In the Shadow of the Bush
Ashwin had lately not seen as much of his neighbours, the Elwoods, as formerly. His visits during the past month or two had been few. Knowing that his presence caused some embarrassment to Miss Elwood—from which feeling, indeed, he himself was not wholly free—he had only called on her father when some matter of business made a call necessary. But on these few occasions he saw little of the desire of his heart, and had hardly an opportunity, had he wished for such, of broaching the subject ever present in his thoughts. He had given a kind of promise, also, to abstain from pressing his suit until some change took place in the conditions under which they were mutually placed, if that time should ever arrive; and for the present, therefore, he was constrained to love on, yet breathe no word of love. But love held strong possession of him, and he felt it very hard to keep silence when he found himself alone with the object of it. Once, indeed, the desire overpowered his resolve. He had overtaken Miss Elwood and her brother as they were riding back from Bloomsbury. Her father had now provided her with a suitable hack, light in the rein, easy and free in its paces; and she rode it with grace and firm confidence. Ted, on this occasion, was riding Bob, the unwilling. They had had a smart canter just before Frank overtook them, and the exhilaration of the ride had heightened the bloom on her cheeks and the lustre of her eyes; and her lover thought he had never seen her look more beautiful; and when Ted dropped behind and dismounted, in order to cut a supplejack out of the bush (for page 269the rod he had been using on Bob was worn to a stump), Ashwin felt that the love within him must overleap restraint, and gain expression.
"Since that night of the fire, "Miss Elwood," he said, in a low voice, "I have not spoken to you of what is ever nearest my heart, but, oh! do not judge from this that my love is less strong than it was then. It is stronger, more unchangeably fixed than ever. I know I should not now say so. I know you have forbidden me to speak of it. Forgive me if this once I have been impelled to declare again that not in life, in death itself, can I ever cease to love you, and you alone. Oh, dearest one! it is hard to live like this. Bid me hope—give me some faint gleam of hope!"
Miss Elwood was moved by his renewed fervent avowal, but, as Frank saw with some satisfaction, not able to show displeasure at it.
"It is not wise, Mr. Ashwin," she said; "it is indeed wrong of you to again allude to this painful subject. Believing you to be sincere in—in what you say, it would be cruel in me to hold out any definite hopes, which might be at any moment shattered irreparably. You know why I say this—I have tried to make my determination clear. The cloud of shame and disgrace that rests on my father's name must first be lifted, before I can lend a willing ear to word of love or proposal of marriage from you—from anyone. If that barrier should ever be removed—I am wrong, perhaps, in saying that lately some faint expectations have been entertained that it may be—I feel I have even now said too much—it may be impossible to bring forward full proof of innocence—the law is hard and unfeeling, and will not readily make amends. The world, too, is prone to believe the worst; and, even though innocence were made clear, it would deem some stain still clung around a name once branded as a felon's."
"But surely," replied Ashwin, "you would not attach page 270any weight to the world's opinion in that case—you would not allow it to influence you?"
"I do not say that I would," she answered.
Ashwin felt as if he could curse the world and all its jaundiced views of things.
"You know how I feel in this regard," he said. "I should think myself a thousand times more fortunate in winning you as you are, with this stain on your father's name—even though it were deserved—than in gaining the highest height of what the world calls honour. Come to my heart, and we will defy the world. We will not let a thought of its frowns or sneers disturb the sweet current of our life, Give me at least," he added, for he saw and knew that no other answer would be given to his plea save that which he had already received, "give me at least the right to aid you—to assist in clearing your father's reputation, and I will devote my life to the task. In such a cause, for such a reward, I feel as if I could leap on the back of impossibility, and break down all obstacles."
And in the exultation which the thought gave rise to, and in impatience of restraint, Ashwin unconsciously applied the spurs with unwonted pressure to his horse's sides. This the spirited animal resented by suddenly bounding forward in a way that might have unseated some riders, but his master pulled him up before he had gone many strides, and soothed and patted him into comparative quietness again, as he rejoined his fair companion.
Miss Ashwin could not help smiling at this evidence of love's impetuosity; but when Frank reined up again beside her, she replied, with some sadness in her voice:
"It cannot be, Mr. Ashwin; indeed, it cannot be. The task is in other hands, and, after all, it may only end in disappointment. For your own sake, Mr. Ashwin, I could not give you the right you plead for."
