Ruth had not even been thinking of Dare and his letters; but she saw that by the early train she was not destined to depart, and watched the other guests take leave with an envious sigh. She was anxious to be gone. The last evening, after the episode in the library, had been interminably long. Already the morning, though breakfast was hardly over, seemed to have dragged itself out to days in length. A sense of constraint between two people who understand and amuse each other is very galling. Ruth had felt it so. All the previous evening Charles had hardly spoken to her, and had talked mainly to Lady Hope-Acton, who was somewhat depressed, and another elder lady. A good-night and a flat candlestick can be presented in a very distant manner, and as Ruth received hers from Charles that evening, and met the grave, steady glance that was directed at her, she perceived that he had not forgiven her for what she had said.
She felt angry again at the idea that he should venture to treat her with a coldness which seemed to imply that she had been in the wrong. The worst of it was that she felt she was to blame; that she had no right whatever to criticise Charles and his actions. What concern were they of hers? How much more suitable, how much more eloquent a dignified silence would have been. She could not imagine now, as she thought it over, why she had been so unreasonably annoyed at the moment as to say what she had done. Yet the reason was not far to seek, if she had only known where to lay her hand on it. She was uneasy, impatient; she longed to get out of the house. And it was still early; only eleven. Eleven till twelve. Twelve till one. One till half-past. Two whole hours and a half to be got through before the Stoke Moreton omnibus would bear her away. She looked round for a refuge during that weary age, and found it nearer than many poor souls do in time of need, namely, at her elbow, in the shape, the welcome shape of the shy man—almost the only remnant of the large party whose dispersion she had just been watching. Whenever Ruth thought of that shy man afterwards, which was not often, it was with a sincere hope that he had forgotten the forwardness of her behavior on that particular morning. She wished to see the picture-gallery. She would of all things like a walk afterwards. No, she had not been as far as the beech-avenue; but she would like to go. Should they look at the pictures first—now—no time like the present? How pleased he was! How proud! He felt that his shyness had gone forever; that Miss Deyncourt would, no doubt, like to hear a few anecdotes of his college life; that a quiet man, who does not make himself cheap to start with, often wins in the end; that Miss Deyncourt had unusual appreciation, not only for pictures, but for reserved and intricate characters that yet (here he ventured on a little joke, and laughed at it himself) had their lighter side. And in the long picture-gallery Ruth and he studied the old masters, as they had seldom been studied before, with an intense and ignorant interest on the one hand, and an entire absence of mind on the other.
Charles, who had done a good deal of pacing up and down his room the night before, and had arrived at certain conclusions, passed through the gallery once, but did not stop. He looked grave and preoccupied, and hardly answered a question of Mr. Conway's about one of the pictures.
Half-past eleven at last. A tall inlaid clock in the gallery mentioned the hour by one sedate stroke; the church clock told the village the time of day a second later. They had nearly finished the pictures. Never mind. She could take half an hour to put on her hat, and surely any beech-avenue, even on a dull day like this might serve to while away the remaining hour before luncheon.
They had come to the last picture of the Danvers collection, and Ruth was dwelling fondly on a very well-developed cow by Cuyp, as if she could hardly tear herself away from it, when she heard a step coming up the staircase from the hall, and presently Charles pushed open the carved folding-doors which shut off the gallery from the rest of the house, and looked in. She was conscious that he was standing in the door-way, but new beauties in the cow, which had hitherto escaped her, engaged her whole attention at the moment, and no one can attend to two things at once.
Charles did not come any farther; but, standing in the door-way, he called to the shy man who went to him, and the two talked together for a few moments. Ruth gazed upon the cow until it became so fixed upon the retina of her eye that, when she tried to admire an old Florentine cabinet near it, she still saw its portrait; and when, in desperation, she turned away to look out of the window across the sky and sloping park, the shadow of the cow hung like a portent.
A moment later Mr. Conway came hurrying back to her much perturbed, to say he had quite forgotten till this moment, had not in the least understood, in fact, etc. Danvers' gray cob, that he had thoughts of buying, was waiting at the door for him to try—in fact, had been waiting some time. No idea, upon his soul—
Ruth cut his apology short before he had done more than flounder well into it.
"You must go and try it at once," she said with decision; and then she added, as Charles drew near: "I have changed my mind about going out. It looks as if it might turn to rain. I shall get through some arrears of letter-writing instead."
Mr. Conway stammered, and repeated himself, and finally rushed out of the gallery. Ruth expected that Charles would accompany him, but he remained standing near the window, apparently engaged like herself in admiring the view.
"It struck me," he said, slowly, with his eyes half shut, "that Conway proved rather a broken reed just now."
"He did," said Ruth. She suddenly felt that she could understand what it was in Charles that exasperated Lady Mary so much.
He came a step nearer, and his manner altered.
"I sent him away," he said, looking gravely at her, "because I wished to speak to you."
Ruth did not answer or turn her head, though she felt he was watching her. Her eyes absently followed two young fallow-deer in the park, cantering away in a series of hops on their long stiff legs.
"I cannot speak to you here," said Charles, after a pause.
Ruth turned round.
"Silence is golden sometimes. I think quite enough has been said already."
"Not by me. You expressed yourself with considerable frankness. I wish to follow your example."
"You said I was unjust at the time. Surely that was sufficient."
"So insufficient that I am going to repeat it. I tell you again that you are unjust in not being willing to hear what I have to say. I have seen a good deal of harm done by misunderstandings, Miss Deyncourt. Pride is generally at the bottom of them. We are both suffering from a slight attack of that malady now; but I value your good opinion too much to hesitate, if, by any little sacrifice of my own pride, I can still retain it. If, after your remarks yesterday, I can make the effort (and it is an effort) to ask you to hear something I wish to say, you, on your side, ought not to refuse to listen. It is not a question of liking; you ought not to refuse."
He spoke in an authoritative tone, which gave weight to his words, and in spite of herself she saw the truth of what he said. She was one of those rare women who, being convinced against their will, are not of the same opinion still. It was ignominious to have to give way; but, after a moment's struggle with herself, she surmounted her dislike to being overruled, together with a certain unreasoning tenacity of opinion natural to her sex, and said, quietly:
"What do you wish me to do?"
Charles saw the momentary struggle, and honored her for a quality which women seldom give men occasion to honor them for.
"Do you dislike walking?"
"Then, if you will come out-of-doors, where there is less likelihood of interruption than in the house, I will wait for you here."
She went silently down the picture-gallery, half astonished to find herself doing his bidding. She put on her walking things mechanically, and came back in a few minutes to find him standing where she had left him. In silence they went down-stairs, and through the piazza with its flowering orange-trees, out into the gardens, where, on the stone balustrade, the peacocks were attitudinizing and conversing in the high key in which they always proclaim a change of weather and their innate vulgarity to the world. Charles led the way towards a little rushing brook which divided the gardens from the park.
"I think you must have had a very low opinion of me beforehand to say what you did yesterday," he remarked, suddenly.
"I was angry," said Ruth. "However true what I said may have been, I had no right to say it to—a comparative stranger. That is why I repeat that it would be better not to make matters worse by mentioning the subject again. It is sure to annoy us both. Let it rest."
"Not yet," said Charles, dryly. "As a comparative stranger, I want to know,"—stopping and facing her—"exactly what you mean by saying that she, Lady Grace, did not understand the rules of the game."
"I cannot put it in other words," said Ruth, her courage rising as she felt that a battle was imminent.
"Perhaps I can for you. Perhaps you meant to say that you believed I was in the habit of amusing myself at other people's expense; that—I see your difficulty in finding the right words—that it was my evil sport and pastime to—shall we say—raise expectations which it was not my intention to fulfil?"
"It is disagreeably put," said Ruth, reddening a little; "but possibly I did mean something of that kind."
"And how have you arrived at such an uncharitable opinion of a comparative stranger?" asked Charles, quietly enough, but his light eyes flashing.
She did not answer.
"You are not a child, to echo the opinion of others," he went on. "You look as if you judged for yourself. What have I done since I met you first, three months ago, to justify you in holding me in contempt?"
"I did not say I held you in contempt."
"You must, though, if you think me capable of such meanness."
"You have pushed me into saying more than I meant," said Ruth at last; "at least you have said I mean a great deal more than I really do. To be honest, I think you have thoughtlessly given a good deal of pain. I dare say you did it unconsciously."
"Thank you. You are very charitable, but I cannot shield myself under the supposition that at eight-and-thirty I am a creature of impulse, unconscious of the meaning of my own actions."
