In the Shadow of the Bush
It was the evening of the farewell banquet to he given in honour of Mr. Wilmot. Preparations had been going on all day at the Criterion; but in a quiet, methodical way, for there was never any fuss or fluster at Powlet's. The genial Bob appeared, if possible, more beamingly satisfied with himself and all about him than before. The look of pride with which he regarded his wife, as she went about her duties, was perhaps more intensified than usual, and seemed to say: "You can't take her amiss. The clockwork's set agoin'—every wheel and bearing's oiled, and working true. There'll be no hitch here. The bell will ring to the minute, and everything'll be served up just as it ought to be. There's never any flurry or commotion where she's in charge—you can bet a pound on that, and win it. If the Governor was to order dinner here for the House of Representatives, and the Legislative Council to boot, with most of the civil servants thrown in, they wouldn't find much to grumble at when they sat down, if they'd give her twenty-four hours' notice they were coming—that is, as far as a country hotel could do it, and I believe we could stand a bit of a strain in this house as well as most."
A little later in the evening, however, Powlet did show some signs of surprise and agitation. It was when Morton called him aside into a private room, and held him in earnest speech for some minutes. Bob's share in the conversation consisted at first only in excited ejaculations as he page 278wiped his face with his large silk pocket-handkerchief." God bless my soul and body!"—"Who ever heard the like?"—"I couldn't have believed it!"—"Going to arrest him!" And when Morton had finished, he exclaimed, "Whatever will the missus say to this, that's what I want to know? The dinner coming off, too, in an hour's time or less—that's if it's coming off at all now. She won't like it, I can tell you, sir! Things oughtn't to have gone so far as they have."
"Well," said Morton, "perhaps not; but we couldn't well help it. I shouldn't say anything to Mrs. Powlet about it to-night. Let things take their course for this night. We don't intend doing anything in the matter till the morning. I haven't much faith in a woman's discretion, as you may know; and through your wife is one above the common, I think she had better be left in ignorance of what is going on till the morning, or till all is quiet for the night."
"Discretion be blowed!" said Bob, warmly, though somewhat mollified by Morton's exception of Mrs. Powlet from the general run of women; "you haven't had to do with the right sort of women, sir, or you wouldn't run them down as you do. You haven't had to do with the right sort. That has been your misfortune, sir. Talk about discretion—I'll back my wife to do the right thing in the right way, and at the right time, and see it done better than any man among us, that I will. This house," he went on—"This house is run on strict partnership lines and everything's fair and square and above board between the partners. They are both working partners in this concern, and one has got no secrets from the other. It wouldn't do. And if I keep this business you tell me about from my missus, why, there'll be—there'll be a coolness between the partners, that's what there'll be—a coolness between the partners. We should have known of this business before."
"I'll admit," answered Morton, "that it would have been better if you could have been made acquainted with it page 279sooner. But, you see, this man has only arrived, and we could not proceed in the matter till he came. Brown has been here for some days, it is true; but it was necessary for our purpose to wait for the other, and he only comes here to-night. He was seized with a bad attack of influenza, or something of the kind, the very day he landed in Wellington, and was only able to gut about again yesterday. You will see that matters must take their course now. Our business can be settled quietly in the morning, but this dinner or banquet must proceed—your wife would agree with us in that. The company are arriving even now to do honour to the guest of the occasion, who, no doubt, has got his speech ready; as have the others who are to speak. Corcoran, of the Guardian, is, I hear, to propose the toast of the evening, and, I expect, has his speech in type already; and Ponsonby gives the health of the ladies. They must go through with it, of course; and Mrs. Powlet would be the last to have it otherwise. She wouldn't like to see a good dinner spoiled—you may be sure of that."
"I'm not sayin' that she would," said Powlet, thoughtfully. "There's no mistake about it, she wouldn't like to see that—that would touch her on a tender part—every thing ready to be dished up, and no dinner after all. No, it wouldn't suit her at all. But she'll think" she should have been consulted over this business—a d——d bad business it is—one partner ought to consult the other, you know. That's where the trouble comes in. There'll be a coolness between the partners, if we don't look out."
"You will consult with your wife, of course," replied Morton. "Tell her everything to-night, but wait till this dinner is over. The man I spoke of will be here by and by, and I have engaged a bed for him for to-night, as well as one for myself. Brown, I believe, has the room next Wilmot's—that's as it should be. We shall want a private room in the morning for our interview. The large sitting-room upstairs page 280will be best, for the old man and his daughter will be here also."
Bob felt much inclined to take his wife into his confidence there and then, but he saw little opportunity of doing so, as the hour appointed for the banquet had almost arrived, the people were assembling, and his presence was much in request just then, while Mrs. Powlet was giving a final round of inspection in dining-room and kitchen.
As Morton was passing out he was accosted by one or two of those who had already arrived.
