In the Shadow of the Bush
There was a bedroom adjoining, which, besides the door leading directly into the passage, had also another opening into the sitting-room in which they were assembled, and into it they carried him and laid him on the bed, while medical aid was instantly sent for. The tragic termination of their meeting appalled and horrified the inmates of the room, Miss Elwood naturally most of all. Frank Ashwin was at her side in an instant, and led her from the apartment, along with her father, who was also much agitated. The house was thrown into confusion. Powlet and his wife were quickly on the scene, and anxious, hurried questions given and replied to. "A bad business, a bad business," was all the comment Bob could make; while Mrs. Powlet (whom Bob had taken into his confidence late the previous night), alter seeing that the wounded man was receiving all the attention possible, could not forbear saying:
"A bad business, indeed—I should think it was. This is what comes of your secret doings, Bob Powlet, and you, Mr. Morton. Leave the men alone for making a blunder, if it's possible to do it."
"It is an unforseen ending, no doubt, Mrs. Powlet," Morton said, "and I am sorry for it—though I am inclined to think better of the man, by reason of it, than I did before. There was no pretence about the manner of departure that he tried to bring about."
"If it had been God's will," Mrs. Powket said, "I could page 305have wished that his manner of departure had been different. We little thought last night, at the dinner to him here, that this would be his way of going. But we may pull him round yet, and we'll do all we can here for him, at any rate. Mr. Wilmot has been in this house for years now—since it was opened, almost—and a better conducted gentleman never entered it. I'll speak of him as I have found him. What you have raked up against him now, with your scheming and plotting, I don't well know, and I don't want to know—it isn't proved yet, I suppose—but he has lived among us this many a day, and hasn't done wrong to anyone in Bloomsbury that I ever heard of. A personable gentleman, too."
"Don't say another word to her," Powlet whispered to Morton. "Let a woman have a free rein and she'll soon pull up of her own accord. Never contradict 'em, never contradict 'em."
"A fine pass you have let things come to, Powlet," his wife went on—"here's a decent gentleman takes his own life, or next door to it—and the house 'll get a bad name through it, too, I suppose. It's a mercy somebody else wasn't shot as well. But here comes the doctor, and we'll soon hear what he says: and I must go out now and see to the poor young lady that must have been frightened to death nearly." And Mrs. Powlet hastened out, with kindly intent.
She found Miss Elwood, with her father and Ashwin, in the corridor, and conducted them into a private room, where she insisted on having a glass of wine brought up for the young lady and for the old man, both of whom, already deeply moved by what had previously taken place at the interview, were, indeed, very much shocked and overcome by the terrible incident which had marked its close.
"Oh, Mr. Ashwin, do you think he will die?" asked Miss Elwood, in deep concern.
Frank, who, truth to tell, was agitated by other emotions besides those of pity and sorrow which he felt for the wounded page 306man, could only express the hope that the self-inflicted injury might not prove fatal.
He had listened with intense interest to the revelations made at the interview, and had understood then, with grateful feelings, why it was that Morton had pressed him to attend. He had watched with eager eyes every movement of the girl he loved, every change of expression on her face which so readily reflected the emotions of the heart; and though no answering look met his—for her soul seemed wrapt up in concern for her father—yet he felt that he was no longer shut out from hope, that the obstacle which lately seemed insurmountable was now about to be removed, that, at least, the opportunity of wooing, perhaps winning, the woman of his choice would no longer be denied him.
"Poor Wilson," Elwood said sadly, "it has been a tragic ending to his career—an ending, in a sense, even though recovery should lift him up from where he lies. The charge must even then be met, I suppose, and the arrest maintained with all its after consequences. He made amends, too, to me; and declared my innocence of complicity in his crime almost with the latest breath he drew before committing the dreadful deed. My name and character have at last been cleared—I trust legally and fully—I do not yet know the nature and extent of Westall's evidence. My children no longer lie under the shadow of their father's shame. Ah, Mr. Ashwin, for myself, an old man verging to the grave, this late acknowledgment of the wrong done me, though pleasing to me, of course, matters in truth but little. To the land where wrongs are righted and hidden things made plain, I must soon have gone; but on behalf of those whom I should leave behind, dear, very dear, to me has been the desire for restitution, and with deep thankfulness do I accept it. But it is mine at heavy cost. Poor Wilson! retribution has found him at last, and brought him down."