"If that is the case," thought Ruth, "your behavior to me has been inexcusable, especially the last few days; though, fortunately for myself, I was not deceived by it."
"If you persist in keeping silence," said Charles, after waiting for her to speak, "any possibility of conversation is at an end."
"I did not come out here for conversation," replied Ruth. "I came, not by my own wish, to hear something you said you particularly desired to say. Do you not think the simplest thing, under the circumstances, would be—to say it?"
He gave a short laugh, and looked at her in sheer desperation. Did she know what she was pushing him into?
"I had forgotten," he said. "It was in my mind all the time; but now you have made it easy for me indeed by coming to my assistance in this way. I will make a fresh start."
He compressed his lips, and seemed to pull himself together. Then he said, in a very level voice:
"Kindly give me your whole attention, Miss Deyncourt, so that I shall not be obliged to repeat anything. The deer are charming, I know; but you have seen deer before, and will no doubt again. I am sorry that I am obliged to speak to you about myself, but a little autobiography is unavoidable. Perhaps you know that about three years ago I succeeded my father. From being penniless, and head over ears in debt, I became suddenly a rich man—not by my father's will, who entailed every acre of the estates here and elsewhere on Ralph, and left everything he could to him. I had thought of telling you what my best friends have never known, why I am not still crippled by debt. I had thought of telling you why, at five-and-thirty, I was still unmarried, for my debts were not the reason; but I will not trouble you with that now. It is enough to say that I found myself in a position which, had I been a little younger, with rather a different past, I should have enjoyed more than I did. I was well received in English society when, after a lapse of several years and a change of fortune, I returned to it. If I had thought I was well received for myself, I should have been a fool. But I came back disillusioned. I saw the machinery. When you reflect on the vast and intricate machinery employed by mothers with grown-up daughters, you may imagine what I saw. In all honesty and sincerity I wished to marry; but in the ease with which I saw I could do so lay my chief difficulty. I did not want a new toy, but a companion. I suppose I still clung to one last illusion, that I might meet a woman whom I could love, and who would love me, and not my name or income. I could not find her, but I still believed in her. I went everywhere in the hope of meeting her, and, if others have ever been disappointed in me, they have never known how disappointed I have been in them. For three years I looked for her everywhere, but I could not find her, and at last I gave her up. And then I met Lady Grace Lawrence, and liked her. I had reason to believe she could be disinterested. She came of good people—all Lawrences are good; she was simple and unspoiled, and she seemed to like me. When I look back I believe that I had decided to ask her to marry me, and that it was only by the merest chance that I left London without speaking to her. What prevented me I hardly know, unless it was a reluctance at the last moment to cast the die. I came down to Atherstone, harassed and anxious, tired of everything and everybody, and there," said Charles, with sudden passion, turning and looking full at Ruth, "there I met you."
The blood rushed to her face, and she hastily interposed, "I don't see any necessity to bring my name in."
"Perhaps not," he returned, recovering himself instantly; "unfortunately, I do."
"You expect too much of my vanity," said Ruth, her voice trembling a little; "but in this instance I don't think you can turn it to account. I beg you will leave me out of the question."
"I am sorry I cannot oblige you," he said, grimly; "but you can't be left out. I only regret that you dislike being mentioned, because that is a mere nothing to what is coming."
She trusted that he did not perceive that the reason she made no reply was because she suddenly felt herself unable to articulate. Her heart was beating wildly, as that gentle, well conducted organ had never beaten before. What was coming? Could this stern, determined man be the same apathetic, sarcastic being whom she had hitherto known?
"From that time," he continued, "I became surer and surer of what at first I hardly dared to hope, what it seemed presumption in me to hope, namely, that at last I had found what I had looked for in vain so long. I had to keep my engagement with the Hope-Actons in Scotland; but I regretted it. I stayed as short a time as I could. I did not ask them to come here. They offered themselves. I think, if I have been to blame, it has not been in so heartless a manner as you supposed; and it appears to me Lady Hope-Acton should not have come. This is my explanation. You can add the rest for yourself. Have I said enough to soften your harsh judgment of yesterday?"
Ruth could not speak. The trees were behaving in the most curious manner, were whirling round, were swaying up and down. The beeches close in front were dancing quadrilles; now ranged in two long rows, now setting to partners, now hurrying back to their places as she drew near.
"Sit down," said Charles's voice, gently; "you look tired."
The trunk of a fallen tree suddenly appeared rising up to meet her out of a slight mist, and she sat down on it more precipitately than she could have wished. In a few seconds the trees returned to their places, and the mist, which appeared to be very local, cleared away.
Charles was sitting on the trunk beside her, looking at her intently. The anger had gone out of his face, and had given place to a look of deep anxiety and suspense.
"I have not finished yet," he said, and his voice had changed as much as his face. "There is still something more."
"No, no!" said Ruth. "At least, if there is, don't say it."
"I think I would rather say it. You wish to save me pain, I see; but I am quite prepared for what you are going to say. I did not intend to speak to you on the subject for a long time to come, but yesterday's event has forced my hand. There must be no more misunderstandings between us. You intend to refuse me, I can see. All the same, I wish to tell you that I love you, and to ask you to be my wife."
"I am afraid I cannot," said Ruth, almost inaudibly.
"No," said Charles, looking straight before him, "I have asked you too soon. You are quite right. I did not expect anything different; I only wished you to know. But, perhaps, some day—"
"Don't!" said Ruth, clasping her hands tightly together. "You don't know what you are saying. Nothing can make any difference, because—I am engaged."
She dared not look at his face, but she saw his hand clinch.
For an age neither spoke.
Then he turned his head slowly and looked at her. His face was gray even to the lips. With a strange swift pang at the heart, she saw how her few words had changed it.
"To whom?" he said at last, hardly above a whisper.
"To Mr. Dare."
"Not that man who has come to live at Vandon?"
Another long silence.
"When was it?"
"Ten days ago."
"Ten days ago," repeated Charles, mechanically, and his face worked. "Ten days ago!"
"It is not given out yet," said Ruth, hesitating, "because Mr. Alwynn does not wish it during Lord Polesworth's absence. I never thought of any mistake being caused by not mentioning it. I would not have come here if I had had the least idea that—"
"You cannot mean to say that you had never seen that I—what I—felt for you?"
"Indeed I never thought of such a thing until two minutes before you said it. I am very sorry I did not, but I imagined—"
"Let me hear what you imagined."
"I noticed you talked to me a good deal; but I thought you did exactly the same to Lady Grace, and others."
"You could not imagine that I talked to others—to any other woman in the world—as I did to you."
"I supposed," said Ruth, simply, "that you talked gayly to Lady Grace because it suited her; and more gravely to me, because I am naturally grave. I thought at the time you were rather clever in adapting yourself to different people so easily; and I was glad that I understood your manner better than some of the others."
"Better!" said Charles, bitterly. "Better, when you thought that of me! No, you need not say anything. I was in fault, not you. I don't know what right I had to imagine you understood me—you seemed to understand me—to fancy that we had anything in common, that in time—" He broke into a low wretched laugh. "And all the while you were engaged to another man! Good God, what a farce! what a miserable mistake from first to last!"
Ruth said nothing. It was indeed a miserable mistake.
He rose wearily to his feet.
"I was forgetting," he said; "it is time to go home." And they went back together in silence, which was more bearable than speech just then.
The peacocks were still pirouetting and minuetting on the stone balustrade as they came back to the garden. The gong began to sound as they entered the piazza.
To Ruth it was a dreadful meal. She tried to listen to Mr. Conway's account of the gray cob, or to the placid conversation of Mr. Alwynn about the beloved manuscripts. Fortunately the morning papers were full of a recent forgery in America, and a murder in London, which furnished topics when these were exhausted, and Charles used them to the utmost.
At last the carriage came. Mr. Alwynn and Mr. Conway simultaneously broke into incoherent ejaculations respecting the pleasure of their visit; Ruth's hand met Charles's for an embarrassed second; and a moment later they were whirling down the straight wide approach, between the columns of fantastically clipped hollies, leaving Charles standing in the door-way. He was still standing there when the carriage rolled under the arched gate-way with its rampant stone lions. Ruth glanced back once, as they turned into the road, at the stately old house, with its pointed gables and forests of chimneys cutting the gray sky-line. She saw the owner turn slowly and go up the steps, and looked hastily away again.
"Poor Danvers!" said Mr. Alwynn, cheerfully, also looking, and putting Ruth's thoughts into words. "He must be desperately lonely in that house all by himself; but I suppose he is not often there."
