fellow's acquaintance before, to my cost, and was entrusted by his relations with a few pounds to dole out to him, just to keep him from starving. But this would not satisfy him. With revolver in hand, he must waylay me on a lonely road and demand my money or my life. I knew the scoundrel though he was disguised. Ha, O'Flaherty, here you are, and just in time," he called out, as that officer looked in at the doorway, in the wake of Mr. Brown who had just entered, and seated himself not far from where Wilmot was standing—"take this man Westall in charge, constable; I page 296know you have been wanting to lay your hand on him for some time."
But the constable only answered with a broad grin.
"Hold a bit," said Morton, rising; "I know something about this attempted robbery business, and the charge is altogether unfounded. The assault was committed, not by Westall, but upon him. I happened to be out in the paddock on that evening close to where these two met, and could not help hearing something of what passed. Westall spoke in a low voice, but his expressed intention of righting some wrong and of making some disclosures reached me. Wilmot, in angry tones, spoke louder, and his words could not be mistaken. He cursed the other and the other's conscience, in that he refused to be bribed. I heard also the blow struck with the heavy hunting-whip, and Westall's consequent fall. I then jumped over the fence and ran towards them—in time, I believe, to prevent murder. In any case, Wilmot, on hearing my approach, galloped off towards the township. Westall was stunned, but soon recovered sufficiently for me to help him into my cottage, which was not far off. He told me something of the history of himself, of Wilmot, and of my neighbour Elwood, and of his determination to do all he could towards clearing the character of the latter. I believed him. I kept him concealed at my place for two or three days till he was able to travel, and then drove away in the middle of the night, and eventually reached Wellington with him without anyone being the wiser. I trusted him, and provided him with the funds for the journey home, which it was deemed advisable that he should take in order that he might make his disclosures at headquarters, and, if possible, collect further evidence of the innocence of Elwood. If you trust a man at all let him think that you trust him implicitly. If there is any good in him—and the chances are there isn't—it will bring it out. I didn't, however, take anyone into my confidence, not even—for a time at least—my neighbour, who page 297was most deeply concerned. If the man played me false there would be no one to call me a fool for my pains, and I could laugh at my own folly. But he did not deceive me. He has come back, and has done all he undertook to do. He has kept his promise, too, and has not, I believe, tasted drink since he left. It was not altogether by his desire that Mr. Brown, here, was his companion out from England. To remove, if possible, the felon stain from him who had suffered innocently was his purpose, and not, after this lapse of time, to bring to justice the guilty one—even though he might have a private wrong of recent date to avenge. Mr. Wilmot, or Wilson," Morton continued, addressing that gentleman, "our mutual friend here, Mr. Brown, is, as you may now guess, a detective from Scotland Yard, sent out here specially on your behalf, and, as I think I hinted on a previous occasion, will probably be your fellow-traveller to the Old Country."
Mr. Brown bowed his acquiescence in the truth of this from where he sat; and Wilmot in his heart cursed him and Morton and all concerned.
"This has been my share in the affair," Morton went on. "It hasn't been much, and I take no credit for it. The opportunity of doing anything was thrown in my way accidentally, and I should not, probably, have taken the course I did but for the chance offered of exposing another sham, of helping to strip the false respectability and pretence of worth and honesty from off this gentleman whom Bloomsbury delights to honour."
