In the Shadow of the Bush
Meanwhile, Maurice M'Keown's love affair could hardly be said to be getting much "forrarder," though nothing had actually occurred to interrupt the course of it. He was as devoted as ever in his attentions to the fair Mary, and some evening in the week, or on Sunday, he was sure to find his way across the paddocks to Robinson's.
A gloom had, of course, been thrown over the family by the tragic death of poor Harry, but he had been virtually a stranger to all the younger members of it, and with them the loss did not lie heavily on the heart as it did with his mother. The memory of that loss was rarely absent for long from her mind, though she bore it in a chastened and resigned way, without allowing it to cloud the serenity with which she carried out the duties of her life. Robinson may have felt the death of his son a good deal also, but he rarely referred to it, and in the bustling routine of his work on the farm, he found full occupation for mind as well as body.
Bereavement lies lightly on youth. Its buoyancy and bright outlook of hope are seldom dimmed for long, and the children, including Mary, when a few weeks had gone by, ceased to be affected by the sad episode in their lives.
Mary was young, and though Maurice made love to her in his hot, impetuous way, and now that he had entered on the business, would have carried her heart by storm, despising the slow tactics of a prolonged siege, Mary had not, so far, shown any desire to capitulate outright. It is true she had page 178accepted him as a lover, had taken her walks with him, and had listened with a pleased ear to his blandishments and strongly expressed declarations of love. She had even permitted him occasionally to take the sweet reward of a kiss—or, at least, had offered no very desperate resistance when he made the attempt. She had, in fact, made up her mind to marry him, and would have been much cast down and heart-broken if Maurice had transferred his affections and attentions to any other girl, but when he spoke of marriage or plighted truth, she would laughingly evade any direct committal for herself. Mary felt quite sure of his love, and was, perhaps, inclined in consequence to keep her lover in some degree of uncertainty with regard to the true state of her own heart.
Old professors in the art of love-making say that a man is foolish to appear hopelessly and helplessly over head and ears immersed in the tender passion, if he is not prepared, then and there, to offer his hand and a home as well as his heart, and Maurice was hardly as yet in a position to do this. He looked forward to a home in a year or two on that bush section of his where he had made a start at clearing—a home in which, to his mind's eye in fond anticipation, everything would be lit up with the sunshine of Mary's presence; but till then he must be content with the happiness of preparing it for her—and her for it.
Mary was young, and in the first fresh joy of womanhood was not anxious to bind herself with any engagement, preferring the delights of untrammelled freedom for a little longer, and as yet not willing to forego that added zest to existence which a young girl naturally experiences when she feels that she can be the object of the admiration of young men, without that admiration being damped by the knowledge that she is the marked and labelled property of another. When she is two or three years older that zest has lost its flavour, and it is then that the engaged girl, in her new dignity and assured matri-page 179monial prospects, feels she is the envy of her less fortunate sisters, and a new zest is given to her life.
Big George had paid the Robinsons two or three visits since Harry's death, and in his bashful way had shown the interest with which he regarded Mary: but he had not plucked up courage to make any decided advances. Mary must have been conscious in some degree of the state of his feelings towards her. But she was not a flirt, and could hardly be said to have offered him any encouragement, save in the kindness which she, in common with the others, showed to Harry's trusted mate.
George himself judged pretty correctly how matters stood between her and Maurice, and he came to think that he had been too late in entering the field. He and his mates had taken a contract in another part of the district, and the Robinsons had not seen him for some little time lately.
Mary had another admirer, but of a different sort, in the person of Mr. Ponsonby, resident at the Criterion Hotel, in Bloomsbury. He had seen her in the township on several occasions, and had been struck with her bright, good looks, her springy step, and lithesome, yet will-rounded, figure.
"A perfect paragon of rustic loveliness, by jove," he said to himself, as he watched her with unrestrained admiration. "'She walks in beauty,' egad—though there's nothing 'dark,' but something 'bright,' about her."
He was enamoured of her, and determined to enliven the dulness of his Bloomsbury existence with a little harmless, or harmful, love-making—harmless for him, while harmful for her, might, perhaps, best express his aspirations.
He took occasion, therefore, to follow her as she returned from the township, or to throw himself in her way, and offered in his best grace and most gallant manner to carry her small parcels for her, as he was going (as he said) in the same direction himself. But this offer Mary firmly declined.
