Ruth replied that she was better.
"She's no size to keep her in 'ealth," said Mrs. Eccles, "and so bent as she does grow, to be sure. Eh, dear, but it's a good thing to be tall. I always think little folks they're like them little watches, they've no room for their insides. And I wonder now"—Mrs. Eccles was coming to the point that had made her entrap Ruth on her way past—"I wonder now—"
Ruth did not help her. She knew too well the universal desire for knowledge of good and evil peculiar to her sex to doubt for a moment that Mrs. Eccles had begged her to "step in" only to obtain some piece of information, about which her curiosity had been aroused.
"I wonder, now, if Cotton at the lodge has heard anything of the poachers again this year, round Arleigh way?"
"Not that I know of," said Ruth, surprised at the simplicity of the question.
"Dear sakes! and to think of 'em at Vandon last night, and Mr. Dare and the keepers out all night after 'em."
Ruth was interested in spite of herself.
"And the doctor sent for in the middle of the night," continued Mrs. Eccles, covertly eying Ruth. "Poor young gentleman! For all his forrin ways, there's a many in Vandon as sets store by him."
"I don't think you need be uneasy about Mr. Dare," said Ruth, coldly, conscious that Mrs. Eccles was dying to see her change color. "If anything had happened to him Mr. Alwynn would have heard of it. And now," rising, "I must be going; and if I were you, Mrs. Eccles, I should not listen to all the gossip of the village."
"Me listen!" said Mrs. Eccles, much offended. "Me, as is too poorly so much as to put my foot out of the door! But, dear heart!" with her usual quickness of vision, "if there isn't Mr. Alwynn and Dr. Brown riding up the street now in Dr. Brown's gig! Well, I never! and Mr. Alwynn a-getting out, and a-talking as grave as can be to Dr. Brown. Poor Mr. Dare! Poor dear young gentleman!"
Ruth was conscious that she beat rather a hurried retreat from Mrs. Eccles's cottage, and that her voice was not quite so steady as usual when she asked the doctor if it were true that Mr. Dare had been hurt.
"All the village will have it that he is killed; but he is all right, I assure you, Miss Deyncourt," said the kind old doctor, so soothingly and reassuringly that Ruth grew pink with annoyance at the tone. "Not a scratch. He was out with his keepers last night, and they had a brush with poachers; and Martin, the head keeper was shot in the leg. Bled a good deal, so they sent for me; but no danger. I picked up your uncle here on his way to see him, and so I gave him a lift there and back. That is all, I assure you."
And Dr. Brown and Mrs. Eccles, straining over her geraniums, both came to the same conclusion, namely, that, as Mrs. Eccles elegantly expressed it, "Miss Ruth wanted Mr. Dare."
"And he'll have her, too, I'm thinking, one of these days," Mrs. Eccles would remark to the circle of her acquaintance.
Indeed, the match was discussed on numerous ladders, with almost as much interest as the unfailing theme of the damsons themselves.
And Dare rode over to the rectory as often as he used to do before a certain day in August, when he had found Ruth under the chestnut-tree—the very day before Mrs. Alwynn started on her screen, now the completed glory of the drawing-room.
And was Ruth beginning to like him?
As it had not occurred to her to ask herself that question, I suppose she was not.
Dare had grown very quiet and silent of late, and showed a growing tendency to dark hats. His refusal had been so unexpected that the blow, when it came, fell with all the more crushing force. His self-love and self-esteem had been wounded; but so had something else. Under the velvet corduroy waistcoat, which he wore in imitation of Ralph, he had a heart. Whether it was one of the very best of its kind or warranted to wear well is not for us to judge; but, at any rate, it was large enough to take in a very real affection, and to feel a very sharp pang. Dare's manner to Ruth was now as diffident as it had formerly been assured. To some minds there is nothing more touching than a sudden access of humility on the part of a vain man.
Whether Ruth's mind was one of this class or not we do not pretend to know.
It was Sunday morning at Atherstone. In the dining-room, breakfasting alone, for he had come down late, was Sir Charles Danvers. His sudden arrival on the previous Saturday was easily accounted for. When he had casually walked into the drawing-room late in the evening, he had immediately and thoroughly explained the reasons of his unexpected arrival. It seemed odd that he should have come to Atherstone, in the midland counties, "on his way" between two shooting visits in the north, but so it was. It might have been thought that one of his friends would have been willing to keep him two days longer, or receive him two days earlier; but no doubt every one knows his own affairs best, and Charles might certainly, "at his age," as he was so fond of saying, be expected to know his.
Anyhow, there he was, leaning against the open window, coffee-cup in hand, lazily watching the dwindling figures of Ralph and Evelyn, with Molly between them, disappearing in the direction of Greenacre church, hard by.
The morning mist still lingered on the land, and veiled the distance with a tender blue. And up across the silver fields, and across the standing armies of the yellowing corn, the sound of church bells came from Slumberleigh, beyond the river; bringing back to Charles, as to us all, old memories, old hopes, old visions of early youth, long cherished, long forgotten.
The single bell of Greenacre was giving forth a slow, persistent, cracked invitation to true believers, as an appropriate prelude to Mr. Smith's eloquence; but Charles did not hear its testimony.
He was listening to the Slumberleigh bells. Was that the first chime or the second?
Suddenly a thought crossed his mind. Should he go to church?
He smiled at the idea. It was a little late to think of that. Besides he had let the others start, and he disliked that refuge of mildew and dust, Greenacre.
There was Slumberleigh!
There went the bells again!
Slumberleigh! Absurd! Why, he should positively have to run to get there before the First Lesson; and that mist meant heat, or he was much mistaken.
Charles contemplated the mist for a few seconds.
Tang, teng, ting, tong, tung!
He certainly always made a point of going to church at his own home. A good example is, after all, just as important in one place as another.
Tang, tong, teng, tung, ting! went the bells.
"Why not run?" suggested an inner voice. "Put down your cup. There! Now! Your hat's in the hall, with your gloves beside it. Never mind about your prayer-book. Dear me! Don't waste time looking for your own stick. Take any. Quick! out through the garden-gate! No one can see you. The servants have all gone to church except the cook, and the kitchen looks out on the yew hedge."
"Over the first stile," said Charles to himself. "I am out of sight of the house now. Let us be thankful for small mercies. I shall do it yet. Oh, what a fool I am! I'm worse than Raca, as Molly said. I shall be rushing precipitately down a steep place into the sea next. Confound this gate! Why can't people leave them open? At any rate, it will remain open now. I am not going to have my devotions curtailed by a gate. I fancied it would be hot, but never anything half as hot as this. I hope I sha'n't meet Brown taking a morning stroll. I value Brown; but I should have to dismiss him if he saw me now. I could never meet his eye again. What on earth shall I say to Ralph and Evelyn when I get back? What a merciful Providence it is that Aunt Mary is at this moment intoning a response in the highest church in Scarborough!"
Ting, ting, ting!
"Mr. Alwynn is getting on his surplice, is he? Well, and if he is, I can make a final rush through the corn, can't I? There's not a creature in sight. The bell's down! What of that? There is the voluntary. Easy over the last fields. There are houses in sight, and there may be wicked Sabbath-breakers looking out of windows. Brown's foal has grown since July. Here we are! I am not the only Christian hurrying among the tombs. I shall get in with 'the wicked man' after all."
Some people do not look round in church; others do. Mrs. Alwynn always did, partly because she wished to see what was going on behind her, and partly because, in turning back again, she could take a stealthy survey of Mrs. Thursby's bonnet, in which she always felt a burning interest, which she would not for worlds have allowed that lady to suspect.
If the turning round had been all, it would have mattered little; but Mrs. Alwynn suffered so intensely from keeping silence that she was obliged to relieve herself at intervals by short whispered comments to Ruth.
On this particular morning it seemed as if the comments would never end.
"I am so glad we asked Mr. Dare into our pew, Ruth. The Thursbys are full. That's Mrs. Thursby's sister in the red bonnet."
Ruth made no reply. She was following the responses in the psalms with a marked attention, purposely marked to check conversation, and sufficient to have daunted anybody but her aunt.
Mrs. Alwynn took a spasmodic interest in the psalm, but it did not last.
"Only two basses in the choir, and the new Te Deum, Ruth. How vexed Mr. Alwynn will be!"
No response from Ruth. Mrs. Alwynn took another turn at her prayer-book, and then at the congregation.
"'I am become as it were a monster unto—' Ruth! Ruth!"
Ruth at last turned her head a quarter of an inch.
"Sir Charles Danvers is sitting in the free seats by the font!"
Ruth nailed her eyes to her book, and would vouchsafe no further sign of attention during the rest of the service; and Dare, on the other side, anxious to copy Ruth in everything, being equally obdurate, Mrs. Alwynn had no resource left but to follow the service half aloud to herself, at the times when the congregation were not supposed to join in, putting great emphasis on certain words which she felt applicable to herself, in a manner that effectually prevented any one near her from attending to the service at all.
It was with a sudden pang that Dare, following Ruth out into the sunshine after service, perceived for the first time Charles, standing, tall and distinguished-looking, beside the rather insignificant heir of all the Thursbys, who regarded him with the mixed admiration and gnawing envy of a very young man for a man no longer young.
