In the Shadow of the Bush
Frank Ashwin had appeared to take a great interest in the state of the wounded man, and each day, and more than once in the day, had made enquiries concerning him, not apparently satisfied till he had received an assurance from the lips of the fair assistant nurse herself.
Miss Elwood returned home on the morning following Wilmot's death; and it was two or three days afterwards when Ashwin called. It was a bright afternoon in autumn—the most enjoyable season of the year in New Zealand. Subject less frequently than the spring to abrupt changes of weather, and to the boisterous winds often prevalent then over a great part of the country, the autumn, in growth and verdure renewed after the summer heat, brings with it a second spring-like charm, tempered and impressed, indeed, by the sense of the near approach again of winter, but coloured also by the knowledge of assured returns from orchard and from field. In the bush districts, the new "burns," thickly strewn with timber, lie at first black and uninviting to the eye—soon, however, to be clothed in the richest green, as the young grass springs up under the influence of the autumnal rains. There may still be a faint smoky haze visible in the atmosphere, the result of smouldering stump and log, and of the piled-up fires of the settler bent on clearing his ground—just enough smoke in the air to lend apparent additional distance to the wooded range, or to dull into a glowing red the sun's broad disc as it sinks into the west.page 311
Ashwin found Miss Elwood in the garden, tending to her flower-beds. She blushed a little as she answered his greeting and felt his look of love upon her face; while he, on his part, seemed somewhat constrained in manner, and nervous. He spoke of the weather, made some allusion to the work on which she was engaged, and asked after her father and Ted—but all in a half-hearted sort of way, as if some other thought held paramount possession of his mind. He suggested then that they should walk over to the orchard to see what apples still hung on the young trees—for they had borne fruit this season—as he said he should like one.
She answered, as they moved away, in reply to his enquiries, that her father was well, but was enjoying an afternoon nap just then, she thought; and that Ted had received his lessons for the day, and had gone out somewhere.
"He is really getting beyond my control as a teacher, I am afraid," she said, "and ought to be under a master. If we remain here, we think of sending him to one of the collegiate schools shortly; but I should miss him very much. He has now, I think, gone back to find Jim, who is sowing grass seed somewhere."
"Yes," replied Ashwin, in tender tones, bending towards her. "Jim is sowing seed over the ground that was burnt by that terrible fire in January, when you risked your life for me." And then, all restraint vanishing, he unburdened his heart.
"Beloved one," he said, "I have come to know my fate Had I been more worthy of your love I might have come to ask for it with less fear and trepidation, lest it be denied I have made avowal of my love for you already. I have pleaded with you—too warmly and persistently, perhaps—for some return, for some little encouragement, at a time when you felt that you were debarred from affording me any. The barrier, page 312which at one time you held to be insurmountable, but which I would have treated as straw, as a thing to be made light of and despised, has now been removed. I have spoken to your father, and he was generous enough to say kind things of me, and to offer no opposition to my suit, deeply conscious though he was, as I am, of the value of the treasure which he was willing that I should make mine. I have come again to ask for it. Dearest one, do not now forbid me to hope. Give me at least the privilege of trying to win your love."
The cunning fellow had led her along a shelter belt of macrocarpa trees, now grown to sufficient height to screen them from view. With downcast look and warm blushes mantling over face and neck, she listened to his impassioned words, till, in answer to his last appeal for permission to try to win her, she raised her eyes, with the love-light in them, to meet his, and said softly, "My love is yours already."
He had his arms around her on the instant; and then there came to them the rapture of the first sweet long-drawn contact of loving lips.
She told him how she had loved him for a long time—since the day, indeed, in which he sat and listened to the recital of her father's wrongs, and showed his trust in the old man's truth and honesty: how she had tried to banish his image from her heart. "But it was a hopeless task," she said, her bright face looking up into his, "for you had a persevering way with you, and would not let me forget you."
What could he do—what could mortal man do under the circumstances—but take her in his arms again, and kiss the lips that had made so sweet a confession?
After a little, when they were about to return to the house, she said with a smile, "You have forgotten the apple that you came for," and then, stepping lightly over to a tree where a few still hung, she picked one, and gave it to him. Had it page 313been Paradise's forbidden fruit, with all the dread consequences hanging to it, he would have taken and tasted it.
When they reached the house, the old man met them on the verandah, and saw at once what had happened, as his daughter flew to him and put her arms about his neck, crying through the coming tears, "You will not go from us—we will not part from you—I could not leave you lonely."
Her father was much affected also, and could only say, in a broken voice, "God bless you. May God's blessings be upon you both. Mr. Ashwin, be kind to her, be worthy of her."
"I cannot promise to be wholly worthy of her," Ashwin replied; "but if kindness, devotion, and never-dying love can make her life happy, they shall be hers."
They had much to talk about, and Frank Ashwin walked into the house with them, the proudest, happiest man that day within a hundred miles of Bloomsbury.