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The Reverend Nahum Silk, B.A., sometime of St. Alban's Hall, Oxford, had first arrived in America as a missioner seeking a sphere of labour in General Oglethorpe's new colony of Georgia. He was then (1733-4) a young man, newly admitted to priest's orders, and undergoing what he took to be a crisis of the soul. Sensual natures, such as his, not uncommonly suffer in youth a combustion of religious sentiment. The fervour is short-lived, the flame is expelled by its own blast, and leaves a house swept and garnished, inviting devils.
For the hard fare of Georgia he soon began to seek consolations, and early in the second year of his ministry a sufficiently gross scandal tumbled him out of the little colony. Lacking the grit to return to England and face out his relatives' displeasure, he had drifted northwards to Massachusetts, and there had picked up with a slant of luck. A number of godly and well-to-do citizens of Boston had recently banded themselves into an association for supplying religious opportunities to the seamen frequenting the port, and to the Committee Mr. Silk commended himself by a hail-fellow manner and a shrewdness of speech which, since it showed through a coat of unction, might be supposed to mean shrewdness in grain. Cunning indeed the man could be, for his short ends; but his shrewdness began and ended in a trick of talking, and in the conduct of life he trimmed sail to his appetites.
His business of missioner (or, as he jocosely put it, Chaplain of the Fleet) soon brought him to the notice of Captain Vyell, Collector of Customs, with whom by the same trick of speech (slightly adapted) he managed to ingratiate himself, scenting the flesh-pots. For he belonged to the tribe to whom a patron never comes amiss. Captain Vyell was amused by the man; knew him for a sycophant; but tolerated him at table and promoted him (in Batty Langton's phrase) to be his trencher chaplain. He and Langton took an easy malicious delight, over their wine, in shocking Mr. Silk with their free thought and seeing how "the dog swallowed it."
The dog swallowed his dirty puddings very cleverly, and with just so much show of protest as he felt to be due to his Orders. He had the accent of an English gentleman and enough of the manner to pass muster. But the Collector erred when he said that "Silk was only a beast in his cups," and he erred with a carelessness well-nigh wicked when he made the man Dicky's tutor.
This step had coincided with the relegation of Ruth and Miss Quiney to Sabines; but whether by chance or of purpose no one but the Collector could tell. Of his intentions toward the girl he said nothing, even to Batty Langton. Very likely they were not clear to himself. He knew well enough how fast and far gossip travelled in New England; and doubted not at all that his adventure at Port Nassau had within a few days been whispered and canvassed throughout Boston. His own grooms, no doubt, had talked. But he could take a scornful amusement in baffling speculation while he made up his own mind. In one particular only he had been prompt--in propitiating Miss Quiney. On reaching home, some hours ahead of the girl, he had summoned Miss Quiney to his library and told her the whole story. The interview on her part had been exclamatory and tearful; but the good lady, with all her absurdities, was a Christian. She was a woman too, and delighted to serve an overmastering will. She had left him with a promise to lay her conscience in prayer before the Lord; and, next morning, Ruth's beauty had done the rest.
"Good-morning, Miss Josselin!" Ruth started and glanced up the slope with a shiver. The voice of Mr. Silk always curdled her flesh.
"La! la!" went on Mr. Silk, nodding down admiration. "What a group to startle!--Cupid extracting a thorn from the hand of Venus--or (shall we say?) the Love god, having wounded his mother in sport, kisses the scratch to make it well. Ha, ha!"
"Shall I continue, sir?" said Ruth, recovering herself. "The pair are surprised by a satyr who crept down to the spring to bathe his aching head--"
"Hard on me, as usual!" Mr. Silk protested, climbing down the slope. "But 'tis the privilege of beauty to be cruel. As it happens, I drank moderately last night, and I come with a message from the Diana of these groves. Miss Quiney wishes to communicate to you some news I have had the honour to bring in a letter from Captain Vyell--or, as we must now call him, Sir Oliver."