And Mr. Alwynn, whose mind had been entirely relieved since Ruth's engagement from the dark suspicion he had once harbored respecting Charles, proceeded to dilate upon the merits of the charters, and of the owner of the charters, until he began to think Ruth had a headache, and finding it to be the case, talked no more till they reached, at the end of their little journey, the door of Slumberleigh Rectory.
"Is it very bad?" he asked, kindly, as he helped her out of the carriage.
Ruth assented, fortunately with some faint vestige of truth, for her hat hurt her forehead.
"Then run up straight to your own room, and I will tell your aunt that you will come and have a chat with her later on, perhaps after tea, when the post will be gone." Mr. Alwynn spoke in the whisper of stratagem.
Ruth was only too thankful to be allowed to slip on tiptoe to her own room, but she had not been there many minutes when a tap came to the door.
"There, my dear," said Mr. Alwynn, putting his head in, and holding some letters towards her. "Your aunt ought to have forwarded them. I brought them up at once. And there is nearly an hour to post-time, and she won't expect you to come down till then. I think the headache will be better now, eh?"
He nodded kindly to her, and closed the door again. Ruth sat down mechanically, and began to sort the packet he had put into her hands. The first three letters were in the same handwriting, Dare's large vague handwriting, that ran from one end of the envelope to the other, and partly hid itself under the stamp.
She looked at them, but did not open them. A feeling of intense lassitude and fatigue had succeeded to the unconscious excitement of the morning. She could not read them now. They must wait with the others. Presently she could feel an interest in them; not now.
She leaned her head upon her hand, and a rush of pity swept away every other feeling as she recalled that last look at Stoke Moreton, and how Charles had turned so slowly and wearily to go in-doors. There was an ache at her heart as she thought of him, a sense of regret and loss. And he had loved her all the time!
"If I had only known!" she said to herself, pressing her hands against her forehead. "But how could I tell—how could I tell?"
She raised her head with a sudden movement, and began with nervous fingers to open Dare's letters, and read them carefully.
In the long evening that followed Ruth's departure from Stoke Moreton, Charles was alone for once in his own home. He was leaving again early on the morrow, but for the time he was alone, and heavy at heart. He sat for hours without stirring, looking into the fire. He had no power or will to control his thoughts. They wandered hither and thither, and up and down, never for a moment easing the dull miserable pain that lay beneath them all.
Fool! fool that he had been!
To have found her after all these years, and to have lost her without a stroke! To have let another take her, and such a man as Dare! To have such a fool's manner that he was thought to be in earnest when he was least so; that now, when his whole future hung in the balance, retribution had overtaken him, and with bitter irony had mocked at his earnestness and made it of none effect. She had thought it was his natural manner to all! His cursed folly had lost her to him. If she had known, surely it would have been, it must have been different. At heart Charles was a very humble man, though it was not to be expected many would think so; but nevertheless he had a deep, ever-deepening consciousness (common to the experience of the humblest once in a lifetime) that between him and Ruth that mysterious link of mutual understanding and sympathy existed which cannot be accounted for, which eludes analysis, which yet makes, when the sex happens to be identical, the indissoluble friendship of a David and a Jonathan, a Karlos and a Posa; and, where there is a difference of sex, brings about that rarest wonder of the world, a happy marriage.
Like cleaves to like. He knew she would have loved him. She was his by right. The same law of attraction which had lifted them at once out of the dreary flats of ordinary acquaintanceship would have drawn them ever closer and closer together till they were knit in one. He knew, with a certainty that nothing could shake, that he could have made her love him, even as he loved her; unconsciously at first, slowly perhaps—for the current of strong natures, like that of deep rivers, is sometimes slow. Still the end would have been the same.
And he had lost her by his own act, by his own heedless folly; her want of vanity having lent a hand the while to put her beyond his reach forever.
It was a bitter hour.
And as he sat late into the night beside the fire, that died down to dust and ashes before his absent eyes, ghosts of other heavy hours, ghosts of the past, which he had long since buried out of his sight, came back and would not be denied.
To live much in the past, is a want of faith in the Power that gives the present. Comparatively few men walk through their lives looking backward. Women more frequently do so from a false estimate of life fostered by romantic feeling in youth, which leads them, if the life of the affections is ended, resolutely to refuse to regard existence in any other maturer aspect, and to persist in wandering aimlessly forward, with eyes turned ever on the dim flowery paths of former days.
"Let the dead past bury its dead."
But there comes a time, when the grass has grown over those graves, when we may do well to go and look at them once more; to stand once again in that solitary burial-ground, "where," as an earnest man has said, "are buried broken vows, worn-out hopes, joys blind and deaf, faiths betrayed or gone astray—lost, lost love; silent spaces where only one mourner ever comes."
And to the last retrospective of us our dead past yet speaks at times, and speaks as one having authority.
Such a time had come for Charles now. From the open grave of his love for Ruth he turned to look at others by which he had stood long ago, in grief as sharp, but which yet in all its bitterness had never struck as deep as this.
Memory pointed back to a time twenty years ago, when he had hurried home through a long summer night to arrive at Stoke Moreton too late; to find only the solemn shadow of the mother whom he had loved, and whom he had grieved; too late to ask for forgiveness; too late for anything but a wild passion of grief and remorse, and frantic self-accusation.
The scene shifted to ten years later. It was a sultry July evening of the day on which the woman whom he had loved for years had married his brother. He was standing on the deck of the steamer which was taking him from England, looking back at the gray town dwindling against the tawny curtain of the sunset. In his brain was a wild clamor of wedding-bells, and across the water, marking the pulse of the sea, came to his outward ears the slow tolling of a bell on a sunken rock near the harbor mouth.
It seemed to be tolling for the death of all that remained of good in him. In losing Evelyn, whom he had loved with all the idealism and reverence of a reckless man for a good woman, he believed, in the bitterness of his spirit, that he had lost all; that he had been cut adrift from the last mooring to a better future, that nothing could hold him back now. And for a time it had been so, and he had drowned his trouble in a sea in which he wellnigh drowned himself as well.
Once more memory pointed—pointed across five dark years to an evening when he had sat as he was sitting now, alone by the wide stone hearth in the hall at Stoke Moreton, after his father's death, and after the reading of the will. He was the possessor of the old home, which he had always passionately loved, from which he had been virtually banished so long. His father, who had never liked him, but who of late years had hated him as men only hate their eldest sons, had left all in his power to his second son, had entailed every acre of the Stoke Moreton and other family properties upon him and his children. Charles could touch nothing, and over him hung a millstone of debt, from which there was now no escape. He sat with his head in his hands—the man whom his friends were envying on his accession to supposed wealth and position—ruined.
A few days later he was summoned to London by a friend whom he had known for many years. He remembered well that last meeting with the stern old man whom he had found sitting in his arm-chair with death in his face. He had once or twice remonstrated with Charles in earlier days, and as he came into his presence now for the last time, and met his severe glance, he supposed, with the callousness that comes from suffering which has reached its lowest depths, that he was about to rebuke him again.
"And so," said General Marston, sternly, "you have come into your kingdom; into what you deserve."
"Yes," said Charles. "If it is any pleasure to you to know that what you prophesied on several occasions has come true, you can enjoy it. I am ruined!"
"You fool!" said the sick man slowly. "To have come to five-and-thirty, and to have used up everything which makes life worth having. I am not speaking only of money. There is a bankruptcy in your face that money will never pay. And you had talent and a good heart and the making of a man in you once. I saw that when your father turned you adrift. I saw that when you were at your worst after your brother's marriage. Yes, you need not start. I knew your secret and kept it as well as you did yourself. I tried to stop you; but you went your own way."
Charles was silent. It was true, and he knew it.
"And so you thought, I suppose, that if your father had made a just will you could have retrieved yourself?"
"I know I could," said Charles, firmly; "but he left the ——shire property to Ralph, and every shilling of his capital; and Ralph had my mother's fortune already. I have Stoke Moreton and the place in Surrey, which he could not take from me, but everything is entailed, down to the trees in the park. I have nominally a large income; but I am in the hands of the Jews. I can't settle with them as I expected, and they will squeeze me to the uttermost. However, as you say, I have the consolation of knowing I brought it on myself."
"And if your father acted justly, as you would call it, which I knew he never would, you would have run through everything in five years' time."
"No, I should not. I know I have been a fool; but there are two kinds of fools—the kind that sticks to folly all its life, and the kind that has its fling, and has done with it. I belong to the second kind. My father had no right to take my last chance from me. If he had left it me, I should have used it."
