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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter XXXII

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Chapter XXXII.

The silence continued for a few minutes, and then Laura broke it by remarking:

"I wonder if Mr. Ponsonby is staying here now. We met him at the Hunt Club ball, you remember, mother."

"I remember him," Mrs. Ashwin replied. "I thought him very conceited, and—well—rather silly."

As if in response to Miss Ashwin's enquiry, there was a knock at the door, and Mr. Ponsonby himself entered.

"This is a most unexpected pleasure, ladies," he said in his affected drawl, after he had made his bow and shaken hands; "I really could scarcely believe my senses when I heard that the charming Miss Ashwin, and her—a—equally charming mother, had deigned to honour Bloomsbury with their presence. An event of this importance does not often occur to break the monotony of life in this outlandish place; and I can assure you, ladies, that. I highly appreciate the favour you have conferred on us by this visit."

"I see that you are still an adept at flattery, Mr. Ponsonby," Miss Ashwin said, very well pleased at the present time to renew the acquaintance.

"Upon my word and honour, Miss Ashwin, I never was more sincere in my life," Ponsonby replied. "Existence here is generally just an unmitigated bore—as dull as a day of rain; and the charm of your society breaks in on it, egad! like a flood of sunshine. Besides," he added, with his best bow, "it page 222would be impossible for me to use flattery where Miss Ashwin is concerned."

"I wonder you stay here if you find it so dull," Mrs. Ashwin remarked. "You are not farming here, or engaged in any other business or profession, are you, Mr. Ponsonby?"

"No," he replied; "not exactly. The fact is, my dear Mrs. Ashwin, I am supposed to be here for the purpose of gaining 'colonial experience,' as it is called. I am supposed to be in the very van of progress here—receiving daily lessons in the rougher and more laborious branches of colonisation—here, where men are hourly engaged in the work of breaking-in the wilderness, and all that sort of thing. I must say I should prefer to let someone else break it in for me. All this, I may mention, with a view to my—a—investing somewhat largely in property by-and-by, so, at least, my governor wishes; and his agent in this country thinks the bush districts offer the best field for youthful enterprise, and—a—advised me to come here. It isn't exactly my ideal as a place of residence. There are other places that would have suited my taste better—near—a—Harefield, for instance, particularly so—where my colonial education would, no doubt, have progressed equally fast and satisfactorily, but one has to give way sometimes to the opinions of one's—a—advisers. And," he added, "for a country place this is a very passable hotel to stay at; and we are not without some little excitement occasionally. We were nearly all burnt out here the other day. Egad! it was particularly warm for a while, I can tell you, ladies; and most deucedly smoky."

"How very unpleasant," remarked Miss Ashwin.

"Deucedly unpleasant, I can assure you. It was only by keeping the doors shut and remaining inside that one was able to exist with any comfort."

"It was through this fire that my son met with his accident," Mrs. Ashwin observed, "it was a pity that he also was not able to keep within closed doors."

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"A—yes, to be sure," Ponsonby answered. "But who would not risk life and limb when lovely woman is in danger? Though in Ashwin's case I believe it was lovely woman that rushed to his rescue, in reward, no doubt, for his previous exertions on her behalf. Very romantic altogether, egad! It was, upon my word and honour; and I shouldn't have minded being in his place, if it hadn't been for broken bones, you know, and the—a—confounded smoke. Love-making might be rather trying under the circumstances, though, egad! one would have no difficulty in expressing one's gratitude to the fair deliverer with—a—proper feeling, for the smoke would bring tears to one's eyes, at any rate."

"Oh, pray, do not speak of the deplorable affair at all, Mr. Ponsonby," exclaimed Miss Ashwin, "or of those wretched people. It is very unfortunate that my brother should be under any show of obligation to them, or should have been mixed up with their affairs in any way. I am sure I do not know how Frank could demean himself by associating with them in the slightest degree—it is a positive disgrace. But what a beautiful night it is," she went on, turning and looking out through the half-open French window that led on to the balcony. "The moon is hanging low over the west, and the outline of the wooded range is dimly seen through the smoky haze which thinly, even yet, appears to envelop the landscape ("poetical, by Jove!" thought Ponsonby). How warm it is here, too. Ah, thank you," continued Miss Ashwin, as Ponsonby opened the window and handed her on to the balcony, "it is cooler here," she said, as they strolled along it. "How the lights of the straggling township blend with and relieve the dark background of the bush. Are you an admirer of the beautiful, Mr. Ponsonby? One gets some lovely views in this bush country of yours."

