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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter V

page 24

Chapter V.

Beneath the verandah of the Criterion—the larger of the other two hostelries, being also the first established, and still accounted the leading one of the place—three or four men of respectable appearance were assembled after lunch on the afternoon of the day, the morning of which saw Davie and his companion proceed towards the township.

Though the winter had barely yet passed, the day was warm, and the bright unclouded sunshine streaming in where they stood made the situation enjoyable.

"The place is cheap enough," said a stout florid man, tall and of good proportions, with full grey eyes in which shrewdness was combined with a certain look of boldness, which latter was also characteristic of the general style in which he carried himself. He appeared to be between forty-five and fifty years of age. "The place is cheap enough," he was saying, "though it wasn't sold through me. It is all in grass, I believe, and has a metalled road nearly all the way to it. With a good house, too, and every convenience, it is right enough for the money. Has anyone seen the new proprietor?—I was absent from Bloomsbury, I think, on the day he passed through."

"I saw him; he stopped here for lunch," drawled a young gentleman, dressed in a light grey tweed suit of stylish cut, and with a cap of the same material placed jauntily on his head, "I saw the old gentleman. He seems to be rather too far gone in the sere and yellow leaf to give promise of much success in the glorious work of colonisation, as you would call page 25it, Wilmot. There was a boy, a son I suppose, with him; but what interested me most was a deuced good-looking girl that called him father, and didn't seem to have eyes, egad, for anybody else."

"You're a bit of a lady-killer, no doubt, Ponsonby, but you mustn't expect a girl to throw herself at you at first sight, or exchange amorous glances with you, either. Don't imagine you can carry all before you in that fashion. Steady's the horse to win. Don't make all your running at the start, or break away before the flag falls," said a short and rather stout young man, whose name was Spalding, and who acted as agent in the branch of the bank lately opened here.

"Oh, don't get anxious on my account, old man," replied Ponsonby, "I'm not at all struck. The girl's good-looking enough in her way, but she's not my style—not enough fire and dash for me. One of your quiet, placid, mild-eyed sort of beauties is not going to captivate me. The place is too deuced quiet and placid as it is. But if you'll show me a real jolly girl, with some sparkle and go in her, I shouldn't mind doing a little in the amatory way. Not that I'm of the marrying sort at all, but a turn of love-making would just help to break the monotony of this blooming Bloomsbury Township of yours. But here's Morton riding up," he added, as a horseman was seen approaching. "He is a neighbour of the new comers now, you know, and I dare say could tell you more about them than I can,—that is, if he is in the humour to speak to us at all. He may pass us with a nod, or without one, as he generally does."

The person referred to rode up, and, to the surprise of some of them, dismounted and hung up his horse. He was a man above middle height, of about thirty-five, though he perhaps looked older. He had a thoughtful cast of countenance, but his eyes, which were deep set, had a keen and searching glance with them, not unmixed frequently with an expression of cynicism, which latter might be also seen perhaps page 26more clearly in the lines of his mouth; and yet at times a kindliness of disposition would, as it were, in spite of himself, make itself visible in his face and eyes. He was about passing into the hotel when Wilmot accosted him in a rather pompous, grandiloquent manner which was habitual with him.

"We were just speaking, Mr. Morton, of those lately arrived neighbours of yours, the people who have gone into Smith's old place; and expressing a hope that they would be found an acquisition to the district. Have you made their acquaintance yet?"

"I have not," Morton replied—"Not in the sense you mean. I haven't called on them, nor avowed how glad I was to have them for neighbours, nor found out all about their antecedents, nor inspected with a critical eye themselves and their belongings, so that I could pull them to pieces afterwards. I can leave all that for the women of Bloomsbury to do, or any of the men who feel so inclined. I happened to see them, however, as they drove past, and Mr. Elwood spoke to me across the fence since then. He hasn't had much experience in bush farming, I fancy."

"But in this magnificent district, as you know, Mr. Morton, the grass luxuriates, and the stock thrive, in spite of our inexperience, and experience is soon gained," Wilmot replied.

"I am not so sure of all that," answered Morton. "In the meantime, while this old man is gaining his experience, there's a chance for some one to make money out of him. Has nobody a line of broken-mouthed ewes that could be palmed off to him as four-tooths; or a broked-winded old screw, well up in condition, that could be sold to him as a five year old; a town section at double its value; or shares in some promising venture that are just worth less than nothing at all? But I forgot: we are all honest here."