"You look tired of your fling," said the elder man. "Very tired. And you think money would set you right, do you?" He looked critically at the worn, desperate face opposite him. "I made my will the other day," he went on, his eyes still fixed on Charles. "I had not much to leave, and I have no near relations, so I divided it among various charitable institutions. I see no reason to alter my will. If one leaves money, however small the sum may be, one likes to think it has been left to some purpose, with some prospect of doing good. A few days ago I had a surprise. I fancy it was to be my last surprise in this world. I inherited from a distant relation, who died intestate, a large fortune. After being a poor man all my days, wealth comes to me when I am on the point of going where money won't follow. Curious, isn't it? I am going to leave this second sum in the same spirit as the first, but in rather a different manner. I like to know what I am doing, so I sent for you. I am of opinion that the best thing I can do with it, is to set you on your legs again. What do you owe?"
Charles turned very red, and then very white.
"What do you owe?" repeated the sick man, testily. "I am getting tired. How much is it?" He got out a check-book, and began filling it in. "Have you no tongue?" he said, angrily, looking up. "Tell me the exact figure. Well? Keep nothing back."
"I won't be given the whole," said Charles, with an oath. "Give me enough to settle the Jews, and I will do the rest out of my income. I won't get off scot free."
"Well, then, have your own way, as usual, and name the sum you want. There, take it," he said, feebly, when Charles had mentioned with shame a certain hideous figure, "and go. I shall never know what you do with it, so you can play ducks and drakes with it if you like. But you won't like. You have burned your fingers too severely to play with fire again. You have turned over so many new leaves that now you have come to the last in the book. I have given you another chance, Charles; but one man can't do much to help another. The only person who can really help you is yourself. Give yourself a chance, too."
How memory brought back every word of that strange interview. Charles saw again the face of the dying man; heard again the stern, feeble voice, "Give yourself a chance."
He had given himself a chance. "Some natures, like comets, make strange orbits, and return from far." Charles had returned at last. The old man's investment had been a wise one. But, as Charles looked back, after three years, he saw that his friend had been right. His money debts had been the least part of what he owed. There were other long-standing accounts which he had paid in full during these three years, paid in the restless weariness and disappointment that underlay his life, in the loneliness in which he lived, in his contempt for all his former pursuits, which had left him at first devoid of any pursuits at all.
He had had, as was natural, very little happiness in his life, but all the bitterness of all his bitter past seemed as nothing to the agony of this moment. He had loved Evelyn with his imagination, but he loved Ruth with his whole heart and soul, and—he had lost her.
The night was far advanced. The dawn was already making faint bars over the tops of the shutters, was looking in at him as he sat motionless by his dim lamp and his dead fire. And, in spite of the growing dawn, it was a dark hour.
Dare returned to Vandon in the highest spirits, with an enormous emerald engagement-ring in an inner waistcoat-pocket. He put it on Ruth's third finger a few days later, under the ancient cedar on the terrace at Vandon, a spot which, he informed her (for he was not without poetic flights at times), his inner consciousness associated with all the love scenes of his ancestors that were no more.
He was stricken to the heart when, after duly admiring it, Ruth gently explained to him that she could not wear his ring at present, until her engagement was given out.
"Let it then be given out," he said, impetuously. "Ah! why already is it not given out?"
She explained again, but it was difficult to make him understand, and she felt conscious that if he would have allowed her the temporary use of one hand to release a fly, which was losing all self-control inside her veil, she might have been more lucid. As it was, she at last made him realize the fact that, until Lord Polesworth's return from America in November, no further step was to be taken.
"But all is right," he urged with pride. "I have seen my lawyer; I make a settlement. I raise money on the property to make a settlement. There is nothing I will not do. I care for nothing only to marry you."
Ruth led him to talk of other things. She was very gentle with him, always attentive, always ready to be interested; but any one less self-centred than Dare would have had a misgiving about her feeling for him. He had none. Half his life he had spent in Paris, and, imbued with French ideas of betrothal and marriage, he thought her manner at once exceedingly becoming and natural. She was reserved, but reserve was charming. She did not care for him very much perhaps, as yet, but as much as she could care for any one. Most men think that if a woman does not attach herself to them she is by nature cold. Dare was no exception to the rule; and though he would have preferred that there should be less constraint in their present intercourse, that she would be a little more shy, and a little less calm, still he was supremely happy and proud, and only longed to proclaim the fortunate state of his affairs to the world.
One thing about Ruth puzzled him very much, and with a vague misgiving she saw it did so. Her interest in the Vandon cottages, and the schools, and the new pump, had been most natural up to this time. It had served to bring them together; but now the use of these things was past, and yet he observed, with incredulity at first and astonishment afterwards, that she clung to them more than ever.
What mattered it for the moment whether the pump was put up or not, or whether the cottages by the river were protected from the floods? Of course in time, for he had promised, a vague something would be done; but why in the golden season of love and plighted faith revert to prosaic subjects such as these?
Some men are quite unable to believe in any act of a woman being genuine. They always find out that it has something to do with them. If an angel came down from heaven to warn a man of this kind of wrath to come, he would think the real object of her journey was to make his acquaintance.
Ruth saw the incredulity in Dare's face when she questioned him, and her heart sank within her. It sank yet lower when she told him one day, with a faint smile, that she knew he was not rich, and that she wanted him to let her help in the rebuilding of certain cottages, the plans of which he had brought over in the summer, but which had not yet been begun, apparently for the want of funds.
"What you cannot do alone we can do together," she said.
He agreed with effusion. He was surprised, flattered, delighted, but entirely puzzled.
The cottages were begun immediately. They were near the river, which divided the Slumberleigh and Vandon properties. Ruth often went to look at them. It did her good to see them rising, strong and firm, though hideous to behold, on higher ground than the poor dilapidated hovels at the water's edge, where fever was always breaking out, which yet made, as they supported each other in their crookedness, and leaned over their own wavering reflections, such a picturesque sketch that it seemed a shame to supplant them by such brand new red brick, such blue tiling, such dreadful little porches.
Ruth drew the old condemned cottages, with the long lines of pollarded marshy meadow, and distant bridge and mill in the background, but it was a sketch she never cared to look at afterwards. She was constantly drawing now. There was a vague restlessness in her at this time that made her take refuge in the world of nature, where the mind can withdraw itself from itself for a time into a stronghold where misgiving and anxiety cannot corrupt, nor self break through and steal. In these days she shut out self steadfastly, and fixed her eyes firmly on the future, as she herself had made it with her own hands.
She had grown very grave of late. Dare's high spirits had the effect of depressing her more than she would allow, even to herself. She liked him. She told herself so every day, and it was a pleasure to her to see him so happy. But when she had accepted him he was so diffident, so quiet, so anxious, that she had not realized that he would return to his previous happy self-confidence, his volubility, his gray hats—in fact, his former gay self—directly his mind was at ease and he had got what he wanted. She saw at once that the change was natural, but she found it difficult to keep pace with, and the effort to do so was a constant strain.
She had yet to learn that it is hard to live for those who live for self. Between a nature which struggles, however feebly, towards a higher life, and one whose sole object is gracefully and good-naturedly, but persistently to enjoy itself, there is a great gulf fixed, of which often neither are aware, until they attempt a close relationship with each other, when the chasm reveals itself with appalling clearness to the higher nature of the two.
Ruth was glad when a long-standing engagement to sing at a private concert in one place, and sell modern knick-knacks in old English costume at another, took her from Slumberleigh for a week. She looked forward to the dreary dissipation in store for her with positive gladness; and when the week had passed, and she was returning once more, she wished the stations would not fly so quickly past, that the train would not hurry itself so unnecessarily to bring her back to Slumberleigh.
As the little local line passed Stoke Moreton station she looked out for a moment, but leaned back hurriedly as she caught a glimpse of the Danvers omnibus in the background, with its great black horses, and a footman with a bag standing on the platform. In another moment Mrs. Alwynn, followed by the footman, made a dart at Ruth's carriage, jumped in, seized the bag, repeated voluble thanks, pressed half her gayly dressed person out again through the window to ascertain that her boxes were put in the van, caught her veil in the ventilator as the train started, and finally precipitated herself into a seat on her bag, as the motion destroyed her equilibrium.
"Well, Aunt Fanny!" said Ruth.
"Why, goodness gracious, my dear, if it isn't you! And, now I think of it, you were to come home to-day. Well, how oddly things fall out, to be sure, me getting into your carriage like that. And you'll never guess, Ruth, though for that matter there's nothing so very astonishing about it, as I told Mrs. Thursby, you'll never guess where I've been visiting."