If Ponsonby had been candid, he would have said that he didn't see anything to gush over in the present landscape; and would have admitted that he was unimpressed by scenery, page 224even the grandest: and it is doubtful if Miss Ashwin herself entertained that rapturous appreciation of the beauties of nature which she, in common with many other young ladies like her, was in the habit of effusively giving expression to.

Ponsonby replied that he simply worshipped the beautiful wherever he saw it; but added: "I don't know that I can take in overmuch of the beautiful at one time, you know—one form of it is enough at a time for me. In the contemplation of one lovely object, I'm, egad! blind to everything else; and in your presence, Miss Ashwin, all other charming things must—a—'pale their ineffectual fires,' you know—upon my soul, they must! There's nothing in them to my mind in comparison."

"What incorrigible flatterers you men are, Mr. Ponsonby," Miss Ashwin answered, by no means offended, "and you yourself one of the worst. How can we poor girls trust you? I am sure I don't believe a word you say when you talk in that strain, Mr. Ponsonby. You have talked in the same way to twenty girls before now, I feel convinced. Ah, no, you must not expect me to think you sincere in what you tell me. I know better than to believe your flattering speeches and fine compliments," she said, and laughed lightly.

"I was never more serious in my life," protested Ponsonby, "upon my word and honour, I never was. Other charms are lost on me when I look on you, Miss Ashwin. You know I have admired you from the first moment I saw you, and I have thought of you more than has been good for my peace of mind, I can assure you I have."

"I really am sorry if your peace of mind has been broken on my account, Mr. Ponsonby," replied Miss Ashwin; "I really am sorry—but I think you will get over it. It will not prove fatal—you will survive—ha, ha, ha!—at least, I hope so."

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"Egad! I'm not so sure of that," Ponsonby said. "I feel more like dying than living at the present moment, since you treat my avowal so lightly. I don't know what the consequences may be—upon my soul, I don't—if you will not smile on me, or give me some little encouragement," he went on, taking her hand, which she allowed him to retain for a moment before she withdrew it, saying:

"Men, we are told, are deceivers ever; and I am afraid, Mr. Ponsonby, that you are no exception to the rule; most likely a very dangerous man indeed, making love and breaking hearts right and left. You must prove your sincerity, you know, before you can expect encouragement from anyone. But mother will wonder where we have got to; and I hear voices. My brothers, I suppose, have come up. We must go in."

"I may come and see you at Harefield, mayn't I?" he asked.

"Oh, yes," she answered. "We are always glad to see our friends there; we are so dull at times, and appreciate pleasant company."

"Well, Laura," said Tom, as they entered the room, "have you been admiring the moonlight?"

"Yes," Laura answered, "we have no such nights as this down in the open country. There is a peculiar weird aspect about things seen by the light of the young moon through the thin veil of smoke which still hangs over the scene. The effect as viewed from the balcony, as one looks over the intervening township and the dark masses of nearer bush, towards the dim ranges in the distance, is very fine."

"Deuced fine!" said Ponsonby.

Frank was not overpleased at the presence of Ponsonby in company with his sister, and thought to himself: "Laura considers herself disgraced through my intimacy with the Elwoods, but can listen, I expect, without displeasure, to the fulsome flattery and silly compliments of this fellow, who page 226hasn't a redeeming quality of mind or heart. A mere public-house loafer he would be if his people didn't send him enough money to pay for his board—a man who, if he had to work for his living, would be only fit to clean out a stable or groom a horse, and would do both badly—in whom laziness and self-gratification exclude all sense of duty or of moral obligations. And yet, because he puts on side, and dresses well, and can talk of his expectations and the wealth and high caste of his family, this sister of mine, I suppose, thinks herself honoured by his attentions, or, at least, is evidently not displeased with them. I must let her know something more of him; though, if I speak to her, she will only toss her head and tell me to mind my own concerns, or taunt me with Miss Elwood and my wish to make her my wife. Ah, Maud! dear girl—it would be sacrilege to speak of you and Ponsonby in the same breath. I shall tell mother what I know of the fellow."

