In the Shadow of the Bush
When Old Dan paid his visit, Mr. Elwood was engaged sowing some vegetable seeds in his garden, which lay at the side of the house on the right, but partly between it and the road. Though the incident of the previous day, and the associations which it recalled, remained fresh in his mind, he was able now to look with more resignation on the prospect of his past history being made the common talk of the neighbourhood, and employed himself as usual. "It is the will of God," he said, "that my former life, with all its wrongs and sorrows, must be kept continually before me and my children. I must submit."
He had his back towards the gate, and was so busily engaged in his occupation that he did not see the approach of his dreaded acquaintance of olden days till he was close upon him. Dan had stood looking over the gate with a grin of satisfaction on his hard face for a minute or so before he entered. He then advanced as noiselessly as he could, as if desirous of watching the effect a sudden surprise would have on his victim.
"Any chance of a job, yer honour?"
Elwood started at the sound of a voice which he remembered too well; and when he looked round and saw the exultant leer on that face which he had but too truly instantly recognised the day before, he was speechless. White-faced and trembling, he leant heavily for support on the spade which he had been using.page 131
"Be the powers!" exclaimed Dan, as if he had only that moment made the discovery, "if it isn't me ould frind Charley—Cantin' Charley, we used to call ye in thim days! Number thirty-siven, how are ye, me boy?"—and Dan reached out his hand.—"Oh, it's proud ye are, is it? Nivver mind thin—sure, an' it gives me the greatest plisure in life, intoirely, now, to see ye wanst more, even if it's proud ye are an' won't shake hands. Oh, it's mesilf would nivver trate an ould frind in that way. Begorra, now I've found ye, I'll not lose sight av ye agin! Faith, an' it's purty snug ye are here," he went on, looking round about him, "purty snug, faith—oh, lave ye alone for that—an' a respictable mimber av society ye'll be, to be sure; but ye would nivver have the heart to turn yer back on me, would ye? It's a gardener ye'll be wantin' now, for sure, or a coachman? Oh, it's mesilf would sit up on the sate beside ye, an' talk to ye about the ould days!"
"Go away, wretched man!" said Elwood, partially recovering himself. "We have nothing in common, and never had, except the outward form of humanity and the lot in which it was my bitter misfortune to be forced to associate with you. You were always my implacable enemy, though God knows you never suffered injury at my hands. I may have sought to raise your thoughts, and those of our companions, to higher things; and to lift our lives out of the pit of hell into which they were being sunk, but I found but little success. My reward from most of you—from you in particular, who were always to the front in villainy—was only to be scorned and abused and jeered at, with other treatment too foul to be named."
"An' it wasn't ye that got me the lash, ayther, ye pious ould fraud, ye!" said Dan, savagely.
"Not through me was the villainy discovered that was the cause of your receiving it," Elwood answered. "When it was found out, and the truth demanded of me and others, I could only speak what I knew, and if I had held my tongue, it would page 132not have saved you, though it might have let an innocent man suffer also."
Miss Elwood had come on the verandah, and seeing the stranger, and hearing his last question, she knew at once who he was. She hastened to her father's side, and stood there with indignant mien, and with flashing eyes and heightened colour, willing to interpose herself between him and any threatened danger, casting the protection of her presence over the old man who still leaned upon his spade.
"Go away, you evil man! What brought you here?" she said. "You have no right to intrude yourself upon us. We do not care for anything you may do or say. My father has the consciousness of innocence to shield and sustain him."
"Och, me beauty! is it you?" Dan replied, jeeringly. "A b——fine lady ye'll be now, the divil a doubt av it. Isn't it ashamed av yersilf ye are, treatin' an ould frind av the family afther this fashion—orderin' him aff the primises, indade? It's settin' yer cap ye are at some av the gay young gintlemen about here. Faith, an' whin they know what ye are, they'll come coortin' ye—the ould convict's daughter—won't they, now? It's a left-handed coortship they'll be for givin' ye, but the divil a marry, I'm thinkin'," and in still fouler terms and louder tones Dan continued his taunts.
"Go in, my child, go in," cried Elwood, excitedly, "do not let your ears take in the horrible insults of this obscene wretch. I will drive him from the place." And uplifting his spade, and forgetting his feebleness in the moment of excitement, he advanced on Dan. But timely assistance was at hand. Ashwin, riding along, had for some time noticed the group engaged, as it were, in conversation; but when he had drawn nearer and reached the gate, he judged by what he then saw, and, indeed, from what he heard, though imperfectly, that something was wrong; and hurriedly dismounting and throwing the reins over the gate, he entered just in time to see the excited advance of Mr. Elwood with the uplifted spade in his hands. With a few page 133rapid strides he covered the ground that lay between him and the apparently would-be combatants. For Old Dan had stood his ground, and brandishing his heavy stick, was pouring forth words of foul profanity in defiance. Elwood's advance was, indeed, checked by his daughter, who, now with pale and frightened looks, had sprung forward and seized her father's arm, imploring him, at the same time, to come with her into the house, and get away out of sight and hearing of the wretched man.
Ashwin did not wait to enquire for cause or explanation of the scene he was witness to, but in the threatening gestures of Old Dan, and more especially in the imprecations and loathsome language which he was giving vent to in Miss Elwood's presence, he saw and heard enough to rouse in him the deepest indignation; and casting loose, as he went, the stockwhip which he still carried—a stockwhip that many a rowdy bullock before now had felt the hide-raising cut of—he swung it round his head, and with unerring aim brought the knotted end of the lash down on Dan's leg with such skill and force that both cloth and skin were lifted by it, and a gash left in the flesh. With a howl of rage and pain Dan sprang in the air, and turned on Ashwin; and with a murderous look on his face, appeared as if he would rush in and close with him. But in the strong and active young form, and in the determined eyes before him, he saw enough to daunt his courage; besides, the terrible stockwhip was again making the circuit of Ashwin's head, and, fearful of another taste of its quality, Old Dan turned tail and ran; but stopped when near the gate to hurl back his parting maledictions.
