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He called again, next morning. He came on horseback, followed by a groom. The groom led a light chestnut mare, delicate of step us a dancer, and carrying a side-saddle.
Ruth's ear had caught the sound of hoofs. She looked forth at her open window as Sir Oliver reined up and hailed, frank as a schoolboy.
"Your first riding lesson!" he announced.
"But I have no riding-skirt," she objected, her eyes opening wide with delight as they looked down and scanned the mare.
"You shall have one to-morrow." He swung himself out of saddle and gave over his own horse to the groom. "To-day you have only to learn how to sit and hold the reins and ride at a walk."
She caught up a hat and ran downstairs, blithe as a girl should be blithe.
He taught her to set her foot in his hand and lifted her into place.
"But are you not riding also?" she asked as he took the leading-rein.
"No. I shall walk beside you to-day . . . Now take up the reins--so; in both hands, please. That will help you to sit square and keep the right shoulder back, which with a woman is half the secret of a good seat. Where a man uses grip, she uses balance. . . . For the same reason you must not draw the feet back; it throws your body forward and off its true poise on the hips."
She began to learn at once and intelligently; for, unlike her other tutors, he started with simple principles and taught her nothing without giving its reason. He led her twice around the open gravelled space before the house, and so aside and along a grassy pathway that curved between the elms to the right. The pathway was broad and allowed him to walk somewhat wide of the mare, yet not so wide as to tauten the leading-rein, which he held (as she learned afterwards) merely to give her confidence; for the mare was docile and would follow him at a word.
"I am telling you the why-and-how of it all," he said, "because after this week you will be teaching yourself. This week I shall come every morning for an hour; but on Wednesday you start for Sweetwater Farm."
"And will there be nobody at the Farm to help me," she asked, a trifle dismayed.
"The farmer--his name is Cordery--rides, after a fashion. But he knows nothing of a side-saddle, if indeed he has ever seen one."
"Then to trot, canter, and gallop I must teach myself," she thought; for among the close plantations of Sabines there was room for neither. "If I experiment here, they will find me hanging like Absalom from a bough." But aloud she said nothing of her tremors.
"Dicky sits a horse remarkably well for his age," said Sir Oliver after a pause. "I had some thought to pack him off holidaying with you. But the puppy has taken to the water like a spaniel. He went off to the Venus yesterday, and it seems that on board of her he struck up, there and then, a close friendship with Harry's lieutenant, a Mr. Hanmer; and now he can talk of nothing but rigging and running-gear. He's crazed for a cruise and a hammock. Also it would seem that he used his time to win the affections of Madam Harry; which argues that his true calling is not the Navy, after all, but diplomacy."
Ruth sighed inaudibly. Dicky's companionship would have been delightful. But she knew the child's craze, and would not claim him, to mar his bliss--though she well knew that at a word from her he would renounce it.
"Diplomacy?" she echoed.
"Well," said Sir Oliver, looking straight before him. "Sally--my brother insists on calling her Sally--appears to have her head fixed well on her shoulders: she looks--as you must not forget to look-- straight between the horse's ears. But your young bride is apt to be the greatest prude in the world. And Dicky, you see--"
Her hand weighed on the rein and brought the mare to a halt.
"Tell me about Dicky?"
"About Dicky?" he repeated.
"About his mother, then."
"She is dead," he answered, staring at the mare's glossy shoulder and smoothing it. His brows were bent in a frown.
"Yes . . . he told me that, in the coach, on our way from Port Nassau. It was the first thing he told me when he awoke. We had been rolling along the beach for hours in the dark; and I remember how, almost at the end of the beach, it grew light inside the coach and he opened his eyes. . . ."
She did not relate that the child had awaked in her arms.
"It was the first thing Dicky told me," she repeated; "and the only thing about--her. I think it must be the only thing he knows about her."
"Probably; for she died when he was born and--well, as the child grew up, it was not easy to explain to him. Other folks, no doubt--the servants and suchlike--were either afraid to tell or left it to me as my business. And I am an indolent parent." He paused and added, "To be quite honest, I dare say I distasted the job and shirked it."