And then—Charles never quite knew how it happened, but with the full intention of walking back to the rectory with the Alwynns, and staying to luncheon, he actually found himself in Ruth's very presence, accepting a cordial invitation to luncheon at Slumberleigh Hall. For the first time during the last ten years he had done a thing he had no intention of doing. A temporary long-lost feeling of shyness had seized upon him as he saw Ruth coming out, tall and pale and graceful, from the shadow of the church porch into the blaze of the mid-day sunshine. He had not calculated either for that sudden disconcerting leap of the heart as her eyes met his. He had an idiotic feeling that she must be aware that he had run most of the way to church, and that he had contemplated the burnished circles of her back hair for two hours, without a glance at the fashionably scraped-up head-dress of Mabel Thursby, with its hogged mane of little wire curls in the nape of the neck. He felt he still looked hot and dusty, though he had imagined he was quite cool the moment before. To his own astonishment, he actually found his self-possession leaving him; and though its desertion proved only momentary, in that moment he found himself walking away with the Thursbys in the direction of the Hall. He was provoked, angry with himself, with the Thursbys, and, most of all, with Mr. Alwynn, who had come up a second later, and asked him to luncheon, as a matter of course, also Dare, who accepted with evident gratitude. Charles felt that he had not gone steeple-chasing over the country only to talk to Mrs. Thursby, and to see Ruth stroll away over the fields with Dare towards the rectory.
However, he made himself extremely agreeable, which was with him more a matter of habit than those who occasionally profited by it would have cared to know. He asked young Thursby his opinion on E.C. cartridges; he condoled with Mrs. Thursby on the loss of her last butler, and recounted some alarming anecdotes of his own French cook. He admired a pallid water-color drawing of Venice, in an enormous frame on an enormous easel, which he rightly supposed to be the manual labor of Mabel Thursby.
When he rose to take his leave, young Thursby, intensely flattered by having been asked for that opinion on cartridges by so renowned a shot as Charles, offered to walk part of the way back with him.
"I am afraid I am not going home yet," said Charles, lightly. "Duty points in the opposite direction, I have to call at the rectory. I want Mr. Alwynn's opinion on a point of clerical etiquette, which is setting my young spiritual shepherd at Stoke Moreton against his principal sheep, namely, myself."
And Charles took his departure, leaving golden opinions behind him, and a determination to invite him once more to shoot, in spite of his many courteous refusals of the last few years.
Mrs. Alwynn always took a nap after luncheon in her smart Sunday gown, among the mustard-colored cushions of her high-art sofa. Mr. Alwynn, also, was apt at the same time to sink into a subdued, almost apologetic doze, in the old arm-chair which alone had resisted the march of discomfort, and so-called "taste," which had invaded the rest of the little drawing-room of Slumberleigh Rectory. Ruth was sitting with her dark head leaned against the open window-frame. Dare had not stayed after luncheon, being at times nervously afraid of giving her too much of his society; and she was at liberty to read over again, if she chose, the solitary letter which the Sunday post had brought her. But she did not do so; she was thinking.
And so her sister Anna was actually returning to England at last! She and her husband had taken a house in Rome, and had arranged that Ruth should join them in London in November, and go abroad with them after Christmas for the remainder of the winter. She had pleasant recollections of previous winters in Rome, or, on the Riviera with her grandmother, and she was surprised that she did not feel more interested in the prospect. She supposed she would like it when the time came, but she seemed to care very little about it at the present moment. It had become very natural to live at Slumberleigh, and although there were drawbacks—here she glanced involuntarily at her aunt, who was making her slumbers vocal by a running commentary on them through her nose—still she would be sorry to go. Mr. Alwynn gave the ghost of a miniature snore, and, opening his eyes, found Ruth bent affectionately upon him. Her mind went back to another point in Anna's letter. After dilating on the extreme admiration and regard entertained for herself by her husband, his readiness with shawls, etc., she went on to ask whether Ruth had heard any news of Raymond.
Ruth sighed. Would there ever be any news of Raymond? The old nurse at Arleigh always asked the same question. "Any news of Master Raymond?" It was with a tired ache of the heart that Ruth heard that question, and always gave the same answer. Once she had heard from him since Lady Deyncourt's death, after she had written to tell him, as gently as she could, that she and Anna had inherited all their grandmother had to leave. A couple of months later she had received a hurried note in reply, inveighing against Lady Deyncourt's injustice, saying (as usual) that he was hard up for money, and that, when he knew where it might safely be sent, he should expect her and her sister to make up to him for his disappointment. And since then, since April—not a word. June, July, August, September. Four months and no sign. When he was in want of money his letters heretofore had made but little delay. Had he fallen ill and died out there, or met his death suddenly, perhaps in some wild adventure under an assumed name? Her lips tightened, and her white brows contracted over her absent eyes. It was an old anxiety, but none the less wearing because it was old. Ruth put it wearily from her, and took up the first book which came to her hand, to distract her attention.
It was a manual out of which Mrs. Alwynn had been reading extracts to her in the morning, while Ruth had been engaged in preparing herself to teach in the Sunday-school. She wondered vaguely how pleasure could be derived, even by the most religious persons, from seeing favorite texts twined in and out among forget-me-nots, or falling aslant in old English letters off bunches of violets; but she was old enough and wise enough to know that one man's religion is another man's occasion of stumbling. Books are made to fit all minds, and small minds lose themselves in large-minded books. The thousands in which these little manuals are sold, and the confidence with which their readers recommend them to others, indicates the calibre of the average mind, and shows that they meet a want possibly "not known before," but which they alone, with their little gilt edges, can adequately fill. Ruth was gazing in absent wonder at the volume which supplied all her aunt's spiritual needs when she heard the wire of the front door-bell squeak faintly. It was a stiff-necked and obdurate bell, which for several years Mr. Alwynn had determined to see about.
A few moments later James, the new and inexperienced footman, opened the door about half a foot, put in his head, murmured something inaudible, and withdrew it again.
A tall figure appeared in the door-way, and advanced to meet her, then stopped midway. Ruth rose hastily, and stood where she had risen, her eyes glancing first at Mr. and then at Mrs. Alwynn.
The alien presence of a visitor had not disturbed them. Mrs. Alwynn, her head well forward and a succession of chins undulating in perfect repose upon her chest, was sleeping as a stout person only can—all over. Mr. Alwynn, opposite, his thin hands clasped listlessly over his knee, was as unconscious of the two pairs of eyes fixed upon him as Nelson himself, laid out in Madame Tussaud's.
Charles's eyes, twinkling with suppressed amusement, met Ruth's. He shook his head energetically, as she made a slight movement as if to wake them, and stepping forward, pointed with his hat towards the open window, which reached to the ground. Ruth understood, but she hesitated. At this moment Mrs. Alwynn began a variation on the simple theme in which she had been indulging, and in so much higher a key that all hesitation vanished. She stepped hastily out through the window, and Charles followed. They stood together for a moment in the blazing sunshine, both too much amused to speak.
"You are bareheaded," he said, suddenly; "is there any"—looking round—"any shade we could take refuge under?"
Ruth led the way round the yew hedge to the horse-chestnut; that horse-chestnut under which Dare had once lost his self-esteem.
"I am afraid," said Charles, "I arrived at an inopportune moment. As I was lunching with the Thursbys, I came up in the hope of finding Mr. Alwynn, whom I wanted to consult about a small matter in my own parish."
Charles was quite pleased with this sentence when he had airily given it out. It had a true ring about it he fancied, which he remembered with gratitude was more than the door-bell had. Peace be with that door-bell, and with the engaging youth who answered it.
"I wish you had let me wake Mr. Alwynn," said Ruth. "He will sleep on now till the bells begin."
"On no account. I should have been shocked if you had disturbed him. I assure you I can easily wait until he naturally wakes up; that is," with a glance at the book in her hand, "if I am not disturbing you—if you are not engaged in improving yourself at this moment."
"No. I have improved myself for the day, thanks. I can safely afford to relax a little now."
"So can I. I resemble Lady Mary in that. On Sunday mornings she reflects on her own shortcomings; on Sunday afternoons she finds an innocent relaxation in pointing out mine."
"Where is Lady Mary now?"
"I should say she was in her Bath-chair on the Scarborough sands at this moment."
"I like her," said Ruth, with decision.
"Tastes differ. Some people feel drawn towards wet blankets, and others have a leaning towards pokers. Do you know why you like her?"
"I never thought about it, but I suppose it was because she seemed to like me."
"Exactly. You admired her good taste. A very natural vanity, most pardonable in the young, was gratified at seeing marks of favor so well bestowed."
"I dare say you are right. At any rate, you seem so familiar with the workings of vanity in the human breast that it would be a pity to contradict you."
"By-the-way," said Charles, speaking in the way people do who have nothing to say, and are trying to hit on any subject of conversation, "have you heard any more of your tramp? There was no news of him when I left. I asked the Slumberleigh policeman about him again on my way to the station."
"I have heard no more of him, though I keep his memory green. I have not forgotten the fright he gave me. I had always imagined I was rather a self-possessed person till that day."
"I am a coward myself when I am frightened," said Charles, consolingly, "though at other times as bold as a lion."
They were both sitting under the flickering shadow of the already yellowing horse-chestnut-tree, the first of all the trees to set the gorgeous autumn fashions. But as yet it was paling only at the edges of its slender fans. The air was sweet and soft, with a voiceless whisper of melancholy in it, as if the summer knew, for all her smiles, her hour had wellnigh come.
The rectory cows—the mottled one, and the red one, and the big white one that was always milked first—came slowly past on their way to the pond, blinking their white eyelashes leisurely at Charles and Ruth.
"It is almost as hot as that Sunday in July when we walked over from Atherstone. Do you remember?" said Charles, suddenly.
She knew he was thinking of their last conversation, and she felt a momentary surprise that he had remembered it.
"We never finished that conversation," he said, after a pause.
"No; but then conversations never are finished, are they? They always seem to break off just when they are coming to the beginning. A bell rings, or there is an interruption, or one is told it is bedtime."
"Or fools rush in with their word where you and I should fear to tread, and spoil everything."