Ruth remembered seeing the Danvers omnibus at the station, and suddenly remembered, too, a certain request which she had once made of Charles.
"Where can it have been?" she said, with a great show of curiosity.
"You will never guess," said Mrs. Alwynn, in high glee. "I shall have to help you. You remember my sprained ankle? There! Now I have as good as told you."
But Ruth would not spoil her aunt's pleasure; and after numerous guesses, Mrs. Alwynn had the delight of taking her completely by surprise, when at last she leaned forward and said, with a rustle of pride, emphasizing each word with a pat on Ruth's knee:
"I've been to Stoke Moreton."
"How delightful!" ejaculated Ruth. "How astonished I am! Stoke Moreton!"
"You may well say that," said Mrs. Alwynn, nodding to her. "Mrs. Thursby would not believe it at first, and afterwards she said she was afraid there would not be any party; but there was, Ruth. There was a married couple, very nice people, of the name of Reynolds. I dare say, being London people, you may have known them. She had quite the London look about her, though not dressed low of an evening; and he was a clergyman, who had overworked himself, and had come down to Stoke Moreton to rest, and had soup at luncheon. And there was another person besides, a Colonel Middleton, a very clever man, who wrote a book that was printed, and had been in India, and was altogether most superior. We were three gentlemen and two ladies, but we had ices each night, Ruth, two kinds of ices; and the second night I wore my ruby satin, and the clergyman at Stoke Moreton, that nice young Mr. Brown, who comes to your uncle's chapter meetings, dined, with his sister, a very pleasing person indeed, Ruth, in black. In fact, it was a very pleasant little gathering, so nice and informal, and the footman did not wait at luncheon, just put the pudding and the hot plates down to the fire; and Sir Charles so chatty and so full of his jokes, and I always liked to hear him, though my scent of humor is not quite the same as his. Sir Charles has a feeling heart, Ruth. You should have heard Mr. Reynolds talk about him. But he looked very thin and pale, my dear, and he seemed to be always so tired, but still as pleasant as could be. And I told him he wanted a wife to look after him, and I advised him to have an egg beaten up in ever such a little drop of brandy at eleven o'clock, and he said he would think about it, he did indeed, Ruth; so I just went quietly to the house-keeper and asked her to see to it, and a very sensible person she was, Ruth, been in the family twenty years, and thinks all the world of Sir Charles, and showed me the damask table-cloths that were used for the prince's visit, and the white satin coverlet, embroidered with gold thistles, quite an heirloom, which had been worked by the ladies of the house when James I. slept there. Think of that, my dear!"
And so Mrs. Alwynn rambled on, recounting how Charles had shown her all the pictures himself, and the piazza where the orange and myrtle trees were, and how she and Mrs. Reynolds had gone for a drive together, "in a beautiful landau," etc., till they reached home.
As a rule Ruth rather shrank from travelling with Mrs. Alwynn, who always journeyed in her best clothes, "because you never know whom you may not meet." To stand on a platform with her was to be made conspicuous, and Ruth generally found herself unconsciously going into half mourning for the day, when she went anywhere by rail with her aunt. To-day Mrs. Alwynn was more gayly dressed than ever, but as Ruth looked at her beaming face she felt nothing but a strange pleasure in the fact that Charles had not forgotten the little request which later events had completely effaced from her own memory. He, it seemed, had remembered, and, in spite of what had passed, had done what she asked him. She wished that she could have told him she was grateful. Alas! there were other things that she wished she could have told him; that she was sorry she had misjudged him; that she understood him better now. But what did it matter? What did it matter? She was going to marry Dare, and he was the person whom she must try to understand for the remainder of her natural life. She thought a little wearily that she could understand him without trying.
The 18th of October had arrived. Slumberleigh Hall was filling. The pheasants, reprieved till then, supposed it was only for partridge shooting, and thinking no evil, ate Indian-corn, and took no thought for the annual St. Bartholomew of their race.
Mabel Thursby had met Ruth out walking that day, and had informed her that Charles was to be one of the guns, also Dare, though, as she remembered to add, suspecting Dare admired Ruth, the latter was a bad shot, and was only asked out of neighborly feeling.
After parting with Mabel, Ruth met, almost at her own gate, Ralph Danvers, who passed her on horseback, and then turned on recognizing her. Ralph's conversational powers were not great, and though he walked his horse beside her, he chiefly contented himself with assenting to Ruth's remarks until she asked after Molly.
He at once whistled and flicked a fly off his horse's neck.
"Sad business with Molly," he said; "and mother out for the day. Great grief in the nursery. Vic's dead!"
"Oh, poor Molly!"
"Died this morning. Fits. I say," with a sudden inspiration, "you wouldn't go over and cheer her up, would you? Mother's out. I'm out. Magistrates' meeting at D——."
Ruth said she had nothing to do, and would go over at once, and Ralph nodded kindly at her, and rode on. He liked her, and it never occurred to him that it could be anything but a privilege to minister to any need of Molly's. He jogged on more happily after his meeting with Ruth, and only remembered half an hour later that he had completely forgotten to order the dog-cart to meet Charles, who was coming to Atherstone for a night before he went on to kill the Slumberleigh pheasants the following morning.
Ruth set out at once over the pale stubble fields, glad of an object for a walk.
Deep distress reigned meanwhile in the nursery at Atherstone. Vic, the much-beloved, the stoat pursuer, the would-be church-goer, Vic was dead, and Molly's soul refused comfort. In vain nurse conveyed a palpitating guinea-pig into the nursery in a bird-cage, on the narrow door of which remains of fur showed an unwilling entrance; Molly could derive no comfort from guinea-pigs.
In vain was the new horse, with leather hoofs, with real hair, and a horse-hair tail—in vain was that token of esteem from Uncle Charles brought out of its stable, and unevenly yoked with a dappled pony planted on a green, oval lawn, into Molly's own hay-cart. Molly's woe was beyond the reach of hay-carts or horse-hair tails, however realistic. Like Hezekiah, she turned her face to the nursery wall, on which trains and railroads were depicted; and even when cook herself rose up out of her kitchen to comfort her with material consolations, she refused the mockery of a gingerbread nut, which could not restore the friend with whom previous gingerbread nuts had always been equally divided.
Presently a step came along the passage, and Charles, who had found no one in the drawing-room, came in tired and dusty, and inclined to be annoyed at having had to walk up from the station.
Molly flew to him, and flung her arms tightly round his neck.
"Oh, Uncle Charles! Uncle Charles! Vic is dead!"
"I am so sorry, Molly," taking her on his knee.
Nurse and the nursery-maid and cook withdrew, leaving the two mourners alone together.
"He is dead, Uncle Charles. He was quite well, and eating Albert biscuits with the dolls this morning, and now—" The rest was too dreadful, and Molly burst into a flood of tears, and burrowed with her head against the faithful waistcoat of Uncle Charles—Uncle Charles, the friend, the consoler of all the ills that Molly had so far been heir to.
"Vic had a very happy life, Molly," said Charles, pressing the little brown head against his cheek, and vaguely wondering what it would be like to have any one to turn to in time of trouble.
"I always kept trouble from him except that time I shut him in the door," gasped Molly. "I never took him out in a string, and he only wore his collar—that collar you gave him, that made him scratch so—on Sundays."
"And he was not ill a long time. He did not suffer any pain?"
"No, Uncle Charles, not much; but, though he did not say anything, his face looked worse than screaming, and he passed away very stiff in his hind-legs. Oh!" (with a fresh outburst), "when cook told me that her sister that was in a decline had gone, I never thought," (sob, sob!) "poor Vic would be the next."
A step came along the passage, a firm light step that Charles knew, that made his heart beat violently.
The door opened and a familiar voice said:
"Molly! My poor Molly! I met father, and—"
Ruth stood in the door-way, and stopped short. A wave of color passed over her face, and left it paler than usual.
Charles looked at her over the mop of Molly's brown head against his breast. Their grave eyes met, and each thought how ill the other looked.
"I did not know—I thought you were going to Slumberleigh to-day," said Ruth.
"I go to-morrow morning," replied Charles. "I came here first."
There was an awkward silence, but Molly came to their relief by a sudden rush at Ruth, and a repetition of the details of the death-bed scene of poor Vic for her benefit, for which both were grateful.
"You ought to be thinking where he is to be buried, Molly," suggested Charles, when she had finished. "Let us go into the garden and find a place."