Ashwin then went to learn the state of the sufferer, and what the professional opinion of his case was. He soon page 307returned with the intelligence that the doctor gave some hope that the patient might ultimately recover, provided no dangerous complications arose; but the case was serious, very serious. The ball had passed through the lower portion of the lung, and the doctor had not been able to extract it.
Morton came back with Ashwin, and talked a few minutes with Miss Elwood and her father on the all-absorbing subject, and not without some commiseration, expressed in his caustic way, for the man lying near. But when he went out of the room, followed almost immediately by Ashwin, and was passing downstairs, he said to himself:
"Marriage will be the outcome of this. And so it still goes on—the love tale and the last sigh, and youth philandering by a new-made grave; the funeral dirge and the wedding bells; the dying couch and the bridal bed—the interminable incongruity of things, over which one hardly knows whether to laugh or weep."
When it was known that Wilmot—as we may still call him—might linger on for days, or, indeed, haply, eventually recover; and a competent nurse had been procured to take charge of the sick room, Miss Elwood expressed the wish to her father that she might be allowed to share in the duties of waiting on the wounded man and watching by him.
"He has been the cause of much wrong and misery to you," she said, "but it might ease his sufferings, and lighten, perhaps, his last hours, if so be that he must die, to see me, your daughter, near his bed, and to feel that he was forgiven."
"May God bless you, Maud," her father said. "Carry out the dictates of your own true heart."
And so it was that Miss Elwood was installed as assistant, taking some of the lighter duties, and watching near the sufferer when the nurse took necessary rest.
When Wilmot awoke out of a troubled sleep and found her beside his bed, it was with a pleased expression on his face that he greeted her, speaking painfully and with laboured breath.page 308
"You here," he murmured. "This is kindness, to recompense me thus. Your face is like your mother's. Ah! I remember hers still. I knew her before she was married—and loved her. You did not know this, I suppose. My life would have been different, had she linked it with hers, perhaps—who knows? I might have made hers wretched. She chose a worthier mate."
And as another day passed, and another arrived, he still sought eagerly for her presence, and appeared more restful and less feverish when she was near him. Alarming symptoms now appeared, and the doctor at length held out no hope.
Wilmot was perfectly conscious of his condition, and, indeed, from the first seemed to expect with certainty a fatal termination.
"I have been here long enough—too long," he said. "I have picked the sweets of life after my fashion, and should not like now to be forced to taste the bitter."
When it was known that his recovery was hopeless, that his hours were numbered and few, the visiting clergyman, who happened to be holding service in the township that day, for it was Sunday, expressed a wish to see him, and called in the afternoon for that purpose. But Wilmot refused bluntly, and said to Miss Elwood, through whom the request had been conveyed:
"I will die as I have lived, without the help of priest or parson. You only, if I want one, must be confessor and spiritual adviser."
And some little time afterwards, as if his thoughts had been dwelling on the subject, he said to her, slowly and with difficulty:
"If you like, Maud,"—he had begun to call her by her Christian name—"if you like, you can sing me a hymn or two—some of the old ones that I may have heard when a boy; I forget them now. It might please you—women are usually more devout—and not harm me."
There was a piano in the adjoining sitting-room, and Miss page 309Elwood, as desired, sang, in low sweet voice, but in clear and feeling tones, some of the old favourites, such as she deemed best suited to the need of the dying man, and then to an air of soft and plaintiff melody, rising at last into stronger chords that breathed of effort and of hope, the following lines:
Night is falling,
Hangs o'er thee.
Christ is pleading,
Once hung, bleeding,
On the tree.
"Till life sever,
Sought for me."—
Love is speaking;
Day is breaking—
He died the same night. He had made his will on the previous day; and in it he had bequeathed all he died possessed of to the daughter of his former partner. But she never touched the legacy. The most of his property had been converted into cash; and Miss Elwood, with her father's approval, realised upon the remainder, and transmitted the whole, a large sum, to England, there to be divided amongst the creditors who had been defrauded so many years before, or amongst their representatives.
Wilmot had also signed a dying declaration, duly attested, in which Elwood's character was vindicated and his innocence made clear.