"And have you been holding the wool and tying up the flowers, as you so graphically described, ever since you left Atherstone in July?"
"I hope I have; I have tried."
"I am sure of that," he said, with sudden earnestness, then added more slowly, "I have not wound any wool; I have only enjoyed myself."
"Perhaps," said Ruth, turning her clear, frank gaze upon him, "that may have been the harder work of the two; it sometimes is."
His light, restless eyes, with the searching look in them which she had seen before, met hers, and then wandered away again to the level meadows and the woods and the faint sky.
"I think it was," he said at last; and both were silent. He reflected that his conversations with Ruth had a way of beginning in fun, becoming more serious, and ending in silence.
The bells rang out suddenly.
Charles thought they were full early.
"Mr. Alwynn will wake up now," said Ruth; "I will tell him you are here."
But before she had time to do more than rise from her chair, Mr. Alwynn came slowly round the yew hedge, and stopped suddenly in front of the chestnut-tree, amazed at what he saw beneath it. His mild eyes gazed blankly at Charles through his spectacles, gathering a pained expression as they peered over the top of them, which did not lessen when they fell on Ruth.
Charles explained in a few words the purport of his visit, which had already explained itself quite sufficiently to Mr. Alwynn; and mentioning that he had waited in the hope of presently finding Mr. Alwynn "disengaged" (at this Mr. Alwynn blushed a little), asked leave to walk as far as the church with him to consult him on a small matter, etc. It was a neat sentence, but it did not sound quite so well the third time. It had lost by the heathenish and vain repetitions to which it had been subjected.
"Certainly, certainly," said Mr. Alwynn, mollified, but still discomposed. "You should have waked me, Ruth;" turning reproachfully to his niece, whose conduct had never, in his eyes, fallen short of perfection till this moment. "Little nap after luncheon. Hardly asleep. You should have waked me."
"There was Aunt Fanny," said Ruth, feeling as if she had committed some grave sin.
"Ah-h!" said Mr. Alwynn, as if her reason were a weighty one, his memory possibly recalling the orchestral flourish which as a rule heralded his wife's return to consciousness. "True, true, my dear. I must be going," as the chime ceased. "Are you coming to church this afternoon?"
Ruth replied that she was not, and Mr. Alwynn and Charles departed together, Charles ruefully remembering that he had still to ask advice on a subject the triviality of which would hardly allow of two opinions.
Ruth watched them walk away together, and then went back noiselessly into the drawing-room.
Mrs. Alwynn was sitting bolt upright, her feet upon the floor, her gown upon the sofa. Her astonished eyes were fixed upon the dwindling figures of Mr. Alwynn and Charles.
"Goodness, Ruth!" she exclaimed, "who is that white waistcoat walking with your uncle?"
"Dear me! And as likely as not he came to see the new screen. I know Mrs. Thursby tells everybody about it. And his own house so full of beautiful things too. Was ever anything so annoying! We should have had so much in common, for I hear his taste is quite—well, really quite out of the way. How contrary things are, Ruth! You awake and me asleep, when it might just as well have been the other way; but it is Sunday, my dear, so we must not complain. And now, as we have missed church, I will lie down again, and you shall read me that nice sermon, which I always like to hear when I can't go to church; the one in the green book about Nabob's vineyard."
Great philosophers and profound metaphysicians should by rights have lived at Slumberleigh. Those whose lines have fallen to them "ten miles from a lemon," have time to think, if so inclined.
Only elementary natures complain of their surroundings; and though at first Ruth had been impatient and depressed, after a time she found that, better than to live in an atmosphere of thought, was to be thrown entirely on her own resources, and to do her thinking for herself.
Some minds, of course, sink into inanition if an outward supply of nutriment is withheld. Others get up and begin to forage for themselves. Happy are these—when the transition period is over—when, after a time, the first and worst mistakes have been made and suffered for, and the only teaching that profits anything at all, the bitter teaching of experience, has been laid to heart.
Such a nature was Ruth's, upright, self-reliant, without the impetuosity and impulsiveness that so often accompanies an independent nature, but accustomed to look at everything through her own eyes, and to think, but not till now to act for herself.
She had been brought up by her grandmother to believe that before all things noblesse oblige; to despise a dishonorable action, to have her feelings entirely under control, to be intimate with few, to be courteous to all. But to help others, to give up anything for them, to love an unfashionable or middle-class neighbor, or to feel a personal interest in religion, except as a subject of conversation, had never found a place in Lady Deyncourt's code, or consequently in Ruth's, though, as was natural with a generous nature, the girl did many little kindnesses to those about her, and was personally unselfish, as those who live with self-centred people are bound to be if there is to be any semblance of peace in the house.
But now, new thoughts were stirring within her, were leavening her whole mind. All through these monotonous months she had watched the quiet routine of patient effort that went to make up the sum of Mr. Alwynn's life. He was a shy man. He seldom spoke of religion out of the pulpit; but all through these long months he preached it without words to Ruth, as she had never heard it preached before, by
"The best portion of a good man's life— His little, nameless, unremembered acts Of kindness and of love."
It was the first time that she had come into close contact with a life spent for others, and its beauty appealed to her with a new force, and gradually but surely changed the current of her thoughts, until, as "we needs must love the highest when we see it," she unconsciously fell in love with self-sacrifice.
The opinions of most young persons, however loudly and injudiciously proclaimed, rarely do the possessors much harm, because they are not, as a rule, acted upon; but with some few people a change of views means a change of life. Ruth was on the edge of a greater change than she knew.
At first she had often regretted the chapter of her life that had been closed by Lady Deyncourt's death. Now, she felt she could not go back to it, and find it all-sufficient as of old. It would need an added element, without which she began to see that any sort or condition of life is but a stony, dusty concern after all—an element which made even Mr. Alwynn's colorless existence a contented and happy one.
Ruth had been telling him one day, as they were walking together, of her sister's plans for the winter, and that she was sorry to think her time at Slumberleigh was drawing to a close.
"I am afraid," he said, "in spite of all you say, my dear, it has been very dull for you here. No little gayeties or enjoyments such as it is right young people should have. I wish we had had a picnic, or a garden-party, or something. Mabel Thursby cannot be happy without these things, and it is natural at your age that you should wish for them. Your aunt and I lead very quiet lives. It suits us, but it is different for young people."
"Does it suit you?" asked Ruth, with sudden earnestness. "Do you really like it, or do you sometimes get tired of it?"
Mr. Alwynn looked a little alarmed and disconcerted. He never cared to talk about himself.
"I used to get tired," he said at last, with reluctance, "when I was younger. There were times when I foolishly expected more from life than—than, in fact, I quite got, my dear; and the result was, I fear I had a very discontented spirit—an unthankful, discontented spirit," he repeated, with sad retrospection.
Something in his tone touched Ruth to the quick.
"I am content now."
"Uncle John, tell me. How did you grow to feel content?"
He saw there were tears in her eyes.
"It took a long time," he said. "Anything that is worth knowing, Ruth, takes a long time to learn. I think I found in the end, my dear, that the only way was to put my whole heart into what I was doing," (Mr. Alwynn's voice was simple and earnest, as if he were imparting to Ruth a great discovery). "I had tried before, from time to time, of course, but never quite as hard as I might have done. That was where I failed. When I put myself on one side, and really settled down to do what I could for others, life became much simpler and happier."
He turned his grave, patient eyes to Ruth's again. Was something troubling her?
"I have often thought since then," he went on, speaking more to himself than to her, "that we should consider well what we are keeping back our strength for, if we find ourselves refusing to put the whole of it into our work. When at last one does start, one feels it is such a pity one did not do it earlier in life. When I look at all the young faces growing up around me, I often hope, Ruth, they won't waste as much time as I did."
How simple it seemed while she listened to him; how easy, how natural, this life for others!
She could not answer. One sentence of Mr. Alwynn's was knocking at the door of her heart for admission; was drowning with its loud beating the sound of all the rest:
"We should consider well what we are keeping back our strength for, if we refuse to put the whole of it into our work."
She and Mr. Alwynn walked on in silence; and after a time, always afraid of speaking much on the subject that was first in his own mind, he began to talk again on trivial matters, to tell her how he had met Dare that morning, and had promised on her behalf that she would sing at a little local concert which the Vandon school-master was getting up that week to defray the annual expense of the Vandon cricket club, and in which Dare was taking a vivid interest.
"You won't mind singing, will you, Ruth?" asked Mr. Alwynn, wishing she would show a little more interest in Dare and his concert.
"Oh no, of course not," rather hurriedly. "I should be glad to help in any way."
"And I thought, my dear, as it would be getting late, we had better accept his offer of staying the night at Vandon."
Ruth assented, but so absently that Mr. Alwynn dropped the subject with a sigh, and walked on, revolving weighty matters in his mind. They had left the woods now, and were crossing the field where, two months ago, the school-feast had been held. Mr. Alwynn made some slight allusion to it, and then coughed. Ruth's attention, which had been distracted, came back in a moment. She knew her uncle had something which he did not like, something which yet he felt it his duty to say, when he gave that particular cough.
"That was when you were staying with the Danvers, wasn't it, Ruth?" in a would-be casual, disengaged tone.
"Yes; I came over from Atherstone with Molly Danvers."
"I remember," said Mr. Alwynn, looking extremely uncomfortable; "and—if I am not mistaken—ahem! Sir Charles Danvers was staying there at the same time?"
"Certainly he was."
"Yes, and I dare say, Ruth—I am not finding fault, far from it—I dare say he made himself very agreeable for the time being?"
"I don't think he made himself so. I should have said he was naturally so, without any effort, just as some people are naturally the reverse."