Molly revived somewhat at the prospect of a funeral, and though Ruth was anxious to leave her with her uncle, insisted on her remaining for the ceremony. They went out together, Molly holding a hand of each, to choose a suitable spot in the garden. By the time the grave had been dug by Charles, Molly was sufficiently recovered to take a lively interest in the proceedings, and to insist on the attendance of the stable-cat, in deep mourning, when the remains of poor Vic, arrayed in his best collar, were lowered into their long home.
By the time the last duties to the dead had been performed, and Charles, under Molly's direction, had planted a rose-tree on the grave, while Ruth surrounded the little mound with white pebbles, Molly's tea-time had arrived, and that young lady allowed herself to be led away by the nursery-maid, with the stable-cat in a close embrace, resigned, and even cheerful at the remembrance of those creature comforts of cook's, which earlier in the day she had refused so peremptorily.
When Molly left them, Ruth and Charles walked together in silence to the garden-gate which led to the foot-path over the fields by which she had come. Neither had a word to say, who formerly had so much.
"Good-bye," she said, without looking at him.
He seemed intent on the hasp of the gate.
There was a moment's pause.
"I should like," said Ruth, hating herself for the formality of her tone, "to thank you before I go for giving Mrs. Alwynn so much pleasure. She still talks of her visit to you. It was kind of you to remember it. So much seems to have happened since then, that I had not thought of it again."
At her last words Charles raised his eyes and looked at her with strange wistful intentness, but when Ruth had finished speaking he had no remark to make in answer; and as he stood, bareheaded by the gate, twirling the hasp and looking, as a hasty glance told her, so worn and jaded in the sunshine, she said "Good-bye" again, and turned hastily away.
And all along the empty harvested fields, and all along the lanes, where the hips and haws grew red and stiff among the ruddy hedge-rows, Ruth still saw Charles's grave, worn face.
That night she saw it still, as she sat in her own room, and listened to the whisper of the rain upon the roof, and the touch of its myriad fingers on the window-panes.
"I cannot bear to see him look like that. I cannot bear it," she said, suddenly, and the storm which had been gathering so long, the clouds of which had darkened the sky for so many days, broke at last, with a strong and mighty wind of swift emotion which carried all before it.
It was a relief to give way, to let the tempest do its worst, and remain passive. But when its force was spent at last, and it died away in gusts and flying showers, it left flood and wreckage and desolation behind. When Ruth raised her head and looked about her, all her landmarks were gone. There was a streaming glory in the heavens, but it shone on the ruin of all her little world below. She loved Charles, and she knew it. It seemed to her now as if, though she had not realized it, she must have loved him from the first; and with the knowledge came an overwhelming sense of utter misery that struck terror to her heart. She understood at last the meaning of the weariness and the restless misgivings of these last weeks. If heretofore they had spoken in riddles, they spoke plainly now. Every other feeling in the world seemed to have been swept away by a passion, the overwhelming strength of which she regarded panic-stricken. She seemed to have been asleep all her life, to have stirred restlessly once or twice of late, and now to have waked to consciousness and agony. Love, with women like Ruth, is a great happiness or a great calamity. It is with them indeed for better, for worse.
Those whose feelings lie below the surface escape the hundred rubs and scratches which superficial natures are heir to; but it is the nerve which is not easily reached which when touched gives forth the sharpest pang. Nature, when she gives intensity of feeling, mercifully covers it well with a certain superficial coldness. Ruth had sometimes wondered why the incidents, the books, which called forth emotion in others, passed her by. The vehement passion which once or twice in her life she had involuntarily awakened in others had met with no response from herself. The sight of the fire she had unwittingly kindled only made her shiver with cold. She believed herself to be cold—always a dangerous assumption on the part of a woman, and apt to prove a broken reed in emergency.
Charles knew her better than she knew herself. Her pride and unconscious humble-mindedness, her frankness with its underlying reserve, spoke of a strong nature, slow, perhaps, but earnest, constant, and, once roused, capable of deep attachment.
And now the common lot had befallen her, the common lot of man and womankind since Adam first met Eve in the Garden of Eden. Ruth was not exempt.
She loved Charles.
* * * * *
When the dawn came up pale and tearful to wake the birds, it found her still sitting by her window, sitting where she had sat all night, looking with blank eyes at nothing. Creep into bed, Ruth, for already the sparrows are all waking, and their cheerful greetings to the new day add weariness to your weariness. Creep into bed, for soon the servants will be stirring, and before long Martha, who has slept all night, and thinks your lines have fallen to you in pleasant places and late hours, will bring the hot water.
Reserved people pay dear for their reserve when they are in trouble, when the iron enters into their soul, and their eyes meet the eyes of the world tearless, unflinching, making no sign.
Enviable are those whose sorrows are only pen and ink deep, who take every one into their confidence, who are comforted by sympathy, and fly to those who will weep with them. There is an utter solitude, a silence in the grief of a proud, reserved nature, which adds a frightful weight to its intensity; and when the night comes, and the chamber door is shut, who shall say what agonies of prayers and tears, what prostrations of despair, pass like waves over the soul to make the balance even?
As a rule, the kindest and best of people seldom notice any alteration of appearance or manner in one of their own family. A stranger points it out, if ever it is pointed out, which, happily, is not often, unless, of course, in cases where advice has been disregarded, and the first symptom of ill health is jealously watched for and triumphantly hailed by those whose mission in life it is to say, "I told you so."
Mrs. Alwynn, whose own complaints were of so slight a nature that they had to be constantly referred to to give them any importance at all, was not likely to notice that Ruth's naturally pale complexion had become several degrees too pale during the last two days, or that she had dark rings under her eyes. Besides, only the day before, had not Mrs. Alwynn, in cutting out a child's shirt, cut out at the same time her best drawing-room table-cloth as well, which calamity had naturally driven out of her mind every other subject for the time?
Ruth had proved unsympathetic, and Mrs. Alwynn had felt her to be so. The next day, also, when Mrs. Alwynn had begun to talk over what she and Ruth were to wear that evening at a dinner-party at Slumberleigh Hall, Ruth had again shown a decided want of interest, and was not even to be roused by the various conjectures of her aunt, though repeated over and over again, as to who would most probably take her in to dinner, who would be assigned to Mr. Alwynn, and whether Ruth would be taken in by a married man or a single one. As it was quite impossible absolutely to settle these interesting points beforehand, Mrs. Alwynn's mind had a vast field for conjecture opened to her, in which she disported herself at will, varying the entertainment for herself and Ruth by speculating as to who would sit on the other side of each of them; "for," as she justly observed, "everybody has two sides, my dear; and though, for my part, I can talk to anybody—Members of Parliament, or bishops, or any one—still it is difficult for a young person, and if you feel dull, Ruth, you can always turn to the person on the other side with some easy little remark."
Ruth rose and went to the window. It had rained all yesterday; it had been raining all the morning to-day, but it was fair now; nay, the sun was sending out long burnished shafts from the broken gray and blue of the sky. She was possessed by an unreasoning longing to get out of the house into the open air—anywhere, no matter where, beyond the reach of Mrs. Alwynn's voice. She had been fairly patient with her for many months, but during these two last wet days, a sense of sudden miserable irritation would seize her on the slightest provocation, which filled her with remorse and compunction, but into which she would relapse at a moment's notice. Every morning since her arrival, nine months ago, had Mrs. Alwynn returned from her house-keeping with the same cheerful bustle, the same piece of information: "Well, Ruth, I've ordered dinner, my dear. First one duty, and then another."
Why had that innocent and not unfamiliar phrase become so intolerable when she heard it again this morning? And when Mrs. Alwynn wound up the musical-box, and the "Buffalo Girls" tinkled on the ear to relieve the monotony of a wet morning, why should Ruth have struggled wildly for a moment with a sudden inclination to laugh and cry at the same time, which resulted in two large tears falling unexpectedly, to her surprise and shame, upon her book.
She shut the book, and recovering herself with an effort, listened patiently to Mrs. Alwynn's remarks until, early in the afternoon, the sky cleared. Making some excuse about going to see her old nurse at the lodge at Arleigh, who was still ill, she at last effected her escape out of the room and out of the house.
The air was fresh and clear, though cold. The familiar fields and beaded hedge-rows, the red land, new ploughed, where the plovers hovered, the gray broken sky above, soothed Ruth like the presence of a friend, as Nature, even in her commonest moods, has ministered to many a one who has loved her before Ruth's time.