"You are not leaving us, Mr. Morton," Corcoran said, stopping him. "It isn't often you join us in any function of this kind, I know; but on an occasion like the present, when we are meeting together in a friendly way to entertain at parting one whom we all respect and honour, and to bid him Godspeed on his journey, I did hope to see you amongst us."
"I should only damp your enthusiasm," Morton replied, with a laugh. "I shouldn't be able to enter into your 'Three times three,' and 'For he's a jolly good fellow' with sufficient spirit. But," he continued, in a more serious vein, "what's the use of bidding Godspeed when the devil is likely to be coachman? Look round and find an honest man, one whose honour is unsmirched, whose lips have never learnt to lie—never faltered from the truth, who would preserve his integrity if he had to die in a ditch for it, and well dinner him as a rarity."
"He's not altogether compos mentis," Corcoran remarked as Morton went out. "He has got some queer ideas of his own, and isn't always quite responsible for what he says, I fancy."
When Morton returned nearly an hour later, accompanied by a man muffled up in an overcoat, who at once passed upstairs, the banquet was in full swing. The toast of the evening had not yet been given, but Mr. Corcoran was just rising amidst applause to propose it. He was quite at home page 281on his legs as an after-dinner speaker, but began, as is customary, by a few words of self-disparagement.
"Gentlemen—Mr. Chairman and gentlemen," he said, "the task which has been allotted to me to-night is one which I enter upon with diffidence, with extreme diffidence—not because my heart is not in it, gentlemen—not because I am not conscious of the honour conferred on me by being asked to undertake it—ah, no, but because I feel that I am not competent to do full justice to it, that my treatment of it must fall short, lamentably short, of what the occasion deserves. It is a task that should have been placed in abler hands than mine. (Cries of dissent.) Gentlemen," he went on, "fellow settlers of this magnificent district, fellow citizens of this important centre, we have met here to-night—to-night, gentlemen—men from every corner of this settlement and from beyond it—strangers from a distance joining with us here—men of every shade of political opinion have met here to-night—for what purpose? (applause)—for what purpose? The purpose must be an extraordinary one, indeed, which has brought so many together here to-night, away from their homes, away from the bosom of their families. And, gentlemen, it is an extraordinary one. It is to do honour to one who—who is about to leave us for a time, but whose name must ever be a household word with the people of Bloomsbury, associated as it is in so many ways with the progress, with the prosperity, with the welfare of this rising commercial centre, of this large and growing district."
The speaker then went on to particularise in detail the many benefits which the township and district owed to their distinguished guest. The services which he had rendered it as a member of the local governing body, the zeal he had ever displayed, his liberality and self-denial in all matters affecting the good of the community, were referred to in flattering terms. A hint was given of the wider field of usefulness in which they were anxious to place him on his return amongst page 282them, of the more exalted position which they were prepared to offer him.
"For," said he, "it will give unqualified satisfaction, unmingled, unalloyed pleasure to all who are assembled in this room to-night, and to many who have not been privileged to join us here, to know that the absence of our distinguished fellow-colonist will not he a prolonged one—that in a few months he will be with us again. A report—I might call it a slanderous report—has gained currency during the last day or two that it is not our friend's intention to return; but to this, gentlemen, I am authorised to give a most emphatic contradiction (Cheers.) A short, but well-earned holiday, a brief revisiting of the land of his birth, of the scenes of his youth, and a renewal of old friendships, is all that Mr. Wilmot contemplates. Did I say all, gentlemen?" Corcoran went on in a lighter vein, with a twinkle in his eye. "Well, perhaps not all. He may have another object in view. I have said, I think, that the name of Wilmot will remain a household word amongst us. It must still be cherished and kept in memory by the people of this community. But, gentlemen, we are not without hope that it may yet be perpetuated in another and a pleasing way. It would not surprise me, gentlemen, and I am sure it would give infinite pleasure to all of us, if our honoured and esteemed friend here, when he returns again amongst us, should come not alone—not alone, gentlemen (great applause)—not alone, but bringing with him 'One fair spirit for his minister': a partner of his home and heart, one to share his joys, his wealth, and the high social position which he is so well qualified to fill; and one, gentlemen, who would—a—help him to perpetuate his name in a—in a tenderer and more worthy fashion than we, with all our regard and affection for him, could—could ever hope to do. Should he so return—I think I can speak for you, gentleman—his welcome will be a warm one, a hearty one, a welcome worthy of the occasion. (Cheers.) We have met to-night, gentlemen, to do honour page 283to our departing fellow-citizen, to wish him Godspeed on his journey, but our feelings of pleasure at so meeting him are tinged with some regret at the prospect of losing his presence from amongst us even for a brief season; but when he returns, gentlemen (applause), accompanied as we hope he will be accompanied (great cheering), then, gentlemen, without a cloud to dim the—the horizon of our joy, we will assemble again to give him—them, I should say—a fit greeting, an enthusiastic welcome." (Prolonged cheers.)