"Indeed! Well, I have always heard he was most agreeable; but I am afraid—I think perhaps it is just as well you should know—forewarned is forearmed, you know—that, in fact, he says a great deal more than he means sometimes."
"Does he? I dare say he does."
"He has a habit of appearing to take a great interest in people, which I am afraid means very little. I dare say he is not fully aware of it, or I am sure he would struggle against it, and we must not judge him; but still, his manner does a great deal of harm. It is peculiarly open to misconstruction. For instance," continued Mr. Alwynn, making a rush as his courage began to fail him, "it struck me, Ruth, the other day—Sunday, was it? Yes, I think it was Sunday—that really he had not much to ask me about his week-day services. I—ahem! I thought he need not have called."
"I dare say not."
"But now, that is just the kind of thing he does—calls, and, er—under chestnut-trees, and that sort of thing—and how are young people to know unless their elders tell them that it is only his way, and that he has done just the same ever so often before?"
"And will again," said Ruth, trying to keep down a smile. "Is it true (Mabel is full of it) that he is engaged, or on the point of being so, to one of Lord Hope-Acton's daughters?"
"People are always saying he is engaged, to first one person and then another," said Mr. Alwynn, breathing more freely now that his duty was discharged. "It often grieves me that your aunt mentions his engagement so confidently to friends, because it gives people the impression that we know, and we really don't. He is a great deal talked about, because he is such a conspicuous man in the county, on account of his wealth and his place, and the odd things he says and does. There is something about him that is different from other people. I am sure I don't know why it is, but I like him very much myself. I have known him do such kind things. Dear me! What a pleasant week I had at Stoke Moreton last year. It is beautiful, Ruth; and the collection of old papers and manuscripts unique! Your aunt was in Devonshire with friends at the time. I wish he would ask me again this autumn, to see those charters of Edward IV.'s reign that have been found in the secret drawer of an old cabinet. I hear they are quite small, and have green seals. I wish I had thought of asking him about them on Sunday. If they are really small—but it was only Archdeacon Eldon who told me about them, and he never sees anything any particular size—if they should happen to be really small—" And Mr. Alwynn turned eagerly to the all-engrossing subject of the Stoke Moreton charters, which furnished him with conversation till they reached home.
"We should consider well what we are keeping back our strength for, if we refuse to put the whole of it into our work."
All through the afternoon and the quiet, monotonous evening these words followed Ruth. She read them between the lines of the book she took up. She stitched them into her sewing. They went up-stairs with her at night, they followed her into her room, and would not be denied. When she had sent away her maid, she sat down by the window, and, with the full harvest-moon for company, faced them and asked them what they meant. But they only repeated themselves over and over again. What had they to do with her? Her mind tried to grapple with them in vain. As often as she came to close quarters with them they eluded her and disappeared, only to return with the old formula.
Her thoughts drifted away at last to what Mr. Alwynn had said of Charles, and all the disagreeable things which Mabel had come up on Monday morning, with a bunch of late roses, on purpose to tell her respecting him. She had taken Mabel's information at its true worth, which I fear was but small; but she felt annoyed that both Mabel and Mr. Alwynn should have thought it necessary to warn her. As if, she said to herself, she had not known! Really, she had not been born and bred in Slumberleigh, nor had she lived there all her life. She had met men of that kind before. She always liked them. Charles especially amused her, and she could see that she amused him; and, now she came to think of it, she supposed he had paid her a good deal of attention at Atherstone, and perhaps he had not come over to Slumberleigh especially to see Mr. Alwynn. It was as natural to men like Charles to be always interested in some one, as it would be unnatural in others ever to be so, except as the result of long forethought, and with a wedding-ring and a set of bridesmaids well in view. But to attach any importance to the fact that Charles liked to talk to her would have been absurd. With another man it might have meant much; but she had heard of Charles and his misdoings long before she had met him, and knew what to expect. Lord Breakwater's sister had confided to her many things respecting him, and had wept bitter tears on her shoulder, when he suddenly went off to shoot grizzlies in the Rocky Mountains.
"He has not sufficient vanity to know that he is exceedingly popular," said Ruth to herself. "I should think there are few men, handicapped as he is, who have been liked more entirely for themselves, and less for their belongings; but all the time he probably imagines people admire his name, or his place, or his income, and not himself, and consequently he does not care much what he says or does. I am certain he does not mean to do any harm. His manner never deceived me for a moment. I can't see why it should others; but, from all accounts, he seems to be frequently misunderstood. That is just the right word for him. He is misunderstood. At any rate, I never misunderstood him. That Sunday call might have made me suspicious of any ordinary mortal; but I knew no common rule could apply to such an exception as he is. I only wonder, when he really does find himself in earnest, how he is to convey his meaning to the future Lady Danvers. What words would be strong enough; what ink would be black enough to carry conviction to her mind?"
She smiled at the thought, and, as she smiled, another face rose suddenly before her—Dare's pale and serious, as it had been of late, with the wistful, anxious eyes. He, at least, had meant a great deal, she thought with remorse. He had been in earnest, sufficiently in earnest to make himself very unhappy, and on her account.
Ruth had known for some time that Dare loved her; but to-night that simple, unobtrusive fact suddenly took larger proportions, came boldly out of the shadow and looked her in the face.
He loved her. Well, what then?
She turned giddy, and leaned her head against the open shutter.
In the silence the words that had haunted her all the afternoon came back; not loud as heretofore, but in a whisper, speaking to her heart, which had begun to beat fast and loud.
"We should consider well what we are keeping back our strength for, if we refuse to put the whole of it into our work."
What work was there for her to do?
The giddiness and the whirl in her mind died down suddenly like a great gust on the surface of a lake, and left it still and clear and cold.
The misery of the world and the inability to meet it had so often confused and weighed her down that she had come back humbly of late to the only possibility with which it was in her power to deal, come back to the well-worn groove of earnest determination to do as much as in her lay, close at hand, when she could find a field to labor in. And now she suddenly saw, or thought she saw, that she had found it. She had been very anxious as to whether Dare would do his duty, but till this moment it had never struck her that it might be her duty to help him.
She liked him; and he was poor—too poor to do much for the people who were dependent on him, the poor, struggling people of Vandon. Their sullen, miserable faces rose up before her, and their crazy houses. Fever had broken out again in the cottages by the river. He needed help and encouragement, for he had a difficult time before him. And she had these to give, and money too. Could she do better with them? She knew Mr. Alwynn wished it. And as to herself? Was she never going to put self on one side? She had never liked any one very much—at least, not in that way—but she liked him.
The words came like a loud voice in the silence. She liked him. Well, what then?
She shut her eyes, but she only shut out the moon's pale photographs of the fields and woods. She could not shut out these stern besieging thoughts.
What was she holding back for? For some possible ideal romantic future; for the prince of a fairy story? No? Well, then, for what?
The moon went behind a cloud, and took all her photographs with her. The night had turned very cold.
"To-morrow," said Ruth to herself, rising slowly; "I am too tired to think now. To-morrow!"
And as she spoke the faint chime of the clock upon her table warned her that already it was to-morrow.
And soon, in a moment, as it seemed to her, before she had had time to think, it was again to-morrow, a wet, dim to-morrow, and she was at Vandon, running up the wide stone steps in the starlight, under Dare's protecting umbrella, and allowing him to take her wraps from her before the hall fire.
The concert had gone off well. Ruth was pleased, Mr. Alwynn was pleased. Dare was in a state of repressed excitement, now flying into the drawing-room to see if there were a good fire, as it was a chilly evening; now rushing thence to the dining-room to satisfy himself that all the immense and elaborate preparations which he had enjoined on the cook had been made. Then, Ruth must be shown to her room. Who was to do it? He flew to find the house-keeper, and after repeated injunctions to the house-maid, whom he met in the passage, not to forget the hot water, took Mr. Alwynn off to his apartment.
The concert had begun, as concerts always seem to do, at the exact time at which it is usual to dine, so that it was late before the principal performers and Mr. Alwynn reached Vandon. It was later still before supper came, but when it came it was splendid. Dare looked with anxious satisfaction, over a soup tureen, at the various spiced and glazed forms of indigestion, sufficient for a dozen people, which covered the table. It grieved him that Ruth, confronted by a spreading ham, and Mr. Alwynn, half hidden by a bowlder of turkey, should have such moderate appetites. But at least she was there, under his roof, at his table. It was not surprising that he could eat nothing himself.
After supper, Mr. Alwynn, who combined the wisdom of the worldly serpent with the harmlessness of the clerical dove, fell—not too suddenly—asleep by the fire in the drawing-room, and Ruth and Dare went into the hall, where the piano was. Dare opened it and struck a few minor chords. Ruth sat down in a great carved arm-chair beside the fire.
The hall was only lighted by a few tall lamps high on pedestals against the walls, which threw great profiles of the various busts upon the dim bass-reliefs of twining scroll-work; and Dare, with his eyes fixed on Ruth, began to play.
There is in some music a strange appeal beyond the reach of words. Those mysterious sharps and flats, and major and minor chords, are an alphabet that in some occult combinations forms another higher language than that of speech, a language which, as we listen, thrills us to the heart.
It was an old piano, with an impediment in its speech, out of the yellow notes of which Ruth could have made nothing; but in Dare's hands it spoke for him as he never could have spoken for himself.
His eyes never left her. He feared to look away, lest he should find the presence of that quiet, graceful figure by his fireside had been a dream, and that he was alone again with the dim lamps, alone with Dante and Cicero and Seneca.
The firelight dwelt ruddily upon her grave clear-cut face and level brows, and upon the folds of her white gown. It touched the slender hands clasped lightly together on her knee, and drew sudden sparks and gleams out of the diamond pin at her throat.