And this Ashwin accordingly did on the following morning. But his mother made light of his fears.

"You need not have any anxiety about Laura," she said. "She will not allow her affections to be engaged, or commit herself in any way, before there is a definite and unmistake-able prospect of a suitable position and establishment placed before her; and these I think Mr. Ponsonby is not likely to have at his disposal for some considerable time to come. The young man may be all you say, but there seems no doubt that he is well-connected, and is perhaps no worse than a good many other young fellows of his class, who have been used to lead indolent and purposeless lives, which are open to many temptations. I certainly, however, have not a high opinion of Mr. Ponsonby, and shall give him no encouragement to become intimate with us. But if he expects to amuse himself by making love to Laura, I fancy she is likely to derive as much amusement out of the affair as he is—probably a great deal more. Her heart is not going to run away with her page 227reason, or lead her into any difficult or awkward position. Ah, Frank!" she added, "I am not so sure about yours. I am afraid it is too easily led captive, poor boy."

"Not a bit of it, mother," Frank replied. "If you could only see and become acquainted with Miss Elwood you would not blame me for falling in love with her. But if Laura's heart doesn't lead her into folly—and I don't believe that it is at all likely to do so—her vanity may; and I hope you will keep a watchful eye upon her, and give her a word of caution against Ponsonby."

Ashwin was, no doubt, sincerely careful to guard his sister's happiness; but he doubtless also felt considerable satisfaction in being able to express disapproval of any intimacy on her part with Ponsonby, and to raise a voice of warning against the probable consequences—to pay her back in her own coin, in fact. We are always pleased to be able to lecture the lecturer, to admonish the monitor, to find the weak or tender spot in the censor of our failings and to put our finger upon it, to warn the warner, to counsel in return the self-constituted counsellor; especially so when we think, as we are too apt to do, that the efforts put forth for our welfare are uncalled for and out of place.

Frank's wish that his mother should see Miss Elwood was gratified sooner than he anticipated. Early in the forenoon—when the Ashwin's were about to start on the return journey, but were assembled as yet in the sitting-room upstairs, with the exception of Tom, who had gone round to the stables to order the horses out—Elwood's buggy drove up to the hotel, and the old man got out and entered with the intention of making personal enquiries after Ashwin's state of health, leaving his daughter and Ted in the buggy. He was shown into the room, but, when he saw the ladies, would have retired again at once, had not Frank prevented him.

"This is my mother—Mr. Elwood—and my sister."

Mrs. Ashwin bowed graciously enough; but Laura's page 228acknowledgement was of the stiffest and coldest, and was followed, after a hard stare, by her turning her back on the visitor and walking out on the balcony.

"Had I known that you were not alone, but in the company of members of your family, I should not have intruded upon you at this time, Mr. Ashwin,' the old man said. "I called to assure myself, personally, that the report which previous enquiries yielded could indeed be relied upon, and that your accident was not likely to be attended with lasting or serious results."

Ashwin assured him that his injuries were not serious, and that he hoped to be all right again in a few weeks.

"Your son's accident, madam," continued Elwood, addressing Mrs. Ashwin, "was, indeed, mainly consequent on his exertions on my behalf; for, had he not hastened to our aid in the first instance, he would not have had to make the attempt to return which led to that accident. It was his foresight and help that saved my sheep, or many of them, from destruction, and probably, indeed, my house also. This but adds to the many and heavy obligations to Mr. Ashwin under which I rest, and which I can never hope, even in the slightest degree, to repay."

"At most only a little neighbourly kindness," ejaculated Frank. "Any neighbour would do the same for another."

Mr. Elwood was taking his departure, but Mrs. Ashwin stopped him by saying:

"The obligation is not all on your side, Mr. Elwood. I believe when my son met with his accident, it was your daughter's courage and presence of mind—so my son says—that saved him from further injuries, or even from a terrible death. You must allow a mother to express her feelings also on this occasion, and I desire you to convey my thanks to Miss Elwood, and my grateful appreciation of what she then did."

"My daughter is below," replied Mr. Elwood, "and I page 229will take your kind message to her. She was, I believe, the first to render some assistance, however little, to your son, and, perhaps, ran some risk in doing so."

"If she is here, I will take the privilege of thanking her in person," said Mrs. Ashwin, who, not unfavourably impressed with the old man, was perhaps glad of the opportunity of seeing and speaking with the girl to whom her son had given his heart.