Her brother now came up on Bob, who, under the influence page 271of the fresh supplejack, was putting forth unusual speed, and their colloquy was ended.
If Ashwin saw but little of his neighbours, he began to notice that Morton was a not infrequent visitor at the Elwood's. This he deemed the more remarkable, knowing as he did how unsociable, as a rule, that gentleman was, and especially how great was the dislike to the society of womankind, which he made no secret of entertaining. Yet now Ashwin had seen him more than once walking in the garden with the old man and his daughter—even seated with the latter alone on the verandah on one occasion, and he had also heard, incidentally, of their having been seen riding from the township together.
This discovery, in the present state of his feelings, gave him anything but pleasure. Was another about to succeed where he had failed? Were the scruples which he had failed to overcome about to be laid aside at the solicitation of another? His trust in the truth and honesty of the girl he loved was doubtless great—implicit, he would have said, had he been questioned—yet doubt at times, with grinning visage, would force itself upon him, and hold up an impudent finger, and mock him for his faith. To be sure, Morton was a much older man than he, and, Ashwin flattered himself, not so good-looking, nor in manner and disposition so likely to find favour in the eyes of a young girl. But then, on the other hand, who can account for the predilections of a woman, and Miss Elwood was not an ordinary girl. She might be governed by influences and considerations which would exercise little weight with other girls of her age, and Morton, cynical and caustic though he was, might make an impression on her heart, where a younger, handsomer, and more happily constituted lover might not succeed in doing so.
And then he would recall the sweet witchery of her presence, dwell on each incident of their short intimacy, her self-devotion on the night of his accident, and the ray of hope which he thought was vouchsafed to him then and also page 272since. No; he would never allow himself to believe her capable of lightly giving encouragement to the hopes of another while denying it to his own. He would not harbour a thought distrustful of her. And yet, what right had he to claim any exclusive monopoly of this girl, who had known him for only so short a time? When she should feel free to listen to words of love and proffer of marriage, what right had he to expect that he alone should be privileged to utter them, or, indeed, that another's might not be more pleasing to her ear, and find acceptance?
Now, while he felt that he could not, and would not, blame Miss Elwood for giving countenance to this newly found interest in her, which Morton seemed lately to evince, he, however, began to look with a less friendly eye on that gentleman. Why the deuce couldn't he stay at home, and bark and bite at mankind in general and womankind in particular? After all, these woman-haters could not be depended on, and were generally led captive at last.
In any case, this new departure on Morton's part was not to be commended at all; and Ashwin, in his meetings with him, began to show his disapproval of it. It was now with a curt "Good morning" or "Good afternoon" that he returned the greetings of the other. Formerly, when they met, he was glad to stop and have a chat, if Morton seemed in the humour for conversation, which, it must be said, was pretty often the case when Ashwin was concerned, for he evidently liked the young man, and unbent and unbosomed himself in his society in kindly fashion other than was his wont. He now noticed the changed demeanour of Ashwin, and was not long in fathoming the cause of it.
"Ashwin is jealous of me," he said, and he laughed in his bitter way. "He thinks I am trying to lay siege to Miss Elwood's heart, and to cut him out in that quarter. It is too ridiculous. Shall I let the young fool continue for a while to think so? Ah, no!" he went on, "there is enough page 273misery in the world without me trying to increase it. The sum of it is too great already, and this young fellow will eat his heart away with foolish imaginings if I don't undeceive him. Jealous of me!—ha, ha, ha!"
Accordingly, the next time he saw Ashwin passing he called out and stopped him.
"Come in, Ashwin," he said; "come in. I have something to say to you. I haven't seen much of you of late. Come in."
Ashwin pleaded that he had business in Bloomsbury, and that he was rather pushed for time.
"Oh, nonsense, man!" replied the other; "there is nothing so pressing as all that. I want to have a talk with you on a matter of importance. Tie up your horse a moment and come in. You can make up for lost time on the road. Time will run to seed when we are under the sod; there'll be time enough and to spare then." And then, as Ashwin dismounted and tied up his horse, Morton repeated to himself, with feeling, the well-known lines—
"Even such is Time who takes on trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days."
"Well, perhaps there isn't much to mourn over in all that," he continued, as they walked towards the cottage. "To shut the Book of Life ought to give as much satisfaction as turning over the weary pages. To die, and have done with it, should be no great affliction to anyone. But, Ashwin," he went on, "I don't expect you to take this view of things. I am but a withered plant, and shouldn't mind being plucked up by the roots; but love and beauty and bright days lie ahead of you, my boy, or I'm mistaken. Disenchantment may come page 274to you as to others, but when it comes is time enough to draw a long face."