Our human loves partake always of the nature of speculations. We have no security for our capital (which, fortunately, is seldom so large as we suppose), but the love of Nature is a sure investment, which she repays a thousand-fold, which she repays most prodigally when the heart is bankrupt and full of bitterness, as Ruth's heart was that day. For in Nature, as Wordsworth says, "there is no bitterness," that worst sting of human grief. And as Ruth walked among the quiet fields, and up the yellow aisles of the autumn glades to Arleigh, Nature spoke of peace to her—not of joy or of happiness as in old days, for she never lies as human comforters do, and these had gone out of her life; but of the peace that duty steadfastly adhered to will bring at last—the peace that after much turmoil will come in the end to those who, amid a Babel of louder tongues, hear and obey the low-pitched voices of conscience and of principle.
For it never occurred to Ruth for a moment to throw over Dare and marry Charles. She had given her word to Dare, and her word was her bond. It was as much a matter of being true to herself as to him. It was very simple. There were no two ways about it in her mind. The idea of breaking off her engagement was not to be thought of. It would be dishonorable.
We often think that if we had been placed in the same difficulties which we see overwhelm others, we could have got out of them. Just so; we might have squeezed, or wriggled, or crept out of a position from which another who would not stoop could not have escaped. People are differently constituted. Most persons with common-sense can sink their principles temporarily at a pinch; but others there are who go through life prisoners on parole to their sense of honor or duty. If escape takes the form of a temptation, they do not escape. And Ruth, walking with bent head beneath the swaying trees, dreamed of no escape.
She soon reached the little lodge, the rusty gates of which barred the grass-grown drive to the shuttered, tenantless old house at a little distance. It was a small gray stone house of many gables, and low lines of windows, that if inhabited would have possessed but little charm, but which in its deserted state had a certain pathetic interest. The place had been to let for years, but no one had taken it; no one was likely to take it in the disrepair which was now fast sliding into ruin.
The garden-beds were almost grown over with weeds, but blots of nasturtium color showed here and there among the ragged green, and a Virginia-creeper had done its gorgeous red-and-yellow best to cheer the gray stone walls. But the place had a dreary appearance even in the present sunshine; and after looking at it for a moment, Ruth went in-doors to see her old nurse. After sitting with her, and reading the usual favorite chapter in the big Bible, and answering the usual question of "Any news of Master Raymond?" in the usual way, Ruth got up to go, and the old woman asked her if she wanted the drawing-block which she had left with her some time ago with an unfinished sketch on it of the stables. She got it out, and Ruth looked at it. It was a slight sketch of an octagonal building with wide arches all round it, roofing in a paved path, on which, in days gone by, it had evidently been the pernicious custom to exercise the horses, whose stalls and loose boxes formed the centre of the building. The stable had a certain quaintness, and the sketch was at that delightful point when no random stroke has as yet falsified the promise that a finished drawing, however clever, so seldom fulfils.
Ruth took it up, and looked out of the window. The sun was blazing out, ashamed of his absence for so long. She might as well finish it now. She was glad to be out of the way of meeting any one, especially the shooters, whose guns she had heard in the nearer Slumberleigh coverts several times that afternoon. The Arleigh woods she knew were to be kept till later in the month. She took her block and paint-box, and picking her way along the choked gravel walk and down the side drive to the stables, sat down on the bench for chopping wood which had been left in the place to which she had previously dragged it, and set to work. She was sitting under one of the arches out of the wind, and an obsequious yellow cat came out of the door of one of the nearest horse-boxes, in which wood was evidently stacked, and rubbed itself against her dress, with a reckless expenditure of hair.
As Ruth stopped a moment, bored but courteous, to return its well-meant attentions by friction behind the ears, she heard a slight crackling among the wood in the stable. Rats abounded in the place, and she was just about to recall the cat to its professional duties, when her own attention was also distracted. She started violently, and grasped the drawing-block in both hands.
Clear over the gravel, muffled but still distinct across the long wet grass, she could hear a firm step coming. Then it rang out sharply on the stone pavement. A tall man came suddenly round the corner, under the archway, and stood before her. It was Charles.
The yellow cat, which had a leaning towards the aristocracy, left Ruth, and, picking its way daintily over the round stones towards him, rubbed off some more of its wardrobe against his heather shooting-stockings.
"I hardly think it is worth while to say anything except the truth," said Charles at last. "I have followed you here."
As Ruth could say nothing in reply, it was fortunate that at the moment she had nothing to say. She continued to mix a little pool of Prussian blue and Italian pink without looking up.
"I hurt my gun hand after luncheon, and had to stop shooting at Croxton corner. As I went back to Slumberleigh, across the fields below the rectory, I thought I saw you in the distance, and followed you."
"Is your hand much hurt?"—with sudden anxiety.
"No," said Charles, reddening a little. "It will stop my shooting for a day or two, but that is all."
The colors were mixed again. Ruth, contrary to all previous conviction, added light red to the Italian pink. The sketch had gone rapidly from bad to worse, but the light red finished it off. It never, so to speak, held up its head again; but I believe she has it still somewhere, put away in a locked drawer in tissue-paper, as if it were very valuable.
"I did not come without a reason," said Charles, after a long pause, speaking with difficulty. "It is no good beating about the bush. I want to speak to you again about what I told you three weeks ago. Have you forgotten what that was?"
Ruth shook her head. She had not forgotten. Her hand began to tremble, and he sat down beside her on the bench, and, taking the brush out of her hand, laid it in its box.
"Ruth," he said, gently, "I have not been very happy during the last three weeks; but two days ago, when I saw you again, I thought you did not look as if you had been very happy either. Am I right? Are you happy in your engagement with—Quite content? Quite satisfied? Still silent. Am I to have no answer?"
"Some questions have no answers," said Ruth, steadily, looking away from him. "At least, the questions that ought not to be asked have none."
"I will not ask any more, then. Perhaps, as you say, I have no right. You won't tell me whether you are unhappy, but your face tells me so in spite of you. It told me so two days ago, and I have thought of it every hour of the day and night since."
She gathered herself together for a final effort to stop what she knew was coming, and said, desperately:
"I don't know how it is. I don't mean it, and yet everything I say to you seems so harsh and unkind; but I think it would have been better not to come here, and I think it would be better, better for us both, if you would go away now."
Charles's face became set and very white. Then he put his fortune to the touch.
"You are right," he said. "I will go away—for good; I will never trouble you again, when you have told me that you do not love me."
The color rushed into her face, and then died slowly away again, even out of the tightly compressed lips.
There was a long silence, in which he waited for a reply that did not come. At last she turned and looked him in the face. Who has said that light eyes cannot be impassioned? Her deep eyes, dark with the utter blankness of despair, fell before the intensity of his. He leaned towards her, and with gentle strength put his arm round her, and drew her to him. His voice came in a broken whisper of passionate entreaty close to her ear.
"Ruth, I love you, and you love me. We belong to each other. We were made for each other. Life is not possible apart. It must be together, Ruth, always together, always—" and his voice broke down entirely.
Surely he was right. A love such as theirs overrode all petty barriers of every-day right and wrong, and was a law unto itself. Surely it was vain to struggle against Fate, against the soft yet mighty current which was sweeping her away beyond all landmarks, beyond the sight of land itself, out towards an infinite sea.
And the eyes she loved looked into hers with an agony of entreaty, and the voice she loved spoke of love, spoke brokenly of unworthiness, and an unhappy past, and of a brighter future, a future with her.
Her brain reeled; her reason had gone. Let her yield now. Surely, if only she could think, if the power to think had not deserted her, it was right to yield. The current was taking her ever swifter whither she knew not. A moment more and there would be no going back.
She began to tremble, and, wrenching her hands out of his, pressed them before her eyes to shut out the sight of the earnest face so near her own. But she could not shut out his voice, and Charles's voice could be very gentle, very urgent.
But at the eleventh hour another voice broke in on his, and spoke as one having authority. Conscience, if accustomed to be disregarded on common occasions, will rarely come to the fore with any decision in emergency; but the weakest do not put him in a place of command all their lives without at least one result—that he has learned the habit of speaking up and making himself attended to in time of need. He spoke now, urgently, imperatively. Her judgment, her reason were alike gone for the time, but, when she had paced the solemn aisles of the woods an hour ago in possession of them, had she then even thought of doing what she was on the verge of doing now? What had happened during that hour to reverse the steadfast resolve which she had made then? What she had thought right an hour ago remained right now. What she would have put far from her as dishonorable then remained dishonorable now, though she might be too insane to see it.
Terror seized her, as of one in a dream who is conscious of impending danger, and struggles to awake before it is too late. She started to her feet, and, putting forcibly aside the hands that would have held her back, walked unsteadily towards the nearest pillar, and leaned against it, trembling violently.
