Chapter 19




IN THE COUNTRY


They sat on the edge of the wood, and a west wind made music for them overhead among the fir trees. From their feet a clover field sloped steeply to a honeysuckle-wreathed hedge. Beyond that, meadow-land, riven by the curving stream which stretched like a thread of silver to the blue, hazy distance. Arnold laughed softly with the pleasure of it, but the wonder kept Ruth tongue-tied.

"I feel," she murmured, "as though I were in a theatre for the first time. Everything is strange."

"It is the theatre of nature," Arnold replied. "If you close your eyes and listen, you can hear the orchestra. There is a lark singing above my head, and a thrush somewhere back in the wood there."

"And see, in the distance there are houses," Ruth continued softly. "Just fancy, Arnold, people, if they had no work to do, could live here, could live always out of sight of the hideous, smoky city, out of hearing of its thousand discords."

He smiled.

"There are a great many who feel like that," he said, his eyes fixed upon the horizon, "and then, as the days go by, they find that there is something missing. The city of a thousand discords generally has one clear cry, Ruth."

"For you, perhaps," she answered, "because you are young and because you are ambitious. But for me who lie on my back all day long, think of the glory of this!"

Arnold slowly sat up.

"Upon my word!" he exclaimed. "Why not. Why shouldn't you stay in the country for the summer? I hate London, too. There are cheap tickets, and bicycles, and all sorts of things. I wonder whether we couldn't manage it."

She said nothing. His thoughts were busy with the practical side of it. There was an opportunity here, too, to prepare her for what he felt sure was inevitable.

"You know, Ruth," he said, "I don't wish to say anything against Isaac, and I don't want to make you uneasy, but you know as well as I do that he has a strange maggot in his brain. When I first heard him talk, I thought of him as a sort of fanatic. It seems to me that he has changed. I am not sure that such changes as have taken place in him lately have not been for the worse."

"Tell me what you mean?" she begged.

"I mean," he continued, "that Isaac, who perhaps in himself may be incapable of harm, might be an easy prey to those who worked upon his wild ideas. Hasn't it struck you that for the last few days--"

She clutched at his hand and stopped him.

"Don't!" she implored. "These last few days have been horrible. Isaac has not left his room except to creep out sometimes into mine. He keeps his door locked. What he does I don't know, but if he hears a step on the stairs he slinks away, and his face is like the face of a hunted wolf. Arnold, do you think that he has been getting into trouble?"

"I am afraid," Arnold said, regretfully, "that it is not impossible. Tell me, Ruth, you are very fond of him?"

"He was my mother's brother--the only relative I have in the world," she answered. "What could I do without him?"

"He doesn't seem to want you particularly, just now, at any rate," Arnold said. "I don't see why we shouldn't take rooms out at one of these little villages. I could go back and forth quite easily. You'd like it, wouldn't you, Ruth? Fancy lying in a low, comfortable chair, and looking up at the blue sky, and listening to the birds and the humming of bees. The hours would slip by."

"I should love it," she murmured.

"Then why not?" he cried. "I'll stop the car at the next village we come to, and make inquiries."

She laid her hand softly upon his.

"Arnold, dear," she begged, "it sounds very delightful, and yet, can't you see it is impossible? I am not quite like other women, perhaps, but, after all, I am a woman. It is for your sake--for your sake, mind--that I think of this."

He turned and looked at her--looked at her, perhaps, with new eyes. She was stretched almost at full length upon the grass, her head, which had been supported by her clasped hands, now turned towards him. As she lay there, with her stick out of sight, her lips a little parted, her eyes soft with the sunlight, a faint touch of color in her cheeks, he suddenly realized the significance of her words. Her bosom was rising and falling quickly. Her plain black dress, simply made though it was, showed no defect of figure. Her throat was soft and white. The curve of her body was even graceful. The revelation of these things came as a shock to Arnold, yet it was curious that he found a certain pleasure in it.

"I had forgotten, Ruth," he said slowly, "but does it matter? You have no one in the world but Isaac, and I have no one in the world at all. Don't you think we can afford to do what seems sensible?"

Her eyes never left his face. She made no sign either of assent or dissent.

"Arnold," she declared, "it is true that I am an outcast. I have scarcely a relative in the world. But what you say about yourself is hard to believe. I have never asked you questions because it is not my business, but there are many little things by which one tells. I think that somewhere you have a family belonging to you with a name, even if, for any reason, you do not choose just now to claim them."

He made no direct reply. He watched for some moments a white-sailed boat come tacking down the narrow strip of river.

"I am my own master, Ruth," he said; "I have no one else to please or to consider. I understand what you have just told me, but if I gave you my word that I would try and be to you what Isaac might have been if he had not been led away by these strange ideas, wouldn't you trust me, Ruth?"