"You did wrongly then," murmured Ruth, and her eyes were moist. "Dicky started with a great hole in his life, and you left it unfilled. Often, being lonely, he must have needed to know something of his mother. You should have told him all that was good; and that was not little, I think, if you had loved her?"
"I loved her to folly," he answered at length, his eyes still fixed on the mare's shoulder; "and yet not to folly, for she was a good woman: a married woman, some three or four years older than I and close upon twenty years younger than her husband, who was major of my regiment."
"You ran away with her? . . . Say that he was not your friend."
"He was not; and you may put it more correctly that I helped her to run away from him. He was a drunkard, and in private he ill-used her disgustingly. . . . Having helped her to escape I offered him his satisfaction. He refused to divorce her; but we fought and I ran him through the arm to avoid running him through the body, for he was a shockingly bad swordsman."
Ruth frowned. "You could not marry her?"
"No, and to kill him was no remedy; for if I could not marry an undivorced woman, as little could she have married her husband's murderer." He hunched his shoulders and concluded, "The dilemma is not unusual."
"What happened, then?"
"My mother paid twenty calls upon the Duke of Newcastle, and after the twentieth I received the Collectorship of this port of Boston. It was exile, but lucrative exile. My good mother is a Whig and devout; and there is nothing like that combination for making the best of both worlds. Indeed you may say that at this point she added the New World, and made the best of all three. She assured me that its solitudes would offer, among other advantages, great opportunity for repentance. 'Of course,' she said, 'if you must take the woman, you must.'"
He ended with a short laugh. Ruth did not laugh. Her mind was masculine at many points, but like a true woman she detested ironical speech.
"That is Mr. Langton's way of talking," she said; "and you are using it to hide your feelings. Will you tell me her name?--her Christian name only?"
"She was called Margaret--Margaret Dance. There is no reason why you should not have it in full."
"Is there a portrait of her?"
"Yes; as a girl she sat to Kneller--a Dryad leaning against an oak. The picture hangs in my dressing-room."
"It should have hung, rather, in Dicky's nursery; which," she added, picking up and using the weapon she most disliked, "need not have debarred your seeing it from time to time."
He glanced up, for he had never before heard her speak thus sharply.
"Perhaps you are right," he agreed; "though, for me, I let the dead bury the dead. I have no belief, remember, in any life beyond this one. Margaret is gone, and I see not how, being dead, she can advantage me or Dicky."
His words angered Ruth and at the same time subtly pleased her; and on second thoughts angered her the more for having pleased. She thought scorn of herself for her momentary jealousy of the dead; scorn for having felt relief at his careless tone; and some scorn to be soothed by a doctrine that, in her heart, she knew to be false.
For the moment her passions were like clouds in thunder weather, mounting against the wind; and in the small tumult of them she let jealousy dart its last lightning tongue.
"I am not learned in these matters, my lord. But I have heard that man must make a deity of something. The worse sort of unbeliever, they say, lives in the present and burns incense to himself. The better sort, having no future to believe in, idolises his past."
"Margaret is dead," he repeated. "I am no sentimentalist."
She bent her head. To herself she whispered. "He may not idolise his past, yet he cannot escape from it." . . . And her thoughts might have travelled farther, but she had put the mare to a walk again and just then her ears caught an unaccustomed sound, or confusion of sounds.
At the end of the alley she reined up, wide-eyed.
A narrow gateway here gave access to what had yesterday been a sloping paddock where Miss Quiney grazed a couple of cows. To-day the cows had vanished and given way to a small army of labourers. Broad strips of turf had vanished also and the brown loam was moving downhill in scores of wheel-barrows, to build up the slope to a level.
Sir Oliver marked her amazement and answered it with an easy laugh.
"The time is short, you see, and already we have wasted half an hour of it unprofitably. . . . These fellows appear to be working well."
She gazed at the moving gangs as one who, having come by surprise upon a hive of bees, stands still and cons the small creatures at work.
"But what is the meaning of it?"
"The meaning? Why, that for this week I am your riding-master, and that by to-morrow you will have a passable riding-school."
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