"Ye b——b——, I'll have yer b——life for this. Go in an' comfort the ould 'leg' an' his daughter—ye're her fancy-man, I suppose. Me curse on the lot av yez—on you an' on the ould convict an' his daughter."
"Off you go, or I'll score your back for you this time," page 134said Ashwin, making towards the retreating Dan. "Off you go, and if ever I find you near this place again I'll lash you from here to Bloomsbury."
Elwood, the strength which the excitement had for the moment given him having left him, now stood, weak and trembling, supported by his daughter, who spoke to him sweet and soothing words of comfort. Ashwin hastened to join them, and helped the old man to the house.
"Thank you—thank you for this, Mr. Ashwin," he said, as he walked rather unsteadily thither." I am all right now—it was only a little weakness—overcome by the presence of that man. It was foolish of me to attempt to drive him away, but the language he was using in my daughter's ears, and to her, made me forget I was old and feeble. You heard what he said," he continued, after he was seated inside. "You heard what he called me. It is indeed too true. Bear with me a little till I have recovered myself, and I will tell you the story of my life—I owe this to you. Since our coming here we have lived quietly to ourselves. We have not, I think, sought to push ourselves into the society of others—I hope we have not. "I trust that you, whom we have seen most of, will not think that we have."
"God knows you have not," ejaculated Ashwin.
"When we came here, strangers." the old man continued, "you in your great kindness of heart sought me out, and, seeing that the life, the occupation, I was entering on was in a great measure new and strange to me, you offered me, with becoming diffidence indeed, your counsel and assistance; and that counsel and ready help have since then been always at my service—even before they were asked for—and have been invaluable to me."
"All I have done has been indeed very little, Mr. Elwood," Ashwin replied; "and I am pleased to think that you have found that little of some use, and availed yourself of it—as I hope you will continue to do."page 135
Mr. Elwood answered, "You are indeed generous," and continued, "If in our past intercourse I may have at times orgotten for the moment what I was—and what I am; if in the interest which I was beginning to feel in the concerns of the farm and in our surroundings here under new and happier conditions of existence, I have allowed a veil to drop between me and the past; if I have on occasion spoken or acted as if no cloud of sorrow and degradation lay upon my life; if I did not think I was called upon, or if I lacked the courage, to make the avowal that it was a convicted felon with whom you were associating, I must implore your forgiveness. I might, indeed, plead as an excuse that I had the consciousness of innocence to uphold me—the knowledge that I was not guilty of the charge on which I was convicted; that I suffered for the criminal acts of another, in whom, my only fault was, I reposed too much trust; and that, knowing and feeling this, I could hold myself the peer of any honest man, nor think he could receive contamination from my touch. But I do not expect you or others to believe all this, and I will plead for no consideration on that behalf. The plea of injured innocence is too commonly put forward by the guilty, and I should be foolish to urge it in my case, or expect it to influence the minds of others."
"I am willing to believe in your innocence, Mr. Elwood," Ashwin said. "Crime and the criminal nature will nearly always lay their mark on a man's countenance, and your face and bearing, if I am any judge, are those of an honest man. I believe you to be innocent. But even if it were not so, I for one am prepared to make every allowance for human frailty. In a moment of weakness and under heavy pressure, a man may step over the boundary line between right and wrong—perhaps take for his own use money placed in his charge—take it temporarily, as he thinks at first, confident that he will be able to make restitution, and with the determination to do so; but his expectations tumble about his ears, he gets from bad to page 136worse, and at last is landed in the dock. Our neighbour, Morton, was saying only to-day that half the men in the world ought to be in gaol, and would have been sent there at some period of their lives only their misdemeanours didn't happen to be found out; while with most of the other half it was the force of circumstances, the want of opportunity, or the absence of any occasion for exercising their criminal propensities that kept them straight. I should be sorry to think as badly of the world as Morton does, but there is some truth in what he says."
"Some little truth, no doubt," said Mr. Elwood; "but mankind is not so black as he would paint it. There is also to be found much that is upright, and honourable, and true. Mr. Morton's cynical views are not the best, nor would the acceptance of them be likely to work any improvement in society. Neither should human weakness be put forward in justification of wrong-doing, though it may, and should, evoke a feeling of pity for the transgressor.
"But I thank you, Mr. Ashwin, for your kindly assurance of confidence and belief in the innocence of one who had no right to expect such generous treatment, and who has not expected it. But I must warn you that you will stand alone, or almost alone, in this, and may suffer in the opinion of others if you were to act up to your belief, and continue on terms of intimacy with me. The world is apt to take the least charitable view of things. Few, indeed, in any case would attach any weight to the ex-convict's assertion that he had borne another's penalty, or believe in his innocence if he were foolish enough to proclaim it. I must still live under the ban of the criminal. The stain must rest on me, and also, alas, though in a more remote degree, on those dear to me. For myself, I need care but little for the slights or the taunts of the world. What I have endured makes even these seem but trifles. My life must, in the course of nature, soon draw to a close, and the grave cover it, but to leave a heritage of shame to my children is indeed a hard thought to bear resignedly.page 137
"I promised, however, to give you some details of my past life—to lay bare to you what I, perhaps, should not have left so long unrevealed. Thank you, my child," he added, as his daughter placed beside him a cup of tea which she had made haste to prepare. "Sit down by me, Maud, while I tell Mr. Ashwin something of my history—your presence will comfort and sustain me, as it always does."