"Disenchantment," Ashwin replied, somewhat gloomily, "or disappointment at least, has come already. I am afraid you are mistaken or over-sanguine in allotting a more than ordinary share of human happiness to me. The prospect at present hardly warrants me in expecting such."
"Ah, look here, Ashwin," Morton replied, "I know your secret trouble. Forgive me for speaking of it. You are in love; and I won't blame you, or try to reason you out of it—that I know would be a piece of unavailing folly. Besides, I believe the girl you love to be one of the best and truest of women. You know I have not a high opinion of the sex generally, but there are exceptions among them I will admit—few and far between, perhaps. If I had won the heart of such a girl as Miss Elwood ten or a dozen years ago—ah, well!—I might have read life in a different light. But that is past. I never, perhaps, was quite the man to make conquest of a woman's love, or retain it, and I am resolved never again to make the attempt. Love is blind, they say, and I believe it. The wisest, shrewdest man is but a simpleton when his affections are involved. The proof of love's blindness has been brought home to me. To love, and to believe you are beloved in return is a man's great happiness; but to take the loved one to your bosom, and awake to your blindness when writhing under the mortal hurt which the viper you have cherished there has given you, is experience enough for a lifetime. But never mind! -one man's experience is not another's; neither will another profit by it. You love where a true man's love may meet the reward it deserves. And if you have not won Miss Elwood's heart, I am sure that no one else has. But she will be no man's wife, nor listen to a word of love from anyone, so long as the black shadow of her father's past is over them all. She is over sensitive in this, I suppose. You and I, I know, would think none the less page 275highly of her if her father were the guilty man he is supposed to be. By heavens!" he exclaimed, "if only honest men's daughters were to get married, the world would be overrun with old maids. Bridal blushes would be rare, at any rate. But," he continued, "the old man's name will be cleared yet, I venture to predict, and before long, perhaps. When that time comes make your wooing, and prosper in it. Till then, keep silence, or let your looks speak only: for you must not absent yourself, as you have done lately, from her society and her father's. The old man misses you. Keep a brave heart, Ashwin. Don't lose hope, and, above all things, don't be jealous of any one, especially of me, ha, ha, ha! That would be too ridiculous."
Ashwin at first hardly knew how to take the outspoken words of the other, and was inclined to resent them; but when Morton had finished speaking, and Frank looked into the face of his counsellor, and saw kindly feeling made manifest there, where cynicism too often held possession, touched, too, by the speaker's words of bitter import, evoked by some memories of the past, he held out his hand, and said:
"I believe you to be a true friend, Morton; and I thank you for the kindly interest you have taken in what so deeply concerns me. I thank you for your counsel, and especially for the glimpse of hope you have given me. You are right. I love Miss Elwood, and have loved her almost from the first moment I saw her. You are right, also, in that which stands in the way of the furtherance of my suit, however you may have arrived at the knowledge. I have, of course, no assurance that I should be the fortunate man to win her for my wife, even though her father's innocence were made clear; but until this can be done, I know that I am shut out from all hope."
"Never mind," Morton replied, "there is hope for you yet, and for all of them, or I'm mistaken. The wrong shall be right; and if in righting it we can strip the sham respecta-page 276bility off Imposture's well-brushed back, so much the better. But breathe not a word of this. If the world," he went on, bitterly—"if the world could only be cleared of shams, it might be worth living in. Sham respectability, sham honesty, sham honour, sham righteousness, sham benevolence, sham piety, sham affection, sham love, sham virtue, sham worth—black night and the pit of destruction receive all shams! But sit down, Ashwin, here on the verandah, and stay a while. I have spoken to you more freely than I am in the habit of doing. Sit down with me, after this talk, and smoke your pipe, or at least sit down with me while I smoke mine, for I know you don't often indulge in the soothing weed. There is comfort in it, though.
'Think, and smoke tobacco;
And if your mistress proves unkind,
In faithful pipe your solace find—
Think, and smoke tobacco.
Think, and smoke tobacco;
And when the pipe gets foul within,
Think of the soul defiled with sin—
Think, and smoke tobacco.'"
But Ashwin said he really must be off, and took his leave; and he was soon cantering at a fast pace along the road to Bloomsbury, with a lighter heart than when he left home.