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THE HUT BY THE BEACH.
"And you'll never hold up your head again! No more will any of us. The disgrace of it! the disgrace of it!"
Ruth stood in the middle of the wretched room, with her hands hanging slack and her eyes bent wearily upon her mother, who had collapsed upon a block of sawn timber, and sat there, with sack apron cast over her head, rocking her body.
"Hush, ye fool!" said old Josselin, and spat out of window. Mechanically, by habit, his dim eyes swept along the beach by the breakers' edge. "What's the use, any way?" he added.
"We, that always carried ourselves so high, for all our being poor! It's God's mercy that took your father before he could see this day. 'Twould have broken his sperrit. Your father a Josselin, and me a Pocock, with lands of my own--if right was law in this world; and now to be stripped naked and marched through the streets!"
Ruth's eyes met the Collector's. He stood within the doorway, and was regarding her curiously. She did not plead or protest; only, as their eyes met, a flush rose to her cheek, and he guessed rightly that the touch of shame was for her mother, not for herself. The flush deepened as old Josselin turned and said apologetically,--
"You mustn't mind M'ria. She's weak-minded. Always was; but sence her husband was drowned--he was my second son--she've lost whatever wits she had. The gal here was born about that time." Here the old man launched into some obstetrical guesswork, using the plainest words. It embarrassed the Collector; the girl did not so much as wince.
"Poor might be stood," moaned the woman; "but poor and shamed!" Then of a sudden, as though recollecting herself, she arose with an air of mincing gentility. "Ruth," she said, "it's little we can offer the gentleman, but you might get out the bread and cheese, after his being so kind to you."
"Sit down, you dormed fool," commanded her father-in-law. "Here, fetch your seat over to the look-out, an' tell me if that's a log I see floatin'. She's wonderful good at that," he explained, without lowering his voice, "and it'll keep her quiet. It's true, though, what she said about the property. Thousands of acres, if she had her rights--up this side of the Kennebee." He jerked a thumb northwards. "The Pococks bought it off one of the Gorges, gettin' on for a hundred years sence; and by rights, as I say, a seventh share oughter be hers. But lawyers! The law's like a ship's pump: pour enough in for a start, and it'll reward ye with floods. But where's the money to start it?"
The Collector scarcely heard him. His eyes were on Ruth's face. He had walked briskly down from the Town Square to the Bowling Green Inn, refreshed himself, let saddle his horse, and set forth, leaving orders for his coach to follow. At the summit of the hill above Port Nassau he had overtaken the cart with the poor girl lying in it, had checked his pace to ride alongside, and so, disregarding Mr. Trask's counsel, had brought her home. Nay, dismissing the men with a guinea apiece, he had desired them to return to Mr. Trask and report his conduct.
"Listen to me," he said suddenly, checking Old Josselin in full flow. "You say, both of you, that Ruth here will live under disgrace; and I dare say you are right. Why not send her away? Get her out of this."
The woman by the window turned her head with a vague simper. The old man, building a small heap of chips on the hearthstone, distended his cheeks and let out his breath slowly, as though coaxing a fire already kindled.
"All very well--but where? And where's the money to come from? Besides, we can't spare the child; she vittles us. Dorm it, Ruth," he exclaimed, on a sudden recollection, "you don't say you ha'n't brought back the gun!"
"Why? The magistrates would have given it back. It's ruination for us without the gun, and that you might have remembered. Better step over and ask 'em for it to-morrow."
"Must I?" asked the girl slowly.
"'Course you'll have to," said her grandparent. "I can't walk the distance, and that you know.--My eyesight's poor," he explained to the Collector, "and I can't walk, because--" here he stated an organic complaint very frankly. "As for M'ria, she's an eye like a fish-hawk; but you never saw such a born fool with firearms. Well, must heat some water, I reckon, to bathe the poor maid's back."
"First give her food," said the Collector. He stepped forward and himself cut her a large manchet from the loaf the old man produced. She took it from him and ate ravenously, like a young wild animal, tearing at the crust with her white teeth. "They haven't broken your body's health, then," he thought to himself. Aloud he said, "You don't quite take my meaning, Mr. Josselin, and I'll put it to you in a straight offer. Let her come with me to Boston. She shall be put to school there, say for three years; she shall live among folk who will treat her kindly, and teach her at any rate to build up her spirit again and be happy, as she will never be within these miles of Port Nassau; and in return--"
"Ah!" said the old man significantly.
"In return you shall accept from me a decent pension--enough, at any rate, to fend off want. We will not quarrel over the amount, up or down. Or, if you prefer, I will get the lawyers to look into this claim of your daughter-in-law's, and maybe make you an offer for it."
"Ah!" repeated Old Josselin, and nodded. "Taken your eye, has she? Oh, I'm not blamin' your lordship! Flesh will after flesh, and--you can believe it or not--I was all for the women in my time." He chuckled, and had added some gross particulars before the younger man could check him. Yet the old fellow was so naif and direct that his speech left no evil taste. He talked as one might of farm stock. "But we're decent folk, we Josselins. It's hard to starve and be decent too, and times enough I've been sorry for it; but decent we are."
The Collector frowned. "Mr. Josselin," he answered, "I am offering you to take your granddaughter away and have her educated. What that will make of her I neither can tell you nor have I means of guessing; but this I will undertake, and give you my word of honour for it: in three years' time she shall come back to you in all honesty, unharmed by me or by any one. By that time she will be a woman grown, able to decide as a woman; but she shall come to you, nevertheless."
The old man fumbled with a finger, scraping together the flakes of touchwood in a tinder-box.
"D'ye hear, M'ria? His Honour wants our Ruth to go along with him."
The Collector glanced at the girl's face. Years after, and a hundred times, he recalled the look with which she turned towards her mother. At the same instant her mother faced about with a vacuous silly smile.
"To larn to be a lady," Old Josselin explained, raising his voice as though she were deaf.
"That would be a fine thing," she answered mincingly, and returned her gaze to the window and the line of shore.
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