With a few more words, with a glowing tribute to the worth of the citizen, to the character of the man, Mr. Corcoran called on the company to drink to the health, pleasant journey, and speedy return of one whom they were proud to honour.
The toast was drunk with enthusiasm and with musical honours.
The distinguished guest sat through it all, with a face in which it was in vain to attempt to hide the satisfaction felt, for his soul was enamoured of this sort of thing.
The applause was subsiding, and Wilmot was waiting to make a decorous pause before responding, when one of the waiters (paid by Morton for the service with half a crown) handed him a letter. Wilmot opened it hastily, and read:
"Meet me in Number One Sitting-room, upstairs, to-morrow morning, at 10 o'clock.
In spite of his utmost effort to show unconcern, his face fell for a moment; but he speedily regained control of his features, and, rising with becoming gravity, entered on his reply. It was noticed, however, that there was at first a hesitancy, a want of fluency, in his words unusual with him. He spoke of his feelings being overpowered by the presence of so many of his friends met together there in his honour, by the eulogistic terms in which his health had been proposed. page 284and the warmly appreciative manner in which the toast had been received—and his audience believed him. But, as he proceeded, his composure in great measure returned and his speech flowed with greater freedom; though it was afterwards remarked that his reply hardly came up to expectations, wanting somewhat, as it appeared, in that buoyant self-confidence with which Mr. Wilmot spoke in public, and in that ornate grandiloquent style in which his utterances were generally couched on such occasions, and not wholly free from a touch of sadness.
He spoke feelingly of his departure, and referred to his return as an event greatly desired indeed by him, and looked forward to with hope, but still uncertain. "Uncertainty," he went on, "is written across all our resolves, all our purposes, in this mundane sphere. We may think that we have mapped out our future, and have picked out and hedged about our way through life; but a day, an hour, comes, and the prospect is obscured or blotted out, the landmarks we had set up to guide us are swept away, the scene is changed, and our steps are led into paths—rough and steep, perhaps—other than those which we had sketched out for our feet to follow. The tongue of calumny, even, may take the place of the voice of praise, and the scornful laugh be heard instead of the words of approbation."
He then went on in more cheerful tone to speak of the happy and profitable years which he had spent amongst them; he eulogised the high character of the people among whom his lot had been cast, and dwelt upon the marvellous resources of the district and on the great future that lay before it, and proceeded to undervalue the services he had rendered to it and the share he had taken in furthering its progress. He, laughingly, disclaimed all intention of fulfilling the expectation of Mr. Corcoran, by bringing back a partner of his joys and sorrows. "I am getting too old," he said, "to think of now entering the married state. (Cries of 'No. no.') But, page 285gentlemen, if I were younger, and desirous of taking a wife to share, to adorn my home, I need not, gentlemen, go outside of New Zealand—I need not go outside of this district—to look for one. Among the fair daughters of this fair land a prince might easily find a fit mate. Why, then, should one of its humblest citizens go elsewhere to seek one? No, gentlemen, my ambition would be satisfied to remain amongst you, to continue to make my home in your midst; but duty, gentlemen, duty calls me away from you for a short time—for a short time only, I hope; and in breaking, if only temporarily, the ties which have bound us together, in severing the connection which it has been my great good fortune to form with you in this place, I can assure you, gentlemen, that no words of mine can adequately convey to you the feelings which at this moment hold possession of my heart."
With a few final words, in which he expressed his grateful sense of the high honour which they had conferred on him by entertaining him there as their guest that evening, and with reiterated thanks for their kindly good wishes on his behalf, he sat down amid prolonged applause.
One or two of the most impressionable of the company were somewhat touched by the words of Wilmot, uttered, as they were, with an appearance of deep feeling; and good Mrs. Powlet and one of the girls, who were standing near the doorway, were seen to wipe their eyes, while Bob Powlet, who had also been listening, turned away with a puzzled look of concern on his face, and muttered audiby, "Well, I'll be blowed!"
Other toasts followed, interspersed with songs by members of the company. Ponsonby found a congenial subject in proposing "The Ladies." He admitted his own susceptibility to be wounded by the boy-god. He paid a high tribute to the beauty and many excellencies of the ladies of Bloomsbury, and thought their guest of the evening must be deemed to be impervious to female charms, else he must have suc-page 286cumbed ere now—if, indeed, it was not dislike to matrimonial shackles, rather than indifference to the tender influence of the sex, that caused him to shun wedlock. "And, egad, gentlemen, I venture to predict that he will fall a victim yet," Ponsonby said, "but the avenger of her sex will be a widow."
"The Press" was proposed, and duly honoured. The high moral tone and intellectual ability displayed by the Press of New Zealand in general, and by the Bloomsbury Guardian in particular, were alluded to in warm terms of praise.
The toast of "The Host and Hostess" was not forgotten, and was replied to by Bob Powlet in a short and characteristic speech, in which he did not fail to do justice to the merits of his wife.