"Ah, Mr. Morton, you are always too hard upon poor humanity. But speaking of shares, now—have you seen the prospectus of our new Town Hall Company? I know you must page 27take an interest in our rising township, and be desirous for its advancement; and is it not a shame that the inhabitants of this important centre, of this rich and progressive district, should have no suitable place of meeting in which to discuss the burning questions of the hour; in which," he continued, warming to his subject—"in which the candidate who may aspire to represent us in the Parliament of our country may lay his views before us; and in which music and the drama may afford us, in our hours of relaxation, delight and instruction; in which the youth of both sexes—and some amongst us, perhaps, who are no longer young—may—may 'chase the glowing hours with flying feet'? Besides, you know," he added, "the thing will pay. Let me put your name down for fifty shares."

"Pay," said Morton, with a laugh—"no doubt it will. And a building of the kind is very necessary for the purposes you mention. We need a place where so-called actors may show us false views of life, and strut and mouth for our edification, and where our young fellows—our gilded youth—may look at Sally Skyhigh's legs for a bob; where the designing, self-seeking politician may fool the electors to his heart's content, or the political blatherskite talk by the hour about what he doesn't understand—very necessary, no doubt; but—I'll not be a shareholder."

"There is evidently nothing quite right or satisfactory in this world, according to your view, Mr. Morton," replied Wilmot, who, having a design on the constituency himself, felt touched by the other's disparaging reference to candidates for political honours. "If politicians are all so selfish or ignorant as you would have us believe, why not give us the inestimable advantage of securing your wisdom in guiding the affairs of the State, and stand for the House yourself?"

"God forbid that I should ever come to that," Morton replied, as be turned and walked into the hotel.

"You won't make much out of him," said Ponsonby.

page 28

"There's too much gall and wormwood in Morton's composition to suit my taste. Why doesn't he try to enjoy life, egad, while he can? He has got plenty of money, I believe, and has a good property as well; and yet he lives like a hermit, with only a man and a boy about him—a regular woman-hater who won't have one of the sex near his place. Egad, if I lived there, I should want to see some blooming petticoats flitting around. If my old governor, at home, would only hand over the needful in bulk instead of doling it out in quarterly allowances, that never, egad, seem to last the quarter out, I would show Morton how to make life enjoyable."

Ponsonby was one of a class, somewhat numerous in the Colonies, who, having begun to sow their youthful wild oats with a rather heavy hand in the Old Country, are dispatched here to finish the in-putting of the crop, and—to reap the harvest.

"I think your governor shows his wisdom in holding back the cash a bit, Ponsie," said Spalding. "That colonial experience which is thought so much of at home, and which you were sent out here to acquire, can hardly be said to have been perfected yet."

"I rather fancy," drawled Ponsonby, "I could make more rapid strides towards finishing my education if I had more money to spend."

"Or had none at all except what you earned," replied the other. "But," he added, looking at his watch, "it's time for me to be at the Bank again. By the way, Wilmot, who is that seedy-looking individual who has been hanging round the door of your office over there, and is knocking at it now? It looks more like a subscription list than a land sale for you, I fancy."

"I have had my eye on him," Wilmot replied. "But I must go now and see what he wants."

His visitor was our acquaintance, Mr. Westall, who, having page 29left his swag and his companion of the road at the Cosmopolitan, had sauntered into the township in quest of the friend whom he claimed to have in Bloomsbury.

As Wilmot approached him, the two men looked at each other steadily—Wilmot with that bold stare that was characteristic of him, and Westell with a keen, inquisitive look that after a few seconds seemed to satisfy him, for it changed into one of smiling recognition as he said:

"You haven't forgot an old acquaintance, I hope, Mr.—a—Wilmot? By the way," he added, in a lower voice, and looking round to see that no one was within hearing, "I see you have picked up a new name since we last met. Time works changes in us all, but your old friend Westall couldn't be mistaken in you, though you have taken to wear a beard now, and have grown a deal stouter."

"My good fellow, you appear to labour——" began the other, but checked himself, and continued after a pause, "And what the devil has brought you here, Westall? Come inside, off the street, if you want to talk to me. I expected you would have drunk yourself to death in 'Frisco before now."

"Well, I call that not over kind," answered Westall; "I expected a little more friendly greeting from you after all these years. After I got out of the hospital there—where I was laid up with fever—and found you had cleared out in the meantime, things didn't look over-pleasant, I can tell you. I hadn't a penny in my pocket; and the man that I might have expected some help from was gone without leaving any address behind him. It wasn't quite a friendly thing to do, was it, now? I made myself useful to you there, didn't I? You can't deny that. Any money I had from you was earned; and if I know more about your past life than you would care to have made public, I didn't trade on that then, I think. Well, after a while I thought I would try Australia for a change, and managed to scrape up enough to pay my passage. page 30I may have had an idea that you went in the same direction yourself. I have been knocking round the Colonies since then, pretty hard up generally—but not always. I made a rise in Queensland once, at the Towers, but it all went soon; and now I have given New Zealand a turn for a year or so; and have had the good fortune to drop on you. I caught sight of you as you jumped into a train in Wellington. I was pretty certain of you, though I only saw you for a moment; and got your present name and address from the man you had just parted from on the platform. And here I am, to renew old friendship—but dead broke—without a cent—had to hump it all the way on foot. Friendship like that deserves to be rewarded."

