Chapter 17




VASHTI.


The first bad suggestion almost certainly came from Mr. Silk. Two or three of the company afterwards put their heads together and, comparing recollections, agreed that either Silk or Manley had started it. Beyond the alternative they could not trace it.

But the whole table, they admitted, had been to blame, and pretty damnably. To be sure they were drunk, every man Jack of them, the Collector included. The Collector, indolent by nature but capable of long stretches of work at a pinch, had been at his desk since six o'clock in the morning. The news brought by the Fish-hawk had reached him at five; and after bathing, dressing, and drinking his chocolate, he had started to write, and had been writing letters all day. The most of these were lengthy, addressed to England, to his relatives, his London lawyers, the steward at Carwithiel. . . . The Surveyor and Deputy-Collector could deal--as they usually did--with the official correspondence of the Custom House; his own Secretary had the light task of penning a score of invitations to dinner; but these letters of condolence and private business must be written by his own hand, as also a note to Governor Shirley formally announcing his accession and new title.

The Collector dined at five. He laid down his pen at four, having written for ten hours almost at a stretch, declining all food--for he hated to mix up work with eating and drinking. Before dressing for dinner he refreshed himself with another bath; but he came to table with a jaded brain and a stomach fasting beyond appetite for food; and the wine was champagne.

Miss Quiney and Ruth Josselin, seated that evening in the drawing-room at Sabines, were startled at eight o'clock or thereabouts by a knocking on the front door. Miss Quiney looked up from her tambour-work, with hand and needle suspended in mid-air, and gazed across at Ruth, who, seated at the harpsichord, had been singing softly--murmuring rather--the notes of Ben Jonson's Charis her Triumph--


    "Have you seen but a bright Lillie grow
      Before rude hands have touch'd it?"--


--but desisted at the noise and slewed her body half around, letting her fingers rest on the keys.

"Who in the world--at this hour?" demanded Miss Quiney.

A serving-maid ushered in Manasseh.

The tall black halted a little within the doorway, saluted and stood grinning respectfully, his white teeth gleaming in the candle-light.

"Yo' pardon, ladies. His Honah sends to say he entertainin' to-night. Plenty people drink his Honah's health an' long life to Sir Olivah Vyell. He wish pertick'ly Mis' Josselin drink it. He tol' me run, get out sedan-chair an' fetch Mis' Josselin along; fetch her back soon as she likes. Chairmen at de door dis moment, waitin'. I mak' 'em run."

Ruth stood up. Her hand went to the edge of her bodice open below the throat.

"Must I?" she asked, turning from Manasseh to Miss Quiney. Her voice was tense.

"I--I think so, dear," Miss Quiney answered after a pause. "It is a command, almost; and to-night naturally Captain Vyell--Sir Oliver--has a claim on our congratulations."

"You tell me to go? . . . Oh! but let me be sure you know what you are advising." She faced the negro again. "What guests is Sir Oliver entertaining?"

Manasseh enumerated a dozen.

"All gentlemen! So, you see!"

"Captain--Sir Oliver (bless me, how I forget! ) has an aversion from ladies' society--Boston ladies. . . . It is not for me to criticise, but the distaste is well known."

"And the gentlemen, Manasseh--they will have taken a great deal of wine by now?"

Manasseh spread out his hands, and again his teeth gleamed. "To be sho', Mis' Josselin; it is not ebery day in the yeah dat Cap'n Vyell become Sir Olivah--"

"I did not ask you," interrupted Ruth coldly, "to excuse your errand. . . . And now, Tatty dear, do you still bid me to go?"

"On the contrary, I forbid it."

Ruth stepped close to the little lady. Said she, standing straight before her and looking down, "It cost you some courage to say that."

"It may cost me more to-morrow; but I am not afraid."

"My brave Tatty! But the courage is thrown away, for I am going."

"You do not mean this?"

"I do mean it. My master sends for me. You know what duty I owe him."

"He is just. He will thank you to-morrow that you disobeyed."