"It isn't that!" she exclaimed. "Trust you? Why, you know that I would! It isn't that I mind for myself either what people would say--or anything, but I am thinking of your new friends, of your future. If they knew that you were living down in the country with a girl, even though she were an invalid, who was no relation at all, don't you think that it might make a difference?"

"Of course not," he replied, "and, in any case, what should I care? It would be the making of you, Ruth. You would be able to pick up your strength, so that when our money-box is full you would be able to have that operation and never dare to call yourself an invalid again."

She half closed her eyes. The spell of summer was in the air, the spell of life was stirring slowly in her frozen blood.

"Ah! Arnold," she murmured, "I do not think that you must talk like that. It makes me feel so much like yielding. Somehow, the dreams out here seem even more wonderful than the visions which come floating up the river. There's more life here. Don't you feel it? Something seems to creep into your heart, into your pulses, and tell you what life is."

He made no answer. The world of the last few throbbing weeks seemed far enough away with him, too. He picked a handful of clover and thrust it into the bosom of her gown. Then he rose reluctantly to his feet and held out his hands.

"I think," he said, "that the great gates of freedom must be somewhere out here, but just now one is forced to remember that we are slaves."

He drew her to her feet, placed the stick in her hand, and supported her other arm. They walked for a step or two down the narrow path which led through the clover field to the lane below. Then, with a little laugh, he caught her up in his arms.

"It will be quicker if I carry you, Ruth," he proposed. "The weeds twine their way all the time around your stick."

She linked her arms around his neck; her cheek touched his for a moment, and he was surprised to find it as hot as fire. He stepped out bravely enough, but with every step it seemed to him that she was growing heavier. Her hands were still tightly linked around his neck, but her limbs were inert. She seemed to be falling away. He held her tighter, his breath began to grow shorter. The perfume of the clover, fragrant and delicate, grew stronger with every step they took. Somehow he felt that that walk along the narrow path was carving its way into his life. The fingers at the back of his neck were cold, yet she, too, was breathing as though she had been running. Her eyes were half closed. He looked once into her face, bent over her until his lips nearly touched hers. He set his teeth hard. Some instinct warned him of the dangers of the moment. Her stick slipped and a lump arose in his throat. The moment had passed. He kissed her softly upon the forehead.

"Dear Ruth!" he whispered.

She turned very pale and very soon afterward she insisted upon being set down. They walked slowly to where the motor car was waiting at the corner of the lane. Ruth began to talk nervously.

"It was charming of Mrs. Weatherley," she declared, "to lend you this car. Tell me how it happened, Arnie?"

"I simply told her," he replied, "that I was going to take a friend, who needed a little fresh air, out into the country, and she insisted upon sending this car instead of letting me hire a taxicab. It was over the telephone and I couldn't refuse. Besides, Mr. Weatherley was in the office, and he insisted upon it, too. They only use this one in London, and I know that they are away somewhere for the week-end."

"It has been so delightful," Ruth murmured. "Now I am going to lie back among these beautiful cushions, and just watch and think."

The car glided on along the country lane, passing through leafy hamlets, across a great breezy moorland, from the top of which they could see the Thames winding its way into Oxfordshire, a sinuous belt of silver. Then they sped down into the lower country, and Arnold looked at the milestones in some surprise.

"We don't seem to be getting any nearer to London," he remarked.

Ruth only shook her head.

"It will come soon enough," she said, with a little shiver. "It will pass, this, like everything else."

They had dropped to the level now, and suddenly, without warning, the car swung through a low white gate up along an avenue of shrubs. Arnold leaned forward.

"Where are you taking us?" he asked the driver. "There is some mistake."

But there was no mistake. A turn of the wheel and the car was slowing down before the front of a long, ivy-covered house, with a lawn as smooth as velvet, and beyond, the soft murmur of the river. Ruth clutched at his arm.

"Arnold!" she exclaimed. "What does this mean? Who lives here?"

"I have no idea," he answered, "unless--"

The windows in front of the house were all of them open and all of them level with the drive. Through the nearest of them at that moment stepped Fenella. She stood, for a moment, framed in the long French window, hung with clematis,--a wonderful picture even for Arnold, a revelation to Ruth,--in her cool muslin frock, open at the throat, and held together by a brooch with a great green stone. She wore no hat, and her wonderful hair seemed to have caught the sunlight in its meshes. Her eyebrows were a little raised; her expression was a little supercilious, faintly inquisitive. Already she had looked past Arnold. Her eyes were fixed upon the girl by his side.

"I began to think that you were lost," she said gayly. "Won't you present me to your friend, Arnold?"




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