His hands trembled on the keys, and as he looked his heart beat high and higher, loud and louder, till it drowned the rhythm of the music. And as he looked her calm eyes met his.
In another moment he was on his knees beside her, her hands caught in his trembling clasp, and his head pressed down upon them.
"I know," he gasped, "it is no good. You have told me so once. You will tell me so again. I am not good enough. I am not worthy. But I love you; I love you!"
In moments of real feeling the old words hold their own against all modern new-comers. Dare repeated them over and over again in a paroxysm of overwhelming emotion which shook him from head to foot.
Something in his boyish attitude and in his entire loss of self-control touched Ruth strangely. She knew he was five or six years her senior, but at the moment she felt as if she were much older than he, and a sudden vague wish passed through her mind that he had been nearer her in age; not quite so young.
"Well?" she said, gently; and he felt her cool, passive hands tremble a little in his. Something in the tone of her voice made him raise his head, and meet her eyes looking down at him, earnestly, and with a great kindness in them.
A sudden eager light leaped into his face.
"Will you?" he whispered, breathlessly, his hands tightening their hold of hers. "Will you?"
There was a moment's pause, in which the whole world seemed to stand quite still and wait for her answer.
"Yes," she said at last, "I will."
"I am glad I did it," she said to herself, half an hour later, as she leaned her tired head against the carved oak chimney-piece in her bedroom, and absently traced with her finger the Latin inscription over the fireplace. "I like him very much. I am glad I did it."
For many years nothing had given Mr. Alwynn such heart-felt pleasure as the news Ruth had to tell him, as he drove her back next morning to Slumberleigh, behind Mrs. Alwynn's long-tailed ponies.
It was a still September morning, with a faint pearl sky and half-veiled silver sun. Pale gleams of sunshine wandered across the busy harvest fields, and burnished the steel of the river.
Decisions of any kind rarely look their best after a sleepless night; but as Ruth saw the expression of happiness and relief that came into her uncle's face, when she told him what had happened, she felt again that she was glad—very glad.
"Oh, my dear! my dear!"—Mr. Alwynn was driving the ponies first against the bank, and then into the opposite ditch—"how glad I am; how thankful! I had almost hoped, certainly; I wished so much to think it possible; but then, one can never tell. Poor Dare! poor fellow! I used to be so sorry for him. And how much you will be able to do at Vandon among the people. It will be a different place. And it is such a relief to think that the poor old house will be looked after. It went to my heart to see the way it had been neglected. I ventured this morning, as I was down early, to move some of that dear old Worcester farther back into the cabinet. They really were so near the edge, I could not bear to see them; and I found a Sevres saucer, my dear, in the library that belonged to one of those beautiful cups in the drawing-room. I hope it was not very wrong, but I had to put it among its relations. It was sitting with a Delf mug on it, poor thing. Dear me! I little thought then—Really, I have never been so glad about anything before."
After a little more conversation, and after Mr. Alwynn had been persuaded to give the reins to his niece, who was far more composed than himself, his mind reverted to his wife.
"I think, my dear, until your engagement is more settled, till I have had a talk with Dare on the subject (which will be necessary before you write to your uncle Francis), it would be as well not to refer to it before—in fact, not to mention it to Mrs. Alwynn. Your dear aunt's warm heart and conversational bent make it almost impossible for her to refrain from speaking of anything that interests her; and indeed, even if she does not say anything in so many words, I have observed that opinions are sometimes formed by others as to the subject on which she is silent, by her manner when any chance allusion is made to it."
Ruth heartily agreed. She had been dreading the searching catechism through which Mrs. Alwynn would certainly put her—the minute inquiries as to her dress, the hour, the place; whether it had been "standing up or sitting down;" all her questions of course interwoven with personal reminiscences of "how John had done it," and her own emotion at the time.
It was with no small degree of relief at the postponement of that evil hour that Ruth entered the house. As she did so a faint sound reached her ear. It was that of a musical-box.
"Dear! dear!" said Mr. Alwynn, as he followed her. "It is a fine day. Your aunt must be ill."
For the moment Ruth did not understand the connection of ideas in his mind, until she suddenly remembered the musical-box, which, Mrs. Alwynn had often told her, was "so nice and cheery on a wet day, or in time of illness."
She hurriedly entered the drawing-room, followed by Mr. Alwynn, where the first object that met her view was Mrs. Alwynn extended on the sofa, arrayed in what she called her tea-gown, a loose robe of blue cretonne, with a large vine-leaf pattern twining over it, which broke out into grapes at intervals. Ruth knew that garment well. It came on only when Mrs. Alwynn was suffering. She had worn it last during a period of entire mental prostration, which had succeeded all too soon an exciting discovery of mushrooms in the glebe. Mr. Alwynn's heart and Ruth's sank as they caught sight of it again.
With a dignity befitting the occasion, Mrs. Alwynn recounted in detail the various ways in which she had employed herself after their departure the previous evening, up to the exact moment when she slipped going up-stairs, and sprained her ankle, in a blue and green manner that had quite alarmed the doctor when he had seen it, and compared with which Mrs. Thursby's gathered finger in the spring was a mere bagatelle.
"Mrs. Thursby stayed in bed when her finger was bad," said Mrs. Alwynn to Ruth, when Mr. Alwynn had condoled, and had made his escape to his study. "She always gives way so; but I never was like that. I was up all the same, my dear."
"I hope it does not hurt very much," said Ruth, anxious to be sympathetic, but succeeding only in being commonplace.
"It's not only the pain," said Mrs. Alwynn, in the gentle resigned voice which she always used when indisposed—the voice of one at peace with all the world, and ready to depart from a scene consequently so devoid of interest; "but to a person of my habits, Ruth—never a day without going into the larder, and always seeing after the servants as I do—first one duty and then another—and the chickens and all. It seems a strange thing that I should be laid aside."
Mrs. Alwynn paused, as if she had not for the nonce fathomed the ulterior reasons for this special move on the part of Providence, which had crippled her, while it left Ruth and Mrs. Thursby with the use of their limbs.
"However," she continued, "I am not one to repine. Always cheery and busy, Ruth: that is my motto. And now, my dear, if you will wind up the musical-box, and then read me a little bit out of 'Texts with Tender Twinings'" (the new floral manual which had lately superseded the "Pearls"), "after that we will start on one of my scrap-books, and you shall tell me all about your visit to Vandon."
It was not the time Ruth would have chosen for a tete-a-tete with her aunt. She was longing to be alone, to think quietly over what had happened, and it was difficult to concentrate her attention on pink and yellow calico, and cut out colored royal families, and foreign birds, with a good grace. Happily Mrs. Alwynn, though always requiring attention, was quite content with the half of what she required; and, with the "Buffalo Girls" and the "Danube River" tinkling on the table, conversation was somewhat superfluous.
In the afternoon Dare came, but he was waylaid in the hall by Mr. Alwynn, and taken into the study before he could commit himself in Mrs. Alwynn's presence. Mrs. Thursby and Mabel also called to condole, and a little later Mrs. Smith of Greenacre, who had heard the news of the accident from the doctor. Altogether it was a delightful afternoon for Mrs. Alwynn, who assumed for the time an air of superiority over Mrs. Thursby to which that lady's well-known chronic ill-health seldom allowed her to lay claim.
Mrs. Alwynn and Mrs. Thursby had remained friends since they had both arrived together as brides at Slumberleigh, in spite of a difference of opinion, which had at one time strained friendly relations to a painful degree, as to the propriety of wearing the hair over the top of the ear. The hair question settled, a temporary difficulty, extending over a few years, had sprung up in its place, respecting what Mrs. Thursby called "family." Mrs. Alwynn's family was not her strong point, nor was its position strengthened by her assertion (unsupported by Mrs. Markham), that she was directly descended from Queen Elizabeth. Consequently, it was trying to Mrs. Thursby—who, as every one knows, was one of the brainless Copleys of Copley—that Mrs. Alwynn, who in the lottery of marriage had drawn an honorable, should take precedence of herself. To obviate this difficulty, Mrs. Thursby, with the ingenuity of her sex, had at one time introduced Mr. and Mrs. Alwynn as "our rector," and "our rector's wife," thus denying them their name altogether, for fear lest its connection with Lord Polesworth should be remembered, and the fact that Mr. Alwynn was his brother, and consequently an honorable, should transpire.
This peculiarity of etiquette entirely escaped Mr. Alwynn, but aroused feelings in the breast of his wife which might have brought about one of those deeply rooted feuds which so often exist between the squire's and clergyman's families, if it had not been for the timely and serious illness in which Mrs. Thursby lost her health, and the principal part of the other subject of disagreement—her hair.
Then Queen Elizabeth and the honorable were alike forgotten. With her own hands Mrs. Alwynn made a certain jelly, which Mrs. Thursby praised in the highest manner, saying she only wished that it had been the habit in her family to learn to do anything so useful. Mrs. Thursby's new gowns were no longer kept a secret from Mrs. Alwynn, to be suddenly sprung upon her at a garden-party, when, possibly in an old garment herself, she was least able to bear the shock. By-gones were by-gones, and, greatly to the relief of the two husbands, their respective wives made up their differences.
"And a very pleasant afternoon it has been," said Mrs. Alwynn, when the Thursbys and Dare, who had been loath to go, had taken their departure. "Mrs. Thursby and Mabel, and Mrs. Smith and Mr. Dare. Four to tea. Quite a little party, wasn't it, Ruth? And so informal and nice; and the buns came in as naturally as possible, which no one heard me whisper to James for. I think those little citron buns are nicer than a great cake like Mrs. Thursby's; and hers are always so black and overbaked. That is why the cook sifts such a lot of sugar over them. I do think one should be real, and not try to cover up things. And Mr. Dare so pleasant. Quite sorry to go he seemed. I often wonder whether it will be you or Mabel in the end. He ought to be making up his mind. I expect I shall have a little joke with him about it before long. And such an interest he took in the scrap-book. I asked him to come again to-morrow."