"Sir Oliver?" echoed Ruth, not understanding at all.
"The Fish-hawk arrived in harbour this morning with the English mail-bags; and the Collector has letters informing him that his uncle, Sir Thomas Vyell, is dead after a short illness--the cause, jail fever, contracted while serving at Launceston, in Cornwall, on the Grand Jury."
"Captain Vyell succeeds?"
"To the title and, I believe, to very considerable estates. His uncle leaves no male child."
"Dicky had not told me of this."
"--Because," explained the boy, "I didn't know what it meant, and I don't know now. Papa told me this morning that his uncle was dead, home in England; but I'd never heard of him, and it slipped out of my mind. Can titles, as you call them, be passed on like that? And if papa died, should I get one? Or would it go to Uncle Harry?"
"It would go to your uncle," said Mr. Silk. "Now run along to the house and tell Miss Quiney that I have found the pair of you. She was getting anxious."
Dicky hesitated. He knew that Ruth had a horror of his tutor.
"Yes, run," she commanded, reading his glance. "We follow at once."
The boy scrambled up the slope. Mr. Silk looked after him and chuckled.
"Dicky don't know yet that there are two sides to a blanket."
Getting no answer--for she had turned and was stooping to pick up her book--he went on, "Vyell had a letter, among others, from the widow, Lady Caroline; and that, between ourselves, is the cause of my errand. She writes that she is taking a trip across here, to restore her nerves, and is bringing her daughter for company. The daughter, so near as I gather, is of an age near-about Vyell's. See?"
"I am afraid I do not." Ruth had recovered her book and her composure. A rose-flush showed yet on either cheek, but it lay not within Mr. Silk's competence to read so delicate a signal. "Will you explain?"
"Well"--he leered--"it did occur to me there might be some cleverness in the lady's search after consolation. Her daughter and our Collector being cousins--eh? At any rate, that's her first thought; to bring the girl--woman, if you prefer it--over and renew acquaintance with the heir. Must be excused if I misjudge her. Set it down to zeal for you, Miss Josselin."
"Willingly, Mr. Silk--if your zeal for me did not outrun my understanding."
"Yet you're clever. But you won't persuade me you don't see the difficulty. . . . Er--how shall I put it? The Collector--we'll have to get used to calling him Sir Oliver--is as cool under fire as any man this side of the Atlantic; fire of criticism, I mean. There's a limit though. He despises Colonial opinion--that's his pose; takes pride in despising it, encouraged by Langton. But England? his family?--that's another matter. An aunt--and that aunt an earl's daughter--If you'll believe me, Miss Josselin, I'm a man of family and know the sort. They're incredible. And the younger lady, if I may remind you, called Diana; which--er--may warn us that she, too, is particular about these things." Here Mr. Silk, having at length found his retort upon her similitude of the satyr, licked his lips.
Ruth drew up and stood tapping her foot. "May I beg to be told exactly what has happened, sir?"
"What has happened? What has happened is that Vyell is placing Sabines at the disposal of his aunt and cousin for so long as they may honour Boston with their presence. He sends the Quiney word to pack and hold herself in readiness for a flitting. Whither? I cannot say; nor can he yet have found the temporary nest for you. But doubtless you will hear in due course. May I offer you my arm?"
"I thank you, no. Indeed we will part here, unless you have further business in the house--and I gather that your errand there is discharged. . . . One question--Captain Vyell sent his message by a letter, which Miss Quiney no doubt will show to me. Did he further commission you with a verbal one? You had better," she added quietly, "be particular about telling me the truth; for I may question him, and for a discovered falsehood he is capable of beating you."
"What I have said," stammered the clergyman, "was--er--entirely on my own responsibility. I--I conceived you would find it sympathetic-- helpful perhaps. Believe me, Miss Josselin, I have considerable feeling for you and your--er--position."
"I thank you." She dismissed him with a gentle curtsy. "I feel almost sure you have been doing your best."
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