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She turned and walked slowly back to the house. Once within the front door and out of his sight, she was tempted to rush across the hall and up the stairs to her own room. She was indeed gathering up her skirts for the run, when in the hall she almost collided with the Reverend Malachi Hichens, who stood there with his nose buried in a vase of roses, while behind his back his hands interwove themselves and pulled each at the other's bony knuckles.
"Ah!" He faced about with a stiff bow, and a glance up at the tall clock. "You are late this morning, Miss Josselin. But I dare say my good brother Silk has been detaining you in talk?"
"On the contrary," answered Ruth, "his talk has rather hastened me than not."
They entered the library. "Miss Quiney tells me," he said, "that our studies are to suffer a brief interruption; that you are about to take a country holiday. You anticipate it with delight, I doubt not?"
"Have I been, then, so listless a scholar?" she asked, smiling.
"No," he answered. "I have never looked on you as eager for praise, or I should have told you that your progress--in Greek particularly--has been exceptional; for a young lady, I might almost say, abnormal."
"I am grateful to you at any rate for saying it now. It happens that just now I wanted something to give me back a little self-respect."
"But I do not suppose you so abnormal as, at your age, to undervalue a holiday," he continued. "It is only we elders who live haunted by the words 'Work while ye have the light.' If youth extract any moral from the brevity of life it is rather the pagan warning, Collige rosas."
Her eyes rested on him, still smiling, but behind her smile she was wondering. Did he--this dry, sallow old man, with the knock-knees and ungainly frame, the soiled bands, the black suit, threadbare, hideous in cut, hideous in itself (Ruth had a child's horror of black)--did he speak thus out of knowledge, or was he but using phrases of convention? Ruth feared and distrusted all religious folk--clergymen above all; yet instinct had told her at the first that Mr. Hichens was honest, even good in an unlovely fashion; and by many small daily tests she had proved this. Was it possible that Mr. Hichens had ever gathered roses in his youth? Was it possible that, expecting Heaven and professing a spiritual joy in redemption, a man could symbolise his soul's state by wearing these dingy weeds? Had he no sense of congruity, or was all religion so false in grain that it perverted not only the believer's judgment but his very senses, turning white into black for him, and making beauty and ugliness change places?
"For my part," said Mr. Hichens wistfully, "I regret the interruption; for I had even played with the thought of teaching you some Hebrew." He paused and sighed. "But doubtless the Almighty denies us these small pleasures for our good. . . . Shall we begin with our repetition? I forget the number of the Psalm?"
"The forty-fifth," said Ruth, finding the place and handing him the book. "My heart is inditing of a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made unto the king." . . . She recited the opening lines very quietly, but her voice lifted at the third verse. Beautiful words always affected her poignantly, but the language of the Bible more poignantly than any other, because her own unforgettable injury had been derived from it and sanctioned by it, and because at the base of things our enemies in this world are dearer to us than friends. They cling closer.
Yet,--and paradox though it be--the Bible was the more alive to her because, on Mr. Langton's hint, she had taken it like any other book, ignoring the Genevan division of verses and the sophisticated chapter headings. Thus studied, it had revenged itself by taking possession of her. It held all the fascination of the East, and little by little unlocked it--Abraham at his tent door, Rebekah by the fountain, her own namesake Ruth in the dim threshing-floor of Boaz, King Saul wrestling with his dark hour, the last loathly years of David, Jezebel at the window, Job on his dung-heap, Athaliah murdering the seed royal, and again Athaliah dragged forth by the stable-way and calling Treason! Treason! . . . Bedouins with strings of camels, scent of camels by the city gate, clashing of distant cymbals, hush of fear--plot and counterplot in the apartments of the women--outcries, lusts, hates-- blood on the temple steps--blood oozing, welling across the gold--blood caking in spots upon illimitable desert sands--watchmen by the wall--in the dark streets a woman with bleeding back and feet seeking and calling, "I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved--"
"Hearken, O daughter, and consider, incline thine ear"--Ruth's voice swelled up on a full note: "forget also thine own people and thy father's house."
"So shall the King have pleasure in thy beauty: for he is thy lord, and worship thou him."
"Excuse me--'for he is thy Lord God,'" corrected Mr. Hichens. . . . "We are taking the Prayer Book's version."
"I changed to the Bible version on purpose," Ruth confessed; "and 'lord' ought to have a small 'l'. The Prayer Book makes nonsense of it. They are bringing in the bride, the princess, to her lord. She is all glorious within, her clothing is of wrought gold. She shall be brought unto the King in raiment of needlework: the virgins that be her fellows shall bear her company--"
"The Hebrew," said Mr. Hichens, blinking over his own text which he had hastily consulted, "would seem to bear you out, or at least to leave the question open. But, after all, it matters little, since, as the chapter heading explains in the Authorized Version, the supposed bride is the Church, and the bridegroom, therefore, necessarily Our Lord."
"Do you think that, or anything like that, was in the mind of the man who wrote it?" asked Ruth, rebellious. "The title says, 'To the Chief Musician upon Shoshannim'--whatever that may mean."
"It means that it was to be sung to a tune called Shoshannim or Lilies-- doubtless a well-known one."
"It has a beautiful name, then; and he calls it too 'Maschil, A song of Loves.'"
"Historically no doubt you are right," agreed Mr. Hichens. "The song is undoubtedly later than David, and was written as a Prothalamion for a royal bride. It is, as you say, exceedingly beautiful; but perhaps we had best confine our attention to its allegorical side. You probably do not guess who the bride was?"
"No," Ruth admitted. "Who was she?"
"It is generally admitted, I believe, to have been written as a bridal hymn for Queen Jezebel."
"O--oh!" Ruth bit her lip, but had to laugh in spite of herself.
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