"I don't expect he will be able to do so," said Mr. Alwynn. "I rather think he will have to go to town on business."
Later in the evening, Mr. Alwynn told Ruth that in the course of his interview he had found that Dare had the very vaguest ideas as to the necessity of settlements; had evidently never given the subject a thought, and did not even know what he actually possessed.
Mr. Alwynn was secretly afraid of what Ruth's trustee, his brother, Lord Polesworth (now absent shooting in the Rocky Mountains), would say if, during his absence, their niece was allowed to engage herself without suitable provision; and he begged Ruth not "to do anything rash" in the way of speaking of her engagement, until Dare could, with the help of his lawyer, see his way to making some arrangement.
"I know he has no money," said Ruth, quietly; "that is one of the reasons why I am going to marry him."
Mr. Alwynn, to whom this seemed the most natural reason in the world, was not sure whether it would strike his brother with equal force. He had a suspicion that when Lord Polesworth's attention should be turned from white goats and brown bears to the fact that his niece, who had means of her own, had been allowed to engage herself to a poor man, and that Mr. Alwynn had greatly encouraged the match, unpleasant questions might be asked.
"Francis will be back in November," said Mr. Alwynn. "I think, Ruth, we had better wait till his return before we do anything definite."
"Anything more definite, you mean," said Ruth. "I have been very definite already, I think. I shall be glad to wait till he comes back, if you wish it, Uncle John. I shall try to do what you both advise. But at the same time I am of age; and if my word is worth anything, you know I have given that already."
Dare felt no call to go to London by the early train on the following morning, so he found himself at liberty to spend an hour at Slumberleigh Rectory on his way to the station, and by the advice of Mr. Alwynn went into the garden, where the sound of the musical-box reached the ear, but in faint echoes, and where Ruth presently joined him.
In his heart Dare was secretly afraid of Ruth; though, as he often told himself, it was more than probable she was equally afraid of him. If that was so, she controlled her feelings wonderfully, for as she came to meet him, nothing could have been more frankly kind, more friendly, or more composed than her manner towards him. He took her out-stretched hand and kissed it. It was not quite the way in which he had pictured to himself that they would meet; but if his imagination had taken a somewhat bolder flight in her absence, he felt now, as she stood before him, that it had taken that flight in vain. He kept her hand, and looked intently at her. She did not change color, nor did that disappointing friendliness leave her steady eyes.
"She does not love me," he said to himself. "It is strange, but she does not. But the day will come."
"You are going to London, are you not?" asked Ruth, withdrawing her hand at last; and after hearing a detailed account of his difficulties and anxieties about money matters, and after taking an immense weight off his mind by telling him that they would have no influence in causing her to alter her decision, she sent him beaming and rejoicing on his way, quite a different person to the victim of anxiety and depression who had arrived at Slumberleigh an hour before.
Mrs. Alwynn was much annoyed at Dare's entire want of heart in leaving the house without coming to see her, and during the remainder of the morning she did not cease to comment on the differences that exist between what people really are and what they seem to be, until, in her satisfaction at recounting the accident to Evelyn Danvers, a new and sympathetic listener, she fortunately forgot the slight put upon her ankle earlier in the day. The complete enjoyment of her sufferings was, however, destined to sustain a severe shock the following morning.
She and Ruth were reading their letters, Mrs. Alwynn, of course, giving Ruth the benefit of the various statements respecting the weather which her correspondents had confided to her, when Mr. Alwynn came in from the study, an open letter in his hand. He was quite pink with pleasure.
"He has asked me to go and see them," he said, "and they are small, and have green seals, all excepting one,"—referring to the letter—"which has a big red seal in a tin box, attached by a tape. Ruth, I am perfectly convinced beforehand that those charters are grants of land of the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Sir Charles mentions that they are in black letter, and only a few lines on each, but he says he won't describe them in full, as I must come and see them for myself. Dear me! how I shall enjoy arranging them for him, which he asked me to do. I had really become so anxious about them that a few days ago I determined to set my mind at rest, and I wrote to him to ask for particulars, and that is his answer."
Mr. Alwynn put Charles's letter into her hand, and she glanced over it.
"Why, Uncle John, he asks Aunt Fanny as well; and—'if Miss Deyncourt is still with you, pleasure,' etc.—and me, too!"
"When is it for?" asked Mrs. Alwynn, suddenly sitting bolt-upright.
"Let me see. 'Black letter size about'—where is it? Here. 'Tuesday, the 25th, for three nights. Leaving home following week for some time. Excuse short notice,' etc. It is next week, Aunt Fanny."
"I shall not be able to go," gasped Mrs. Alwynn, sinking back on her sofa, while something very like tears came into her eyes; "and I've never been there, Ruth. The Thursbys went once, in old Sir George's time, and Mrs. Thursby always says it is the show-place in the county, and that it is such a pity I have not seen it. And last autumn, when John went, I was in Devonshire, and never even heard of his going till I got home, or I'd have come back. Oh, Ruth! Oh, dear!"
Mrs. Alwynn let her letters fall into her lap, and drew forth the colored pocket-handkerchief which she wore, in imitation of Mabel Thursby, stuck into the bodice of her gown, and at the ominous appearance of which Mr. Alwynn suddenly recollected a duty in the study and retreated.
With an unerring instinct Ruth flew to the musical-box and set it going, and then knelt down by the prostrate figure of her aunt, and administered what sympathy and consolation she could, to the "cheery" accompaniment of the "Buffalo Girls."
"Never mind, dear Aunt Fanny. Perhaps he will ask you again when you are better. There will be other opportunities."
"I always was unlucky," said Mrs. Alwynn, faintly. "I had a swelled face up the Rhine on our honey-moon. Things always happen like that with me. At any rate,"—after a pause—"there is one thing. We ought to try and look at the bright side. It is not as if we had not been asked. We have not been overlooked."
"No," said Ruth, promptly; and in her own mind she registered a vow that in her future home she would never give the pain that being overlooked by the larger house can cause to the smaller house.
"And I will stay with you, Aunt Fanny," she went on, cheerfully. "Uncle John can go by himself, and we will do just what we like while he is away, won't we?"
But at this Mrs. Alwynn demurred. She was determined that if she played the role of a martyr she would do it well. She insisted that Ruth should accompany Mr. Alwynn. She secretly looked forward to telling Mabel that Ruth was going. She did not mind being left alone, she said. She desired, with a sigh of self-sacrifice, that Mr. Alwynn should accept for himself and his niece. She had not been brought up to consider herself, thank God! She had her faults she knew. No one was more fully aware of them than herself; but she was not going to prevent others enjoying themselves because she herself was laid aside.
"And now, my dear," she said, with a sudden return to mundane interests that succeeded rather unexpectedly to the celestial spirit of her previous remarks, "you must be thinking about your gowns. If I had been going, I should have had my ruby satin done up—so beautiful by candle-light. What have you to wear? That white lace tea-gown with the silver-gray train is very nice; but you ought not to be in half mourning now. I like to see young people in colors. And then there is that gold-and-white brocade, Ruth, that you wore at the drawing-room last year. It is a beautiful dress, but rather too quiet. Could not you brighten it up with a few cherry-colored bows about it, or a sash? I always think a sash is so becoming. If you were to bring it down, I dare say I could suggest something. And you must be well dressed, for though he only says 'friends,' you never can tell whom you may not meet at a place like that."
The last week of September found Charles back at Stoke Moreton to receive the "friends" of whom Mrs. Alwynn spoke. People whose partridges he had helped to kill were now to be gathered from the east and from the west to help to kill his. From the north also guests were coming, were leaving their mountains to—But the remainder of the line is invidious. The Hope-Actons had written to offer a visit at Stoke Moreton on the strength of an old promise to Charles, a promise so old that he had forgotten it, until reminded, that next time they were passing they would take his house on their way. They had offered their visit exactly at the same time for which he had just invited the Alwynns and Ruth. Charles felt that they were not quite the people whom he would have arranged to meet each other, but, as Fate had so decreed it, he acquiesced calmly enough.
But when Lady Mary also wrote tenderly from Scarborough, to ask if she could be of any use helping to entertain his guests, he felt it imperative to draw the line, and wrote a grateful effusion to his aunt, saying that he could not think of asking her to leave a place where he felt sure she was deriving spiritual and temporal benefit, in order to assist at so unprofitable a festivity as a shooting-party. He mentioned casually that Lady Grace Lawrence, Miss Deyncourt, and Miss Wyndham were to be of the party, which details he imagined might have an interest for her amid her graver reflections.
The subject of Ruth's coming certainly had a prominent place in his own graver reflections. For the last fortnight, as he went from house to house, he had been wondering how he could meet her again, and, when Mr. Alwynn's letter concerning the charters was forwarded to him, a sudden inspiration made him then and there send the invitation which had arrived at Slumberleigh Rectory a few days before. He groaned in spirit as he wrote it, at the thought of Mrs. Alwynn disporting herself, dressed in the brightest colors, among his other guests; and it was with a feeling of thankfulness that he found Ruth and Mr. Alwynn were coming without her.
He had felt very little interest so far in the party, which, with the exception of the Hope-Actons, had been long arranged, but now he found himself looking forward to it with actual impatience, and he returned home a day before the time, instead of an hour or two before his guests were expected, as was his wont.