Mary, if inexperienced, was circumspect and scrupulous page 180enough in her conduct; but what could she do when a young man, walking her way, would persist in keeping by her side and chatting in a respectful way about matters of local interest She did not wish to be rude, and must answer him sometimes. He encountered her in this way more than once, and began to use soft flattery, and pay, as he thought, most telling compliments, with hints of love, and heartaches, and what not; and talked of Cupid and Venus, and quoted amatory verses; and spoke of himself, his high connections and expectations. But Mary, though no doubt flattered in some degree by the evident admiration with which this fine gentleman regarded her, felt that his persistent attentions, and the increasing warmth of them, were becoming compromising to her; and plainly showed, could his vanity have allowed him to see it that she was not desirous of his company—that it was distasteful to her.
And when at last, at a secluded part of the road, he made some attempt to kiss her, she flamed up in hot indignation, and told him to leave her, and not force his society on her for the future, he was fain to comply with the demand in as far as it related to the particular moment, especially as, just then, some rider was seen approaching in the distance.
Ponsonby returned towards Bloomsbury.
"'One refusal, no rebuff,'" he said to himself. "She doesn't mean half of what she makes believe—none of them do. Egad, I like to see them show some spirit at first—take some winning—and not drop into a fellow's arms at the first invitation. She's a deuced tempting piece of goods, though; and when she's angry, or tries to appear angry, looks more captivating than ever—Venus in a huff, or with Juno's frown taken on for a change—or, egad, the virtuous Diana herself, 'chaste and fair,' in a bit of a temper. Well, my beauty, it's to be hoped you'll be in a more melting mood—just a little—the next time we meet—as I have no doubt you will."page 181
Maurice had heard of Ponsonby having been seen walking with Mary, and was vexed and annoyed at it.
"I could trust Mary far enough to take care of herself, for the matter of that," he thought, "but no woman's head is quite proof against vanity, perhaps—and this fine lover may turn hers—and the old sweetheart may not look so worthy beside this gay gentleman, as I suppose he calls himself. It's not pleasant, at any rate, to have her name mentioned along with his. His intentions can hardly be honest, and, by heavens, he had better take care what he's about!"
He spoke to Mary, also, on the matter, but she laughed and made light of it.
"I can't help the fellow walking in the same direction as I'm going—as he has done once or twice—and speaking to me," she said, and added, laughingly, "but you needn't be jealous of him, Maurice,—you really need not—though he is such a swell. But I don't think he will trouble me again or you, Maurice,—poor old Maurice, getting jealous—for I told him pretty plainly last time I saw him I didn't want his company."
"Jealous," replied Maurice, "of course I'm jealous. You're so sweet-looking and pretty that everyone must admire you: and, of course, I can't help being jealous. But promise to be mine, darling, and I'll never be jealous any more. I could trust you, Mary, then. And when it was known that you were the promised wife of another, fellows of this Ponsonby sort might admire you from a respectable distance, but would cease to annoy you—and insult you—with their attentions, or if they didn't I would make them. Give me the right to protect you, Mary, darling."
Mary felt very much inclined to surrender at discretion, but stood out for further parley.
"I'll think it over, Maurice—seriously, I will," she said; "but I know yon would protect me, right or no right, if I needed protection. I can take care of myself pretty well, too, page 182believe me. But the next time I have to walk in to Bloomsbury I'll time it—just to please you—so as to come back with Billy, when he gets out of school."
And on her next visit to the township she felt, in returning under Billy' protection, that she was quite safe and could bid defiance to the wiles of the enemy; and, though she caught sight of Mr. Ponsonby in the street, she reached home without seeing anything further of him.
Some weeks elapsed before Mary again walked thither; and then, on some errand of importance, she went in alone one Saturday afternoon.
Lengthening days and warmer weather told of summer being at hand. The season promised to be a dry one, and the roads and bush tracks, even the worst of them, now afforded pleasant travelling. The growth of grass on the sides of the roads was such as to almost cover the smaller logs that lay there; and in most of the paddocks the stock were half hidden in the luxuriant feed. Those bush pests—the mosquitos—were becoming troublesome in the evenings after the sun went down. They had been bad in the standing bush for a month or more, but had lately extended the sphere of their operations to adjoining cleared and open ground, much to the annoyance of the settlers, especially of those new-comers who for the first time made their acquaintance.
Ponsonby had seen Mary enter the township; and, bent on again encountering her, he strolled off in the direction which she must take, so as to wait for and intercept her on her way home.
Mary was rather later than she had expected to be, and was tripping along smartly so that she might reach home before dark, and when about half way became aware of Mr. Ponsonby's presence on the road in front of her. He was waiting, and she must needs pass him. He lifted his hat and accosted her. He may have had an extra beer or two in the afternoon, and was very demonstrative.page 183
"How do you do, Miss Robinson?" he said, as he proceeded to walk by her side. "'Pon my soul, I was beginning to think I should never again have the supreme delight of feasting my eyes on your loveliness—'pon my honour I was: and this is a happy meeting for me."
