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This happened on a Thursday. On the following Wednesday, a while before day-break, he met her on horseback by the gate of Sabines, and they rode forth side by side, ahead of the coach wherein Miss Quiney sat piled about with baggage, clutching in one hand a copy of Baxter's Saint's Everlasting Rest and with the other the ring of a canary-cage. (It was Dicky's canary, and his first love-offering. Yesterday had been Ruth's birthday--her eighteenth--and under conduct of Manasseh he had visited Sabines to wish her "many happy returns" and to say good-bye.)
Sir Oliver would escort the travellers for twelve miles on their way, to a point where the inland road broke into cart-tracks, and the tracks diverged across a country newly disafforested and strewn with jagged stumps among which the heavy vehicle could by no means be hauled. Here Farmer Cordery was to be in waiting with his light tilt-covered wagon.
They had started thus early because the season was hot and they desired to traverse the open highway and the clearings and to reach the forest before the sun's rays grew ardent. Once past the elms of Sabines their road lay broad before them, easy to discern; for the moon, well in her third quarter, rode high, with no trace of cloud or mist. So clear she shone that in imagination one could reach up and run a finger along her hard bright edge; and under moon and stars a land-breeze, virginally cool, played on our two riders' cheeks. Ungloving and stretching forth a hand, Ruth felt the dew falling, as it had been falling ever since sundown; and under that quiet lustration the world at her feet and around her, unseen as yet, had been renewed, the bee-ravished flowers replaced with blossoms ready to unfold, the turf revived, reclothed in young green, the atmosphere bathed, cleansed of exhausted scents, made ready for morning's "bridal of the earth and sky ":--
"As a vesture shall he fold them up. . . . In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun; which cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a giant to run his course."
Darkling they rode, and in silence, as though by consent. Ruth had never travelled this high way before: it glimmered across a country of which she knew nothing and could see nothing. But no shadow of fear crossed her spirit. Her heart was hushed; yet it exulted, because her lord rode beside her.
They had ridden thus without speech for three or four miles, when her chestnut blundered, tripped, and was almost down.
"All right?" he asked, as she reined up and steadied the mare.
"Yes. . . . She gave me a small fright, though."
"What happened? It looked to me as if she came precious near crossing her feet. If she repeats that trick by daylight I'll cast her--as I would to-morrow, if I were sure."
"Is it so bad a trick?"
"It might break your neck. It would certainly bring her down and break her knees."
"Oh!" Ruth shivered. "Do you mean that it would actually break them?" she asked in her ignorance.
He laughed. "Well, that's possible; but I meant the skin of the knee."
"That would heal, surely?"
He laughed again. "A horse is like a woman--" he began, but checked himself of a sudden. She waited for him to continue, and he went on, "It knocks everything off the price, you see. Some won't own a horse that has once been down; and any knowledgeable man can tell, at a glance. It is the first thing he looks for."
She considered for a moment. "But if the mark had been a scratch only-- and the scratch had healed--might she not be as good a horse as ever?"
"It would damage her price, none the less."
"But you are not a horse-dealer. Would you value a horse by its selling price?"
He laughed. "I am afraid," he owned, "that I should be ruled by other men's opinions. Your connoisseur does not collect chipped chinaware. . . . There's the chance, too, that the mare, having once fallen, will throw herself again by the same trick."
"And women are like horses," thought Ruth as they rode on. The night was paling about them, and she watched the rolling champaign as little by little it took shape, emerging from the morning mist and passing from monochrome into faint colours: for albeit the upper sky was clear as ever, mist filled the hollows of the hills and rolled up their sides like a smoke.
"Look!" commanded Sir Oliver, reining up and turning in his saddle.
He pointed with his horse-whip. Behind them, over a tree-clad hill, lay a long purple cloud; and above it, while he pointed, the sun thrust its edge as it were the rim of a golden paten. Ruth wheeled her mare about, to face the spectacle, and at that moment the cloud parted horizontally as though a hand had ripped the veil across. A flood of gold poured through the rent, dazzling her eyes.
The sun mounted and swam free: the upper portion of the veil floated off like a wisp and drifted down the wind. Where the glory had shone, it lingered through tint after tint--rose, pale lemon, palest sea-green-- and so passed into azure and became one with the rest of the heavens.
Sir Oliver withdrew his eyes and sought hers. "When I find the need of faith," he said, "I shall turn sun-worshipper."
"You have never found that need?" she asked slowly.
"Never," he confessed. "And you?"
"Never as a need. I mean," she explained, "that though I always despised religion--yes, always, even before I came to hate it--I never doubted that some wisdom must be at watch and at work all around me, ordering the sun and stars, for instance, and separating right from wrong. I just cannot understand how any one can do without a faith of that sort: it's as necessary as breath."