The Wyndhams and Hope-Actons, with Lady Grace in tow, were the first to appear upon the scene. Mr. Alwynn and Ruth arrived a few hours later, amid a dropping fire of young men and gun-cases, who kept on turning up at intervals during the afternoon, and, according to the mysterious nocturnal habits of their kind, till late into the night.
If ever a man appears to advantage it is on his native hearth, and as Charles stood on his in the long hall, where it was the habit of the house to assemble before dinner, Ruth found that her attempts at conversation were rather thrown away upon Lady Grace, with whom she had been renewing an old acquaintance, and whose interest, for the time being, entirely centred in the carved coats of arms and heraldic designs with which the towering white stone chimney-piece was covered.
Lady Grace was one of those pretty, delicate creatures who remind one of a very elaborate rose-bud. There was an appearance of ultra-refinement about her, a look of that refinement which is in itself a weakness, a poverty of blood, so to speak, the opposite and more pleasing but equally unhealthy extreme of coarseness. She looked very pretty as, having left Ruth, she stood by Charles, passing her little pink hand over the lowest carvings, dim and worn with the heat of many generations of fires, and listened with rapt attention to his answers to her questions.
"And the Hall is so beautiful," she said, looking round with childlike curiosity at the walls covered with weapons, and with a long array of armor, and at the massive pillars of carved white stone which rose up out of the polished floor to meet the raftered ceiling. "It is so—so uncommon."
Whatever Charles's other failings may have been, he was an admirable host. The weather was fine. What can be finer than September when she is in a good-humor? The two first days of Ruth's visit were unalloyed enjoyment. It seemed like a sudden return to the old life with Lady Deyncourt, when the round of country visits regularly succeeded the season in London. Of Mr. Alwynn she saw little or nothing. He was buried in the newly discovered charters. Of Charles she saw a good deal, more than at the time she was quite aware of, for he seemed to see a great deal of everybody, from Lady Grace to the shy man of the party, who at Stoke Moreton first conceived the idea that he was an acquisition to society. But, whether Charles made the opportunities or not which came so ready to his hand, still he found time, amid the pressure of his shooting arrangements and his duties as host, to talk to Ruth.
One day there was cub-hunting in the gray of the early morning, to which she and Miss Wyndham went with Charles and others of the party who could bear to get up betimes. Losing sight of the others after a time, Ruth and Charles rode back alone together, when the sun was high, walking their tired horses along the black-berried lanes, and down the long green rides cut in the yellowing bracken of the park.
"And so you are going to winter in Rome?" said Charles, who had the previous day, contrary to his wont, accepted an invitation to Slumberleigh Hall for the middle of October. "I sometimes go to Rome for a few weeks when the shooting is over. And are you glad or sorry at the prospect of leaving your Cranford?"
"I have seen an entirely new phase of life at Slumberleigh."
"I think I can guess what you mean," said Charles, gravely. "One does not often meet any one like Mr. Alwynn."
"No. I was thinking of him. Until I came to Slumberleigh the lines had not fallen to me in very clerical places, so my experience is limited; but he seems to me to be the only clergyman I have known who does not force on one a form of religion that has been dead and buried for years."
"The clergy have much to answer for on that head," said Charles with bitterness. "I sometimes like and respect them as individuals, but I do not love them as a class. One ought to make allowance for the fact that they are tied and bound by the chain of their Thirty-nine Articles; that at three-and-twenty they shut the doors deliberately on any new and possibly unorthodox idea; and it is consequently unreasonable to expect from them any genuine freedom or originality of thought. I can forgive them their assumption of superiority, their inability to meet honest scepticism with anything like fairness, their continual bickering among themselves; but I cannot forgive them the harm they are doing to religion, the discredit they are bringing upon it by their bigoted views and obsolete ideas. They busy themselves doing good—that is the worst of it; they mean well, but they do not see that, in the mean while, their Church is being left unto them desolate; though perhaps, after all, the Church having come to be what it is, that is the best thing that can happen."
"There are men among the clergy who will not come under that sweeping accusation," said Ruth. "Look at some of the London churches. Are they desolate? Goodness and earnestness will be a power to the end of time, however narrow the accompanying creed may be."
"That is true, but we have heads as well as hearts. Goodness and earnestness appeal to the heart alone. The intellect is left out in the cold. However good and earnest, and eloquent one of these great preachers may be, the reason we go to hear him is not only because of that, but because he appears to be thinking in a straight line, because he seems to recognize the long-resisted claim of the intellect, and we hope he will have a word to say to us. He promises well, but listen to him a little longer, follow his thought, and you will begin to see that he will only look for truth within a certain area, that his steps are describing an arc, that he is tethered. Give him time enough, and you will see him tread out the complete circle in which he and his brethren are equally bound to walk."
"You forget," said Ruth, "that you are regarding the Church from the stand-point of the cultivated and intellectual class, for whom the Church has ceased to represent religion; but there are lots of people neither cultivated nor intellectual—women even of our own class are not so as a rule—to whom the Church, with its ritual and dogma, is a real help and comfort. If, as you say, it does not suit the more highly educated, I think you have no right to demand that it should suit what is, after all, a very small minority. It would be most unfair if it did."
Charles did not answer. He had been looking at her, and thinking how few women could have disagreed with him as quietly and resolutely as this young girl riding at his side, carefully avoiding chance rabbit-holes as she spoke.
"There is, and there always will be, a certain number of people, not only among the clergy," she went on, "who, as somebody says, 'put the church clock back,' and are unable to see that they cannot alter the time of day for all that; only they can and do prevent many well-intentioned people from trusting to it any longer. But there are others here and there whom a dogmatic form of religion has been quite unable to spoil, whose more simple turn of mind draws out of the very system that appears to you so lifeless and effete, a real faith, a personal possession, which no one can take from them."
Her eyes sparkled as she spoke, and Charles saw that she was thinking of Mr. Alwynn.
"He has got it," he said, slowly, "this something which we all want, and for the greater part never find. He has got it. To see and recognize it early is a great thing," he continued, earnestly. "To disbelieve in it in early life, and cavil at all the caricatures and imitations, and only come to find out its reality comparatively later on, is a great misfortune—a great misfortune."
She felt that he was speaking of himself, and they rode on in silence, each grave with a sense of mutual understanding and companionship. They forded the stream, and trotted up the little village street, the cottagers gazing admiringly after them till they disappeared within the great arched gate-way. And Charles looked at his old house as they paced up the wide drive, and wondered whether it were indeed possible that the lonely years he had spent in it had come to an end at last—at last.
Ruth had noticed that he had lost no opportunity of talking to her, and when she heard him conversing with Lady Grace, or plunging into fashionable slang with Miss Wyndham, found herself admiring the facility with which he adapted himself to different people.
The following afternoon, as she was writing in the library, she was amused to see that he found it incumbent on him to write too, even going so far as to produce a letter from Molly, whose correspondence he said he invariably answered by return.
"You seem very fond of giving Molly pleasure," said Ruth.
"I am glad to see, Miss Deyncourt, that you are beginning to estimate me at my true worth."
"You have it in your power just now to give a great pleasure," said Ruth, earnestly, laying down the pen which she had taken up.
"It seems so absurd when it is put into words, but—by asking Mrs. Alwynn some time to stay here. She has always longed to see Stoke Moreton, because—well, because Mrs. Thursby has; and real, positive, actual tears were shed that she could not come when you asked us."
"Is it possible?" said Charles. "It is the first time that any letter of mine has caused emotion of that description."
"Ah! you don't know how important the smallest things appear if one lives in a little corner of the world where nothing ever happens. If Mrs. Alwynn had been able to come, her visit would have been an event which she would have remembered for years. I assure you, I myself, from having lived at Slumberleigh eight months, became quite excited at the prospect of so much dissipation."
And Ruth leaned back in her chair with a little laugh.
Charles looked narrowly at her and his face fell.
"I am glad you told me," he said, after a moment's pause. "People generally mention these things about ten years afterwards; when there is probably no possibility of doing anything. Thank you."
Ruth was disconcerted by the sudden gravity of his tone, and almost regretted the impulse that had made her speak. She forgot it, however, in the tableaux vivants which they were preparing for the evening, in which she and Charles illustrated the syllable nun to enthusiastic applause. Ruth represented the nun, engaged in conversation, over the lowest imaginable convent wall, with Charles, in all the glory of his cocked hat and deputy-lieutenant's uniform, who, while he held the nun's hand in one of his, pointed persuasively with the other towards an elaborately caparisoned war-horse, trembling beneath the joint weight of a yeomanry saddle and a side-saddle attached behind it, which considerably overlapped the charger's impromptu fur boa tail.
After the tableaux there was dancing in acting costume, at which the two men, who acted the war-horse between them were the only persons to protest, Lady Grace being beautiful as an improvised Anne Boleyn, and the shy man resplendent in a fancy dress of Charles's.
When the third morning came, Ruth gave a genuine sigh at the thought that it was the last day. Lady Grace, who was also leaving the following morning, may be presumed to have echoed it with far more sorrow. The Wyndhams were going that day, and disappeared down the drive, waving handkerchiefs, and carriage-rugs, and hats on sticks, out of the carriage-windows, as is the custom of really amusing people when taking leave.
In the afternoon, Lady Grace and Charles went off for a ride alone together, to see some ruin in which Lady Grace had manifested a sudden interest, the third horse, which had been brought round for another of the men, being sent back to the stables, his destined rider having decided, at the eleventh hour, to join the rest of the party in a little desultory rabbit shooting in the park, which he proceeded to do with much chuckling over his extraordinary penetration and tact.
The elder ladies went out driving, looking, as seen from an upper window, like four poached eggs on a dish; and the coast being clear, Ruth, who had no love of driving, escaped with her paint-box to the garden, where she was making a sketch of Stoke Moreton.