Mary was walking faster than before.
"The meeting's not a pleasant one for me," she said, "and I will thank you if you will turn back. I expect my brother, or somebody else, to meet me, and I have no wish for your company."
"There's not a soul in sight," said Ponsonby, looking ahead." I shall walk home with you, myself, if you will allow your slave that pleasure. Perhaps it's the rustic lover we expect, eh? Well, he has broken his tryst, you see—he doesn't keep faith. Ah, Miss Robinson, take a gentleman for your lover—you're worthy to be a Countess, egad—you are formed for love and love's delights, and not to be the drudge of some beggarly bushman who couldn't love and prize you as I should."
Mary walked on without replying.
"Egad, you can step out, and no mistake. Don't be in such a hurry, my princess. Give a fellow breathing time when he wants to relieve his mind and take the weight off his heart. This is too doosid hurried, you know."
They had now reached a spot on the road where several large trunks of trees, fallen across it at different angles, blocked it, except where, in the centre, room enough for the passage of a vehicle had been with difficulty cleared. Ponsonby here made a rapid stride or two in advance of his companion, and turning and holding out his arms, barred her further progress.
"Ha, my pink of perfection! my bush rose and fairest flower of Bloomsbury!—I hope you are not so cruelly disposed as you were the last time we met," Ponsonby continued, while Mary besought him to let her pass. "I wouldn't page 184willingly offend yon for the world," he went on—"you know I wouldn't. The very thought that I may have done so is killing me—that and your cruelty combined—cruel girl that will grant no favours to her devoted swain. Upon my soul, it is too bad of you, now; and will be the death of me, if you don't relent. I haven't been able to sleep at night since I parted from you last—upon my soul, I haven't—your devoted slave tossing on a bed of wakefulness, when you, careless and cruel one, are sound in the arms of Morpheus—O happy Morpheus!"
"Let me pass, please," demanded Mary. "I will not be stopped in this way. If you are anxious not to offend me, let me pass. You can please me best by keeping out of my way. Let me pass, sir."
"Don't be in such a hurry, my pretty one," he replied, still intercepting her advance. "Miss Robinson, upon my soul, I love you! I adore you, more than I can tell, or than is good for me—and you don't mean to be so unfeeling as to refuse your love-sick slave a kiss or some consolation after coming all this way to meet you. I know you don't mean it, now. Lovely woman is not so hard-hearted as she sometimes tries to make us believe. 'She said, she vowed she'd ne'er consent'—and, well—she wasn't made of adamant, you know—and you're too doosid lusciously lovely to be made of stone, either. This is Love's tollgate, and you must pay your dues before you can pass. Let me take sweet toll from your lips, just this once, and I'll open the gate, and remain your obedient slave ever afterwards."
"You are a wretch!" Mary said, with distress and anger in her voice, 'a cowardly wretch to keep me here. Oh, I wish somebody would come. I will pass!"
"Those lips of yours are far too tempting at any time, but when they pout in that way, egad! they're just irresistible," Ponsonby replied, approaching her; and as she tried to dart past him, he caught her, and, throwing his arms about her, page 185attempted to take the coveted kiss. But Mary was strong and determined, and this was not so easily accomplished.
"I will not," she cried. "I will not. Help! Oh, Maurice."
There was a rush of rapid footsteps, and Ponsonby was flung backward against a log by a strong hand. The same hand picked him up again and shook him till his teeth rattled.
M'Keown had come over to Robinson's, and, finding that Mary had not yet returned, had started off quickly down the road to meet her. Mrs. Robinson had been just about sending Billy off to meet his sister, but, at a word from Maurice the boy had willingly transferred that duty to him.
M'Keown's approach had not been noticed in the gathering twilight, for from where the others stood the view was partially obscured by some wineberry bushes and other growth, that had sprung up by the side of the track.
"What is this?" he said, fiercely, "and who are you that insults an unprotected girl on a lonely road? By heaven! you deserve to have every bone in your body broken—and I have a great mind to do it." And he shook him again.
Had this encounter not occurred in real life, but been described in the pages of a fashionable novel, the rustic lover would, of course, have been felled to the ground, incapable of resistance against the aristocratic one—the latter's skill, and the highly-trained and developed strength of his (perhaps) "slender, graceful, but lithe and athletic form," would soon have disposed of his homely antagonist—but as it was, Ponsonby felt that resistance on his part would be worse than useless. He had made some mark in the cricket field, and could kick a goal at football; was even wont to boast of his skill and prowess with his fists; and, indeed, under ordinary circumstances held a pretty high opinion of his powers of body (as well as of mind), and was not deficient in courage of a sort; but he now knew by the grip of the hand that held him by the collar, and the angry face in front of him, that he was in a very awkward fix indeed.