Wilmot had remained silent, gloom and anger gathering on his brow, but was now about to say something, when Westall spoke again:
"It is true what Mr. Morton has said. It was his timely presence that, perhaps, saved me from further injuries, or even death itself, at the hand of this man, who would now have me thrown into prison on a false charge, as he page 298before allowed his partner, an innocent man, to be. The misappropriation of funds," he went on, "was discovered by me some time before the crash came, but not to the full extent. I was weak, and listened to Wilson's promises of reimbursement. I believed his assurance that the moneys would soon be restored. Oh, that I had made known to Mr. Hartland the first defalcation as soon as I found it out! What misery it might have averted! My silence was used as a weapon against me when disclosure had at last become inevitable, and Wilson was preparing for flight. With plausible tongue and confident manner, he showed me that I must be arrested as an accomplice if I stayed, and that for me safety also lay in flight. Had I thought for a moment that my other employer, Mr. Hartland, who was always the soul of honour, could have, by any possibility, been implicated or involved, save in the financial ruin of the firm, I would have stood by him to clear him from the charge. But he too had just left the country for a time, all unconscious of the terrible blow that was falling. It was nearly two years afterwards when I learnt that he had been convicted of participation in the felonies of his partner, and was undergoing penal servitude in Australia. I had sunk then. I had again found Wilson, who was always my evil genius. In my want, and to my degradation, I had fingered his gold—he was never stingy with it. The establishment of the other's innocence, and the reversal of the sentence, seemed hopeless then, or a task too difficult to undertake. But remorse and sorrow never left me, though I tried to drown them in dissipation. At last, here in this strange place and strange manner brought face to face with the guilty and the guiltless—where even in his retirement the innocent could find no rest, recognised by one of the enforced and vile companions of his days of shame, taunted and exposed, the stain of the convict on him and his—I could no longer forbear from attempting to clear his page 299name as far as lay in my power. His innocence has now, I think, been made manifest, though it is in the power of him, the guilty one, who stands before us—and who, it seems, must even yet expiate his crime—to add his testimony in establishing that innocence. Ah, my dear master," continued Westall with deep feeling, addressing Mr. Elwood, "late, far too late, has come the vindication of your good name. On my knees before you would I plead for your forgiveness. Your long years of misery and shame might have been averted or shortened but for my weakness at first, my base cowardice afterwards."
Elwood had remained standing while Westall spoke. His daughter had risen also, and partly turning from the rest of the company, with her hand upon his, watched, with fond concern, the face she loved so well, anxious for the effect which the meeting with his former partner, the words he listened to, and the excitement of the interview, might have upon him.
The old man, in answer to Westall's appeal for forgiveness, now spoke for the first time.
"You are freely forgiven, Westall." he said. "I, who have been weak and overtrustful, how can I, to human frailty, deny forgiveness? The reparation which you now make, cannot, it is true, undo the past, but it will soften the effects of it. To you, Richard Wilson, it is a harder task to extend pardon. I do not wonder that at first you should have failed to recognise in me the man, your former partner, who, in the strength of manhood's early prime, parted from you on that memorable day so many years ago, when, at the moment in which you were preparing to escape, loaded with plunder, from the clutches of the law, you gave your hand to him, with a smile on your face and a jest on your tongue, wishing him a journey of pleasure, when you knew he would be overtaken on it by a very thunderclap of unsuspected ruin and crash of desolation. Only God and your own conscience know if the misleading train of evidence—slight though it was—which you left hehind, page 300was wilfully and intentionally laid for the purpose of incriminating me. Yet, as I look to heaven for forgiveness—a sinner before his God—so do I even now forgive you. I could wish and hope that the years of shame and suffering, which I endured, might have atoned for the crime that was yours. Surely the punishment, undergone by the innocent, might be held to make expiation for the misdeeds of the real criminal. It will be no satisfaction to me to know that retribution has overtaken you. It will be grief indeed to me to think that you are made to lead the life that I was forced to lead; to suffer what I suffered—less keenly though you might feel the degradation, but without the consciousness of innocence to sustain you, and supported by the devotion ad unquenchable love of a noble wife, which upheld me. I have not sought to bring this upon you after all these years. To free my name from the stigma of crime, to have my innocence declared before the world—above all, to remove the shame and reproach which my children inherited as a consequence of their father's felon stain, has been an object longed for, prayed for, and yet well-nigh despaired of. If, happily, that object is to be gained now, it was not intended or desired, by me at least, that in the achievement of it, your punishment should be involved. May God deal with you in mercy."
Wilmot had stood, apparently but little moved by the revelations of Westall or by the words of Elwood. Gloomy thoughts and conflicting emotions were, however, passing in his mind. The game was up. A brazen front, a bold denial of his identity with the person against whom the charges were made, and of the circumstances connected with them, would avail him but little now. He had intended, when he entered the room, to take his course—to defy Westall, and laugh at his accusations, have him arrested on the old charge of attempted highway robbery; and he himself walk out a free man, prepared to leave the country with all secrecy and despatch. But the presence of the detective, page 301armed with the warrant for his arrest, barred that contemplated door of escape from his difficult and dangerous position. To get away was no longer possible.