Some houses, like people, have dignity. Stoke Moreton, with ivy creeping up its mellow sandstone, and peeping into its long lines of mullioned windows, stood solemn and stately amid its level gardens; the low sun, bringing out every line of carved stone frieze and quaint architrave, firing all the western windows, and touching the tall heads of the hollyhocks and sunflowers, that stood in ordered regiments within their high walls of clipped box. And Ruth dabbed and looked, and dabbed again, until she suddenly found that if she put another stroke she would spoil all, and also that her hands were stiff with cold. After a few admiring glances at her work, she set off on a desultory journey round the gardens to get warm, and finally, seeing an oak door in the garden-wall open, wandered through it into the church-yard. The church door was open, too, and Ruth, after reading some of the epitaphs on the tombstones, went in.
It was a common little church enough, with a large mortuary chapel, where all the Danvers family reposed; ancient Danvers lying in armor, with their mailed hands joined, beside their wives; more modern Danvers kneeling in bass-relief in colored plaster and execrable taste in recesses. The last generations were there also; some of them anticipating the resurrection and feathered wings, but for the most part still asleep. Charles's mother was there, lying in white marble among her husband's people, with the child upon her arm which she had taken away with her.
And in the middle of the chapel was the last Sir Charles Danvers, whom his brother, Sir George, the father of the present owner, had succeeded. The evening sun shone full on the kneeling soldier figure, leaning on its sword, and on the grave, clear-cut face, which had a look of Charles. The long, beautifully modelled hands, clasped over the battered steel sword-hilt, were like Charles's too. Ruth read the inscription on the low marble pedestal, relating how he had fallen in the taking of the Redan, and then looked again. And gradually a great feeling of pity rose in her heart for the family which had lived here for so many generations, and which seemed now so likely to die out. Providence does not seem to care much for old families, or to value long descent. Rather it seems to favor the new race—the Browns, and the Joneses, and the Robinsons, who yesterday were not, and who to-day elbow the old county families from the place which has known them from time immemorial.
"I suppose Molly will some day marry a Smith," said Ruth to herself, "and then it will be all over. I don't think I will come and see her here when she is married."
With which reflection she returned to the house, and, after disturbing Mr. Alwynn, who was deep in a catalogue of the Danvers manuscripts, in which it was his firm conviction that he should find some mention of the charters, she went into the library, and wondered which of the several thousands of books would interest her till the others came in.
The library was a large room, the walls of which were lined with books from the floor to the ceiling. In order to place the higher shelves within reach, a light balcony of polished oak ran round the four walls, about equidistant from the floor and the ceiling. Ruth went up the tiny corkscrew staircase in the wall, which led to the balcony, and settling herself comfortably in the low, wide window-seat, took out one volume after another of those that came within her reach. These shelves by the window where she was sitting had somehow a different look to the rest. Old books and new, white vellum and card-board, were herded together without any apparent order, and with no respect of bindings. Here a splendid morocco "Novum Organum" was pushed in beside a cheap and much worn edition of Marcus Aurelius; there Emerson and Plato and Shakespeare jostled each other on the same shelf, while, just below, "Don Quixote" was pressed into the uncongenial society of Carlyle on one side and Confucius on the other. As she pulled out one book after another, she noticed that the greater part of them had Charles's name in them. Ruth's curiosity was at once aroused. No doubt this was the little corner in his great house in which he chose to read, and these were his favorite books which he had arranged so close to his hand. If we can judge our fellow-creatures at all, which is doubtful, it is by the books they read, and by those which, having read, they read again. She looked at the various volumes in the window-seat beside her with new interest, and opened the first one she took up. It was a collection of translations from the Persian poets, gentlemen of the name of Jemshid, Sadi, and Hafiz, of whom she had never heard. As she turned over the pages, she heard the ringing of horses' hoofs, and, looking out from her point of observation, saw Charles and Lady Grace cantering up the short wide approach, and clattering out of sight again behind the great stone archway. She turned back to her book, and was reading an ode here and there, wondering to see how the same thoughts that work within us to-day had lived with man so many hundred years ago, when her eye was caught by some writing on the margin of a page as she turned it over. A single sentence on the page was strongly underlined:
"True self-knowledge is knowledge of God."
Jemshid was a wise man, Ruth thought, if he had found out that; and then she read, in Charles's clear handwriting in the margin:
"With this compare 'Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up if thou wilt ever dig.'—Marcus Aurelius."
At this moment Charles came into the library, and looked up to where she was sitting, half hidden from below by the thickness of the wall.
"What, studying?" he called, gayly. "I saw you sitting in the window as I rode up. I might have known that if you were lost sight of for half an hour you would be found improving yourself in some exasperating way." And he ran up the little stairs and came round the balcony towards her. "My own special books, I see—Eve, as usual, surreptitiously craving for a knowledge of good and evil. What have you got hold of?"
The remainder of the window-seat was full of books; so, to obtain a better view of what she was reading, he knelt down by her, and looked at the open book on her knee.
Ruth did not attempt to close it. She felt guilty, she hardly knew of what. After a moment's pause she said:
"I plead guilty. I was curious. I saw these were your own particular shelves; but I never can resist looking at the books people read."
"Will you be pleased to remember in future that, in contemplating my character, Miss Deyncourt—a subject not unworthy of your attention—you are on private property. You are requested to keep on the gravel paths, and to look at the grounds I am disposed to show you. If, as is very possible, admiration seizes you, you are at liberty to express it. But there must be no going round to the back premises, no prying into corners, no trespassing where I have written up, 'No road.'"
Ruth smiled, and there was a gleam in her eyes which Charles well knew heralded a retort, when suddenly through the half-open door a silken rustle came, and Lady Hope-Acton slowly entered the room, as if about to pass through it on her way to the hall.
Now, kneeling is by no means an attitude to be despised. In church, or in the moment of presentation to majesty, it is appropriate, even essential; but it is dependent, like most things, upon circumstances and environment. No attitude, for instance, could be more suitable and natural to any one wishing to read the page on which a sitting fellow-creature was engaged. Charles had found it so. But, as Lady Hope-Acton sailed into the room, he felt that, however conducive to study, it was not the attitude in which he would at that moment have chosen to be found. Ruth felt the same. It had seemed so natural a moment before, it was so hideously suggestive now.
Perhaps Lady Hope-Acton would pass on through the other door, so widely, so invitingly open. Neither stirred, in the hope that she might do so. But in the centre of the room she stopped and sighed—the slow, crackling sigh of a stout woman in a too well-fitting silk gown.
Charles suddenly felt as if his muddy boots and cords were trying to catch her eye, as if every book on the shelves were calling to her to look up.
For a second Ruth and Charles gazed down upon the top of Lady Hope-Acton's head, the bald place on which showed dimly through her semi-transparent cap. She moved slightly, as if to go; but no, another step was drawing near. In another moment Lady Grace came in through the opposite door in her riding-habit.
Ruth felt that it was now or never for a warning cough; but, as she glanced at Charles kneeling beside her, she could not give it. Surely they would pass out in another second. The thought of the two pairs of eyes which would be raised, and the expression in them was intolerable.
"Grace," said Lady Hope-Acton, with dreadful distinctness, advancing to meet her daughter, "has he spoken?"
"No," said Lady Grace, with a little sob; "and,"—with a sudden burst of tears—"oh, mamma, I don't think he ever will."
Oh, to have coughed, to have sneezed, to have choked a moment earlier! Anything would have been better than this.
"Run up-stairs this moment, then, and change your habit and bathe your eyes," said Lady Hope-Acton, sharply. "You need not come down till dinner-time. I will say you are tired."
And then, to the overwhelming relief of those two miserable spectators, the mother and daughter left the door.
But to the momentary sensation of relief in Ruth's mind a rush of pity succeeded for the childlike grief and tears; and with and behind it, like one hurrying wave overtopping and bearing down its predecessor, came a burning indignation against the cause of that picturesque emotion.
It is indeed a lamentable peculiarity of our fallen nature that the moment of relief from the smart of anxiety is seldom marked by so complete a mental calmness and moderation as could be wished.
Ruth rose slowly, with the book still in her hand, and Charles got off his knees as best he could, and stood with one hand on the railing of the balcony, as if to steady himself. His usually pale face was crimson.
Ruth closed the book in silence, and with a dreadful precision put it back in its accustomed place. Then she turned and faced him, with the western light full upon her stern face, and another light of contempt and indignation burning in her direct eyes.
"Poor little girl," she said, in a low distinct voice. "What a triumph to have succeeded in making her unhappy. She is very young, and she did not understand the rules of the game. Poor, foolish little girl!"
If he had been red before, he was pale enough now. He drew himself up, and met her direct gaze without flinching. He did not speak, and she left him standing in the window, and went slowly along the balcony and down the little staircase into the room below.
As she was about to leave the room he moved forward suddenly, and said, "Miss Deyncourt!"
Involuntarily she stopped short, in obedience to the stern authority of the tone.
"You are unjust."
She did not answer and left the room.
"Uncle John," said Ruth next morning, taking Mr. Alwynn aside after breakfast, "we are leaving by the early train, are we not?"
"No, my love, it is quite impossible. I have several papers to identify and rearrange."
"We have stayed a day longer than we intended as it is. Most of the others go early. Do let us go too."
"It is most natural, I am sure, my dear, that you should wish to get home," said Mr. Alwynn, looking with sympathetic concern at his niece; "and why your aunt has not forwarded your letters I can't imagine. But still, if we return by the mid-day train, Ruth, you will have plenty of time to answer any letters that—ahem!—seem to require immediate attention, before the post goes; and I don't see my way to being ready earlier."