"Do not tempt me," she said, hoarsely. "I cannot bear it."
He came and stood beside her.
"I do not tempt you," he said. "I want to save you and myself from a great calamity before it is too late."
"It is too late already."
"No," said Charles, in a low voice of intense determination. "It is not—yet. It will be soon. It is still possible to go back. You are not married to him, and it is no longer right that you should marry him. You must give him up. There is no other way."
"Yes," said Ruth, with vehemence. "There is another way. You have made me forget it; but before you came I saw it clearly. I can't think it out as I did then; but I know it is there. There is another way"—and her voice faltered—"to do what is right, and let everything else go."
Charles saw for the first time, with a sudden frightful contraction of the heart, that her will was as strong as his own. He had staked everything on one desperate appeal to her feelings; he had carried the outworks, and now another adversary—her conscience—rose up between him and her.
"A marriage without love is a sin," he said, quietly. "If you had lived in the world as long as I have, and had seen what marriage without love means, and what it generally comes to in the end, you would know that I am speaking the truth. You have no right to marry Dare if you care for me. Hesitate, and it will be too late! Break off your engagement now. Do you suppose," with sudden fire, "that we shall cease to love each other; that I shall be able to cease to love you for the rest of my life because you are Dare's wife? What is done can't be undone. Our love for each other can't. It is no good shutting your eyes to that. Look the facts in the face, and don't deceive yourself into thinking that the most difficult course is necessarily the right one."
He turned from her, and sat down on the bench again, his chin in his hands, his haggard eyes fastened on her face. He had said his last word, and she felt that when she spoke it would be her last word too. Neither could bear much more.
"All you say sounds right, at first," she said, after a long silence, and as she spoke Charles's hands dropped from his face and clinched themselves together; "but I cannot go by what any one thinks unless I think so myself as well. I can't take other people's judgments. When God gave us our own, he did not mean us to shirk using it. What you say is right, but there is something which after a little bit seems more right—at least, which seems so to me. I cannot look at the future. I can only see one thing distinctly, now in the present, and that is that I cannot break my word. I never have been able to see that a woman's word is less binding than a man's. When I said I would marry him, it was of my own free-will. I knew what I was doing, and it was not only for his sake I did it. It is not as if he believed I cared for him very much. Then, perhaps—but he knows I don't, and—he is different from other men—he does not seem to mind. I knew at the time that I accepted him for the sake of other things, which are just the same now as they were then: because he was poor and I had money; because I felt sure he would never do much by himself, and I thought I could help him, and my money would help too; because the people at Vandon are so wretched, and their cottages are tumbling down, and there is no one who lives among them and cares about them. I can't make it clear, and I did hesitate; but at the time it seemed wrong to hesitate. If it seemed so right then, it cannot be all wrong now, even if it has become hard. I cannot give it all up. He is building cottages that I am to pay for, that I asked to pay for. He cannot. And he has promised so many people their houses shall be put in order, and they all believe him. And he can't do it. If I don't, it will not be done; and some of them are very old—and—and the winter is coming." Ruth's voice had become almost inaudible. "Oh, Charles! Charles!" she said, brokenly, "I cannot bear to hurt you. God knows I love you. I think I shall always love you, though I shall try not. But I cannot go back now from what I have undertaken. I cannot break my word. I cannot do what is wrong, even for you. Oh, God! not even for you!"
She knelt down beside him, and took his clinched hands between her own; but he did not stir.
"Not even for you," she whispered, while two hot tears fell upon his hands. In another moment she had risen swiftly to her feet, and had left him.
Charles sat quite still where Ruth had left him, looking straight in front of him. He had not thought for a moment of following her, of speaking to her again. Her decision was final, and he knew it. And now he also knew how much he had built upon the wild new hope of the last two days.
Presently a slight discreet cough broke upon his ear, apparently close at hand.
He started up, and, wheeling round in the direction of the sound, called out, in sudden anger, "Who is there?"
If there is a time when we feel that a fellow-creature is entirely out of harmony with ourselves, it is when we discover that he has overheard or overseen us at a moment when we imagined we were alone, or—almost alone.
Charles was furious.
"Come out!" he said, in a tone that would have made any ordinary creature stay as far in as it could. And hearing a slight crackling in the nearest horse-box, of which the door stood open, he shook the door violently.
"Come out," he repeated, "this instant!"
"Stop that noise, then," said a voice sharply from the inside, "and keep quiet. By ——, a violent temper, what a thing it is; always raising a dust, and kicking up a row, just when it's least wanted."
The voice made Charles start.
"Great God!" he said, "it's not—"
"Yes, it is," was the reply; "and when you have taken a seat on the farther end of that bench, and recovered your temper, I'll show, and not before."
Charles walked to the bench and sat down.
"You can come out," he said, in a carefully lowered voice, in which there was contempt as well as anger.
Accordingly there was a little more crackling among the fagots, and a slight, shabbily dressed man came to the door and peered warily out, shading his blinking eyes with his hand.
"If there is a thing I hate," he said, with a curious mixture of recklessness and anxiety, "it is a noise. Sit so that you face the left, will you, and I'll look after the right, and if you see any one coming you may as well mention it. I am only at home to old friends."
He took his hand from his eyes as they became more accustomed to the light, and showed a shrewd, dissipated face, that yet had a kind of ruined good looks about it, and, what was more hateful to Charles than anything else, a decided resemblance to Ruth. Though he was shabby in the extreme, his clothes sat upon him as they always and only do sit upon a gentleman; and, though his face and voice showed that he had severed himself effectually from the class in which he had been born, a certain unsuitability remained between his appearance and his evidently disreputable circumstances. When Charles looked at him he was somehow reminded of a broken-down thorough-bred in a hansom cab.
"It is a quiet spot," remarked Raymond Deyncourt, for he it was, standing in the door-way, his watchful eyes scanning the deserted court-yard and strip of green. "A retired and peaceful spot. I'm sorry if my cough annoyed you, coming when it did, but I thought you seemed before to be engaged in conversation which I felt a certain diffidence in interrupting."
"So you listened, I suppose?"
"Yes, I listened. I did not hear as much as I could have wished, but it was your best manner, Danvers. You certainly have a gift, though you dropped your voice unnecessarily once or twice, I thought. If I had had your talents, I should not be here now. Eh? Dear me! you can swear still, can you? How refreshing. I fancied you had quite reformed."
"Why are you here now?" asked Charles, sternly.
Raymond shrugged his shoulders.
"Why are you here?" continued Charles, bitterly, "when you swore to me in July that if I would pay your passage out again to America you would let her alone in future? Why are you here, when I wrote to tell you that she had promised me she would never give you money again without advice? But I might have known you could break a promise as easily as make one. I might have known you would only keep it as long as it suited yourself."
"Well, now, I'm glad to hear you say that," said Raymond, airily, "because it takes off any feeling of surprise I was afraid you might feel at seeing me back here. There's nothing like a good understanding between friends. I'm precious hard up, I can tell you, or I should not have come; and when a fellow has got into as tight a place as I have he has got to think of other things besides keeping promises. Have you seen to-day's papers?" with sudden eagerness.
"Any news about the 'Frisco forgery case?" and Raymond leaned forward through the door, and spoke in a whisper.
"Nothing much," said Charles, trying to recollect. "Nothing new to-day, I think. You know they got one of them two days ago, followed him down to Birmingham, and took him in the train."
Raymond drew in his breath.
"I don't hold with trains," he said, after a pause; "at least, not with passengers. I told him as much at the time. And the—the other one—Stephens? Any news of him?"
"Nothing more about him, as far as I can remember. They were both traced together from Boston to London, but there they parted company. Stephens is at large still."
"Is he?" said Raymond. "By George, I'm glad to hear it! I hope he'll keep so, that's all. I am glad I left that fool. He'd not my notions at all. We split two days ago, and I made tracks for the old diggings; got down as far as Tarbury under a tarpaulin in a goods train—there's some sense in a goods train—and then lay close by a weir of the canal, and got aboard a barge after dark. Nothing breaks a scent like a barge. And it went the right way for my business too, and travelled all night. I kept close all next day, and then struck across country for this place at night. If I hadn't known the lie of the land from a boy, when I used to spend the holidays with old Alwynn, I couldn't have done it, or if I'd been as dog lame as I was in July; but I was pushed for time, and I footed it up here, and got in just before dawn. And not too soon either, for I'm cleaned out, and food is precious hard to come by if you don't care to go shopping for it. I am only waiting till it's dark to go and get something from the old woman at the lodge. She looked after me before, but it wasn't so serious then as it is now."