Arrest, restraint, the voyage home as a prisoner, the cell, the dock, the trial, the sentence with the penal years to follow—all stood out before him as inevitable consequences now; for he had no doubt that the police, once they had him in the clutches of the law, would be able to bring the charges home to him, and secure his conviction. He had ever taken the road in life that offered greatest present pleasure, and, when it changed to a rough and toilsome track, he felt the greater repugnance to follow it. Looking, too, at Elwood, and listening to his words in which there was little of reproach but much of good-will and forgiveness, some degree of pity and remorse perhaps touched him. It was with less than his usual assurance, and in a more subdued tone, that he now spoke.
"Gentlemen, and this fair lady who graces the room with her presence," he said, bowing low to Miss Elwood, "I may, I suppose, be permitted to say a few words on my part; though perhaps the gentlemen who seem to have arranged everything so carefully for the production of this piece, would prefer that I should remain a silent, though interested, spectator. Mr. Brown has, it is said, a warrant for my arrest, or for the arrest of someone—not me at all, perhaps—that remains to be proved. May I ask him to show me his warrant, and to make plain his intention."
"My intention," replied Brown, handing the warrant to Wilmot, "admits of no doubt. It is to arrest you, Richard Wilson, alias Wilmot, as I now do, on the authority of that warrant, and convey you at Her Majesty's expense a prisoner to London, there to answer the charges therein set forth. I ought, perhaps, to have made the arrest immediately on my arrival here, but I promised to wait for Westall, and allow of this meeting."page 302
"One moment," said Wilmot, looking at the warrant; "I see this is in due form. Give me leave to say a few words, and then I shall be at your service. It were easy for me, and perhaps wisest, to deny all knowledge of this business; and your Scotland Yard authorities might find it difficult to prove my connection with it. But I prefer to take another and a bolder course. I am the man described in this warrant—which allow me, Mr. Brown, to hand back to you. This gentleman here, known as Mr. Elwood, is Mr. Charles Hartland, a former partner in business with me. There were some peccadillos committed in connection with the firm—I need not enter into details now—and for alleged complicity in them he was, I believe, tried, convicted, and served a sentence of penal servitude. Gentlemen, and you, fair lady, whose sweet face—now that I have looked on it closely, reminds me of one I knew in the long ago—of complicity in these peccadillos, or felonies as the law called them, Mr. Hartland was entirely guiltless. They were my work and mine alone. He was, certainly, somewhat remiss in his attention to business at that time and did not exercise the closest scrutiny, else I, his partner, and junior partner, had not been able to carry on the game to the extent I did. Westall, here, did discover that there was something wrong, and afterwards profited by the knowledge; and if keeping guilty silence constitutes complicity, he ought to go into the dock also. But Hartland was altogether innocent and ignorant of what was being done. These things happened many years ago—a few bankers and others who could afford the loss, were minus some of their funds. Westall found me here, the past buried, occupying a position not without honour and respect, in the enjoyment of the confidence of my fellow men, and not thought unworthy of the offer of a larger measure of that confidence. Westall, a sneak, weak and unprincipled by nature and habit of life—in spite of his protestations now—found me here, and sponged on me, till his conscientious page 303scruples—ha, ha!—got the better of him. It is willed now, you say, that I must leave as a shamed prisoner this place where my name and actions were lately held worthy of praise. But I have something to bring forward yet ere this is done. Charles Hartland's name will now be cleared from dishonour and reproach. If further testimony is needed from me, it will be found in this letter which I wrote this morning." And Wilmot placed an open letter on the table. "But," he proceeded, "I also have a quittance in my case ready for signature, a legal discharge drawn up in due form, and I will now produce it."
And, quick as thought, Wilmot drew a revolver from his pocket, turned it against his breast, and fired. The bullet, as intended, would have pierced his heart had not Brown, who had been keenly watching him, sprang forward on the instant and struck the weapon downward on the instant of discharge. The wound inflicted, though not instantly fatal, was a very serious one, the ball having entered his side and gone through the lung. Wilmot staggered a moment and then fell heavily into the arms of Brown and Morton, who had leaped forward to his assistance. As they laid him down he muttered, "Curse your interference, Brown—you have spoiled my sign-manual."