"Oh, look here, now," he managed to say, "this is too page 186doosid bad, you know—I have walked out with the girl before—and if a fellow should try to take a kiss, there's nothing so very dreadful in that, you know."
"There would be nothing dreadful in it at all," replied the other, 'if the girl didn't object, or if your kiss was an honest one. But your kisses are foul, man—they're not the kisses of an honest lover—and if I should hit you on the dirty mouth, as I ought to do, well, you would want, a new set of teeth before you went love-making again."
"Oh, well," said Ponsonby, "I don't suppose there is much harm in a gentleman trying to kiss a pretty girl, even though he mayn't exactly mean to marry her. But," he added apologetically, for he felt the grip tightening on his collar—"but I love Miss Robinson honestly enough—upon my soul, I do!"
"Your soul!" replied M'Keown."Your soul's a miserable shrunk-up, shrivelled thing: and I could shake it out of you into your boots—as I've a mind to do. You're a gentleman, too; are you indeed? Well, I'm glad you told me that, because I should never have thought it of you, if you hadn't let me know. Over at Ashwin's—there's a gentleman, now—we've got a tom-cat that has killed many a gentleman as good as you; it's only a rat you are, a stinking, thieving, sneaking rat of a gentleman. And now I'll tell you what I'll do with you, my fine gentleman." he added, looking about him. "I could smash in your face so that your mother wouldn't know you, though she had only parted with you an hour ago, and you would deserve it; but if ever you try to force yourself on this young girl again—if you ever even cast a light look at her—by the God above me, I will settle with you for it! And now—go there!"
And retaining his hold on Mr. Ponsonby's collar with the one hand, and with the other seizing him by the handiest part of his garments, he fairly lifted him off his feet, and pitched him head-first over one of the fallen tree-trunks into a space between it and another, where a soft, yielding mass of the page 187prickly, fast-clinging, flesh-scoring "lawyer" vines, intermixed with other growth, received and enveloped him, all but his legs, which were still visible above the log.
"Now, Mary, we'll go home," said Maurice, with some remnant of sternness in his voice.
Mary had been standing a little distance off, in some anxiety and distress lest Maurice in his anger should inflict severe punishment on the other, and was now relieved in mind at the bloodless, if somewhat ludicrous, termination of the affair.
"Oh, Maurice, do you think he will get out?" she asked, with a return of merriment in her voice, when they had gone a little way.
"Well," he replied, "if he stays there till I pull him out he'll spend the night there, and the mosquitos will have time to tickle him. I might go back in the morning if I thought he was there then, and set him on his feet again. But," looking back, "I think I can make him out taking himself off towards Bloomsbury."
Maurice was unusually silent at first on the way back, and strode along at a pace that Mary found it difficult to keep up with. She was afraid he was offended with her, and attached some blame to her for allowing Ponsonby the opportunity of proceeding to the length he had gone in forcing his attentions upon her, or for, perhaps, giving him some encouragement.
Maurice still continued to walk in silence, and they had got well-nigh home, when a half-stifled sob arrested him.
"Eh! What!" he cried, slopping suddenly; "not crying, Mary, surely? What a brute I am!" And then asked abruptly, but with some return of tenderness in his tone:
"Did he walk out all the way with you, Mary?"
"No, indeed, Maurice," she replied, drying her tears. "He was waiting near that same place, and when we got there he wouldn't let me pass."
"Did he kiss you, Mary?" he asked.
"Indeed, he did not," she answered; "but it's hard to page 188say—he might have—if you hadn't come just in time. Oh, Maurice, I was so glad to see you."
"Because." Maurice went on, but lovingly now, "if he had taken a kiss I would have liked you to wash your face before I asked you for one for myself."
"I mightn't give you one." she said coyly, her usual self again, all trace of grief having fled from eyes and voice. And then she added, demurely:
"He didn't kiss me, Maurice."
"That means that I may take one, I suppose?" he answered.
"Ah! but," she said, "when I give you leave to take one, you always take twenty."
"I never was good at arithmetic, Mary," he replied: "it was my failing at school, and when it comes to counting kisses, I am the greatest dunce in the world. Ah, Mary, sweet Mary," he said, after he had taken her in his arms and kissed her, "you will not put me off any longer after this—you will give me the right to watch over you."
"I suppose I must," she said, and nestled closer to him.
Ah, youthful love and pure, and all the sweet delights of it, what a weary world this would be if you were banished from it! Eve robbed Eden of it and them when she came away, and left no equal joys behind her.