He shrugged his shoulders. "To me one Jehovah's as good as another, as unnecessary, and as incredible. I find it easier to believe that chaos hurtled around until it struck out some working balance; that the stars learned their places pretty much as men and women are learning theirs to-day. A painful process, I'll grant you, and damnably tedious; but they came to it in the end, and so in the end, maybe, will poor imitative man. But," he broke off, "this faith of yours must have failed you, once."
She shivered. "No; I made no claim on it, you see. Perhaps"--with a little smile--"I did not think myself important enough. I only know that, whatever was right, those men were horribly wrong: for it must be wrong to be cruel. Then I woke up, and you were beside me--"
She would have added, "How could I doubt, then?" But her voice failed her, and she wheeled about that he might not see her tears.
He, too, turned his horse. They rode on for a few paces in silence.
"I wish," she said, recovering her voice--"I wish, for your sake, you could have felt what I have been feeling since we left Sabines; the goodness all about us, watching us out of the night and the stars."
She looked up; but the stars were gone, faded out into daylight. He pushed his horse half a pace ahead, and glanced sideways at her face. Tears shone yet in her eyes, and his own, as he quickly averted them, fell on a tall mullein growing by the roadside. Big drops of dew adhered upon its woolly leaves and twinkled in the sunshine; and by contrast he knew the colour of her eyes--that they were violet and of the night--their dew distilled out of such violet darkness as had been the quality of one or two Mediterranean nights that lingered among his memories of the Grand Tour. More and more this girl surprised him with graces foreign to this colonial soil, graces supposed by him to be classical and lost, the appanage of goddesses.
Like a goddess now she lifted an arm and pointed west, as he had pointed east. Ahead of them, to the right of the road, rose a tall hill, wooded at the base, broken at the summit by craggy terraces. Two large birds wheeled and hovered above it, high in the blue, fronting the sunlight.
"Eagles, by Jove!" cried Sir Oliver.
Ruth drew a breath and watched them. She had never before seen an eagle.
"Will they have their nest in the cliffs?" she asked.
"Perhaps. . . . No, more likely they come from Wachusett; more likely still, from the mountains beyond. They are here seeking food."
"They do not appear to be seeking food," she said after a pause during which she watched their ambits of flight circling and intersecting "See the nearest one mounting, and the other lifting on a wider curve to meet him above. One would say they followed some pattern, like folks dancing."
"Some act of homage to the sun," he suggested. "They have come down to the sea to meet him--they look over the Atlantic from aloft there--and perform in his honour. Who knows?"
Across Ruth's inner vision there flashed a memory of Mr. Hichens, black-suited and bald, bending over his Hebrew Bible and expounding a passage of Job: "Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high? She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place. . . ."
To herself she said: "If it be so, the eagle's faith is mine; my lord's also, perchance, if he but knew it."
Aloud she asked, "Why are the noblest, birds and beasts, so few and solitary?"
Sir Oliver laughed. "You may include man. The answer is the same, and simple: the strong of the earth feed on the weak, and it takes all the weaklings to make blood for the few."
She mused; but when she spoke again it was not to dispute with him. "You say they look over the sea from aloft there. Might we have sight of it from the top of the hill?"
"Perhaps. There is plenty of time to make sure before the coach overtakes us--though I warn you it will be risky."
"I am not afraid."
They cantered off gaily, plunged into the woods and breasted the slope, Sir Oliver leading and threading his way through the undergrowth. By-and-by they came to the bed of a torrent and followed it up, the horses picking their steps upon the flat boulders between which the water trickled. Some of these boulders were slimed and slippery, and twice Sir Oliver reached out a hand and hauled the mare firmly on to her quarters.
The belt of crags did not run completely around the hill. At the back of it, after a scramble out of the gully, they came on a slope of good turf, and so cantered easily to the summit.
Ruth gave a little cry of delight, and followed it up with a yet smaller one of disappointment. The country lay spread at her feet like a vast amphitheatre, ringed with wooded hills. Across the plain they encircled a river ran in loops, and from the crag at the edge of which she stood a streamlet emerged and took a brave leap down the hill to join it.
"But where is the sea?"
"That small hill yonder must hide it. You see it, with its line of elms? If those trees were down, we should see the Atlantic for a certainty. If you like the spot otherwise, I will have them removed."
He said it seriously; but of course she took it for granted that he spoke in jest, albeit the jest puzzled her a little. Indeed when she glanced up at him he was smiling, with his eyes on the distant landscape.
"The mountain too," he added, "if the trees will not suffice. Though not by faith, it shall be removed."
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