Miss Ashwin appeared at this moment from the balcony, and announced that the buggy had driven round, and was waiting for them at the door.

When they reached the street, Ashwin went forward eagerly to greet Miss Elwood, and then introduced his mother.

A warm blush overspread the young girl's features for a moment at the unexpected meeting, but recovering herself on the instant, she met the elder lady's advances with a gentle, lady-like composure which was not lost on Mrs. Ashwin, who, in spite of what she may have heard relative to Miss Elwood, could not fail to be favourably impressed by the sweet, thoughtful face and truthful eyes into which she looked.

"I heard from your father that you were here," she said, and I am glad to take the opportunity of expressing my gratitude to you for what you so bravely underwent in order to help my poor Frank here when he was in danger. I trust you yourself have not suffered in health through your exertions on that fearful night."

Miss Elwood assured her that no ill effects had resulted, and made light indeed of what she had done, adding, "Till other help arrived, I thought my feeble assistance might, perhaps, be of some avail. One could not think of another injured, it might be, and in danger, without putting forth some little effort in relief, unavailing though it might have been."

"You are a brave girl, nevertheless," Mrs. Ashwin replied. "How many under similar circumstances would have remained page 230helplessly inactive, terrified out of all power to render help, and wanting in your presence of mind! Your father and you are leaving here, I understand—or have some intention of doing so—I shall never see you again, probably, but accept my best wishes for your welfare. I must go now—our horses appear to be restive. Good-bye. I am glad to have seen you, so that I might thank you."

Miss Ashwin had not taken the slightest notice of the old man as they descended to the street, and when they had reached it, she had passed the Elwood's trap, giving the occupant of it her haughtiest stare; and, mounting to the buggy, and taking the reins from Tom, had intimated to him that she would drive. She now showed the utmost impatience at her mother's delay, tightening the reins, and flicking the horses with the whip, causing them to start forward, and then suddenly checking them again.

"Look out, Laura," said Tom, as he went to the horses' heads. "You'll have Troubadour playing up, you know he won't stand much of that sort of treatment. Whoa, old man!"

"Ah, Miss Ashwin," said Mr. Ponsonby, who just then came out, "this is too deuced bad—upon my word and honour it is. Is Bloomsbury to suffer an eclipse so soon after the sun has risen on it?—an eclipse, egad! plunged in black sepulchral night it will be to some of us when your presence is withdrawn."

"I shall not be sorry to leave it for some reasons, Mr. Ponsonby," she replied. "I cannot conceive what my mother can have to say to these low people. They really presume too much. They should remember what they are, and have been. Ah, she is coming now. Good-bye, Mr. Ponsonby."

"Adieu and au reuoir. We shall meet again before long. Mrs. Ashwin," he continued, addressing that lady who just then came up, "one is tempted to use the strongest terms of disapproval at your short stay and sudden departure. Had page 231you and Miss Ashwin left our humble township unvisited, we then might have continued our wretched existence here without murmuring, but when we have once tasted the delights of your society, this sudden deprivation is—a—too deuced bad, in fact."

Mrs. Ashwin laughed, and said she hoped no serious consequences would follow to the people of Bloomsbury, and her daughter added:

"You will survive the shock of our departure, Mr. Ponsonby. The softening influence of time will lighten the affliction—ha, ha, ha! If we thought any fatal effects were likely to follow our prolonged absence from Bloomsbury, we might promise to return; or, in your case, perhaps a visit to Harefield might bring about a recovery."

"Egad, I believe it would, if I was on the verge of the grave even. I only wish I was going with you now."

"There is a spare seat in the buggy," Miss Ashwin said.

"By Jove!" Ponsonby exclaimed, "that would be delightful!"

But Mrs. Ashwin did not second the invitation implied, and discreetly appeared unconscious of it; and after further leave-taking, and a parting admonition to Frank from his mother to be careful of himself, and a promise on his part to visit them soon, they drove off, Miss Ashwin handling the reins in a familiar and most efficient style.

"A devilish fine girl," Ponsonby said to himself, as he watched the retreating buggy; "a devilish fine girl, and one that would make a creditable life-partner for any man—though, egad, I believe she would want to keep the driver's seat and the whip hand in the matrimonial chariot."