"I shall not disobey."

Little Miss Quiney, looking up into her ward's eyes, argued this point no further. "Very well," said she. "Then I go too." She closed her mouth firmly, squaring her jaw.

"But in the sedan there is room for one only."

"Then I go first," said Miss Quiney, "and the chair shall return for you. That," she went on, falling back upon her usual pedantic speech, "presents no difficulty whatever to me. What I wear does not matter-- the gentlemen will not regard it. But you must dress in what you have of the best. It--it will assist you. Being without experience, you probably have no notion how dress assists one's self-respect."

"I think I have some little notion," Ruth assured her demurely.

"And while the chair is taking me and returning, you will have good time to dress. On no account are you to hurry. . . . It is essential that at no point--at no point, dear--you allow yourself to be hurried, or to show any trace of hurry."

Ruth nodded slowly. "Yes, Tatty. I understand. But, little lioness that you are, do you? You will be alone, and for some time with these--with these--"

"I have never mentioned it to a living soul before," said Miss Quiney, dismissing Manasseh with a wave of the hand and closing the door upon him; "but I had an eldest brother--in the Massachusetts militia--who, not to put too fine a point on it, was sadly addicted to the bottle. It shortened his days. . . . A bright young genius, of which we hoped much, and (I fear me) not all unselfishly, for our family was impoverished. But he went astray. Towards the end he would bring home his boon companions--I will say this for poor dear George, that his footsteps, at their unsteadiest, ever tended homeward; he never affected low haunts--and it fell to me as the eldest daughter of the house to keep his hospitality within bounds--"

"Dear Tatty!" Ruth stooped and kissed the plain little face, cutting short the narrative. It was strange to note how these two of diverse ages--between whom for the length of their acquaintance no dispute of mastery had arisen--now suddenly and in quick alternation, out of pure love, asserted will against will. "You shall tell me to-morrow. (I always knew that your meekness and weakness were only pretence.) But just now we must hurry."

"Hurry, as I must repeat," answered Miss Quiney primly, smoothing down the front of her creased grey satin skirt, "is--will be--our capital mistake. For me, I need in this weather but an additional shawl. I am ready. . . . Go to your room . . . and let me enjoin a certain deliberation even in crossing the hall. Manasseh is there, and before servants--even a negro--The white brocade if I may advise; it is fresher than the rose-coloured silk--and the hair combed a trifle higher off the brows. That, with the brocade, will correct your girlishness somewhat. Brocades are for dignity, and it is dignity we chiefly need to-night. . . . Shall I send Selina to you? No? Well, she would be persuading you to some new twist or experiment with your hair, and you are better without her. Also I shall want a last word with you when I have fetched my cloak, and Selina is better out of the way."

Miss Quiney's last word was a curious one. It took the form of a pearl necklace, her one possession of value, last surviving heirloom of the Quineys, of whom she was the last surviving descendant: her last tangible evidence, too, of those bygone better days. She never wore it, and it never saw the light save when she unlocked the worn jewel-case to make sure that her treasure had not been stolen.

She entered Ruth's room with it furtively. Despite her injunction against hurry, the girl had already indued the white brocade and stood before the mirror conning herself. She wore no jewels; she owned none.

"Shut your eyes, dear," commanded Miss Quiney, and, stealing up behind her, slipped and clasped the necklace about her throat, then fell back, admiring the reflection in the glass.

"Oh, Tatty!"

But Ruth, too, had to pause for a moment to admire. When she turned, Miss Quiney, forgetting her own injunction, had stolen in haste from the room.

The girl's eyes moistened. For a moment she saw herself reflected from the glass in a blur. Then through the blur the necklace took shape, point by point of light, pearl by pearl, until the whole chain grew definite in the parting of the bodice, resting on the rise of her young bosom.

Yes, and the girl saw that it was good.

A string of words danced upon her brain, as though the mirrored pearls reflected them.

She shall be brought unto the King . . . the virgins that be her fellows shall bear her company.




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