"And you expect me to replenish your pocket and send you on your way rejoicing, I suppose?" said Wilmot, with a sneer.

"To have the pocket replenished would certainly be very acceptable," Westall replied; "but as for going on my way—well—I don't know that I shall do so just yet, in fact, I am thinking of settling down here—for a time at least. I am told you have done well here—quite the leading man of the place, invested a lot of capital, and making money hand over fist, with nobody but yourself to spend it. You would never miss a little pecuniary assistance to an old friend, whose habits are not very expensive, you know, or give him a helping hand in some way. I suppose I have as good a show of getting something to do here as anywhere else. You may want a clerk yourself, and I haven't quite forgot how to keep books yet."

"And suppose I refuse to afford any assistance, pecuniary or otherwise, and will have nothing to do with you?" Wilmot asked, regarding the other with a look, under which the weaker-minded man shifted and quailed.

"We need hardly speculate as to what might take place in that event," he answered uneasily; "you were never given to refuse a helping hand if a fellow was down on his luck, or page 31be close-fisted in money matters. You were always fonder of making money than of keeping it. I won't say that I am likely to do or say anything to injure you in your position here, or rake up bygones. You wouldn't have seen me here now if things hadn't gone badly with me, and I knew you wouldn't refuse to help a fellow for old times' sake."

"Look here, Westall," replied Wilmot, "you know me pretty well by this time. I haven't changed. You know that trifles are not likely to stop me in any course I may elect to follow. You have found me here in a position in which I have gained the respect and confidence of my fellow colonists—with wider opportunities to be perhaps afforded me before long in which to merit a still greater share of that confidence and esteem—an honourable position in this new country where I have made my home, and—and one of usefulness, I think I am justified in saying. You have come here—there is no use denying it—in the hope and expectation of selling your silence with regard to some peccadillos of the past. You think that disclosures here in this British Colony, and in the position which I now occupy, would entail now weightier consequences to me than it would formerly have done during our intercourse in America, where I might have laughed at your threats or have had you knocked on the head for making them. But don't deceive yourself. If I care to say I defy you, you might do your damnedest, and who would believe you if I said your story was a pure fabrication for the purpose of extorting blackmail? As for setting the law in motion, after all these years, the thing's absurd—besides, as you know, expiation has been already made, in a sense."

"Ah," said Westall, sadly, "do not mention that expiation. In the moments when I am not wholly lost to better feelings, the thought of it lies on me like a nightmare even still; and it will continue to haunt me to my dying day."

"Well, well, let it rest," said the other, "and I don't mind helping you, for old times' sake—but if you drop a page 32hint of knowing anything to my disadvantage—of ever having previously known me at all, in fact, you'll get no further help from me. I don't choose to be afraid of you, or of what you can do. You know me, I think, by this time. You will be a remittance man, you understand, drawing through me, as agent, your monthly or quarterly allowance from your old father or aunt, or somebody in England who has heard of your broken-down state, and doesn't intend to let you starve. I'll see, later on, if I can get you into anything, or give you something to do myself. I am afraid, though, that you are neither well fitted for work of any kind now, nor anxious for it. Where are you stopping?"

"Stopping!" replied Westall. "I left my swag at the pub down the road—the Cosmopolitan, I think they call it."

"Very well," Wilmot said, "stay there. I will give you as much as will pay for your board, and something extra for drinks. You haven't turned teetotaller yet, I suppose?"

Westall grinned, and said that he would be the better for something besides for pressing requirements, as he "needed a new rig out." This was agreed to, and the money paid, and Westall then took his way back towards the Cosmopolitan.

Wilmot looked after him with a look in which hatred and contempt were blended, or followed each other, as he said to himself, "Curse the fellow and the evil chance that led him to find me out here. The persistent, clinging consequences of a past misdeed are hard to shake off. When years have well-nigh blotted out the memory of it, some far-reaching octopus-like arm of it lays hold on us still. But Westall had better take care not to work at cross purposes with me—as he knows full well. But the fellow will drink himself to death on Brasch's bad whisky, I expect, if he gets the chance," he added, as he turned into his office.