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Ruth Josselin came down from the mountain to the stream-side, where, by a hickory bush under a knoll, her mare Madcap stood at tether. Slipping behind the bush--though no living soul was near to spy on her-- she slid off her short skirt and indued a longer one more suitable for riding; rolled the discarded garment into a bundle which she strapped behind the saddle; untethered the mare, and mounted.
At her feet the plain stretched for miles, carpeted for the most part with short sweet turf and dotted in the distance with cattle, red in the sunlight that overlooked the mountain's shoulder. These were Farmer Cordery's cattle, and they browsed within easy radius of a clump of elms clustered about Sweetwater Farm. Some four miles beyond, on the far edge of the plain, a very similar clump of elms hid another farm, Natchett by name, in like manner outposted with cattle; and these were the only habitations of men within the ring of the horizon.
The afternoon sun cast the shadow of the mountain far across this plain, almost to the confines of Sweetwater homestead. A breeze descended from the heights and played with Ruth's curls as she rested in saddle for a moment, scanning the prospect; a gentle breeze, easily out-galloped. Time, place, and the horse--all promised a perfect gallop; her own spirits, too. For she had spent the day's hot hours in clambering among the slopes, battling with certain craggy doubts in her own mind; and with the afternoon shadow had come peace at heart; and out of peace a certain careless exultation. She would test the mare's speed and enjoy this hour before returning to Tatty's chit-chat, the evening lamp, and the office of family prayer with which Farmer Cordery duly dismissed his household for the night.
She pricked Madcap down the slope, and at the foot of it launched her on the gallop. Surely, unless it be that of sailing on a reach and in a boat that fairly heels to the breeze, there is no such motion to catch the soul on high. The breeze met the wind of her flight and was beaten by it, but still she carried the moment of encounter with her as a wave on the crest of which she rode. It swept, lifted, rapt her out of herself--yet in no bodiless ecstasy; for her blood pulsed in the beat of the mare's hoofs. To surrender to it was luxury, yet her hand on the rein held her own will ready at call; and twice, where Sweetwater brook meandered, she braced herself for the water-jump, judging the pace and the stride; and twice, with many feet to spare, Madcap sailed over the silver-grey riband.
All the while, ahead of her, the mountain lengthened its shadow. She overtook and passed it a couple of furlongs short of the homestead; passed it--so clearly defined it lay across the pasture--with a firmer hold on the rein, as though clearing an actual obstacle. . . . She was in sunlight now. Before her a wooden fence protected the elms and their enclosure. At the gate of it by rule she should have drawn rein.
She had never leapt a gate; had attempted a bank now and then, but nothing serious. Her success at the water-jumps tempted her; and the mare, galloping with her second wind, seemed to feel the temptation every whit as strongly.
In the instant of rising to it Ruth wondered what Farmer Cordery would say if she broke his top bar. . . . The mare's feet touched it lightly-- rap, rap. She was over.
A wood pile stood within the gate to the left, hiding the house. She had passed the corner of it before she could bring Madcap to a standstill, and was laughing to herself in triumph as she glanced around.
The house was of timber, with a deep timbered verandah; and in the verandah, not twenty paces away, beside a table laid for coffee, stood Tatty with three ladies about her--three ladies all elegantly dressed and staring.
Ruth's hand went up quickly, involuntarily, to her dishevelled hair; and at the same moment the little lady, as though making a bolt from captivity, stepped down from the verandah and came shuffling across the yard towards her, almost at a run.
"Ruth, dear!" she panted. "Oh, dear, dear! I am so glad you have come!"
"Why, what's the matter?" The girl, scenting danger, faced it. She swung herself down from the saddle-crutch, picked up her skirt, and taking Madcap's rein close beside the curb, walked slowly up to the verandah. "Have they been bullying you, dear?" she asked in a low quiet voice.
"They have come all this way to see us--Lady Caroline Vyell, and Miss Diana; yes, and Mrs. Captain Vyell--'Mrs. Harry,' as Dicky calls her. They have ferreted us out, somehow--and the questions they have been asking! I think, dear--I really think--that in your place I should walk Madcap round to her stable and run indoors for a tidy-up before facing them. A minute or two to prepare yourself--I can easily make your excuses."
"And a moment since you were calling me to come and deliver you!" answered Ruth, still advancing. "Present me, please."
Little Miss Quiney, turning and running ahead, stammered some words to Lady Caroline, who paid no heed to them or to her but kept her eyeglass lifted and fixed upon Ruth. Miss Diana stood a pace behind her mother's shoulder; Mrs. Harry, after a glance at the girl, turned and made pretence to busy herself with the coffee-table.
"So you are the young woman!" ejaculated Lady Caroline.
"Am I?" said Ruth quietly, and after a profound curtsy turned sideways to the mare. "A lump of sugar, Tatty, if you please. . . . I thank you, ma'am--" as Mrs. Harry, anticipating Miss Quiney, stepped forward with a piece held between the sugar-tongs. "And I think she even deserves a second, for clearing the yard gate."
She fed the gentle creature and dismissed her. "Now trot around to your stall and ask one of the boys to unsaddle you!" She stood for ten seconds, may be, watching as the mare with a fling of the head trotted off obediently. Then she turned again and met Mrs. Harry's eyes with a frank smile.
"It is the truth," she said. "We cleared the gate. Come, please, and admire--"
Mrs. Harry, in spite of herself, stepped down from the verandah and followed. The others stood as they were, planted in stiff disapproval.
The girl led Mrs. Harry to the corner of the wood pile. "Admire!" she repeated, pointing with her riding-switch; and then, still keeping the gesture, she sank her voice and asked quickly, "Why are you here? You have a good face, not like the others. Tell me."
"Lady Caroline--" stammered Mrs. Harry, taken at unawares. "She has a right, naturally, to concern herself--"
"Does he know?"
"Sir Oliver? No--I believe not. . . . You see, the Vyells are a great family, and 'family' to them is a tremendous affair--a religion almost. Whatever touches one touches all; especially when that one happens to be the head of his house."
"Is that how Captain Vyell--how your husband--feels it?--No, please keep looking towards the gate. I mean no harm by these questions, and you will not mind answering them, I hope? It gives me just a little more chance of fair play."
"To tell you the truth," said Mrs. Harry, pretending to study the jump, "I looked at you because I could not help it. You are an extraordinarily beautiful woman."
"Thank you," answered Ruth. "But about 'Captain Harry,' as we call him? I suppose he, as next of kin, is most concerned of all?"
"He did not tell me about you, if that is what you mean; or rather he told me nothing until I questioned him. Then he owned that there was such a person, and that he had seen you. But he does not even know of this visit; he imagines that Lady Caroline is taking me for a pleasure trip, just to view the country."
Ruth turned towards the house. "You will tell him, of course," she said gravely, "when you return to the ship."
"I--I suppose I shall," confessed Mrs. Harry, and added, "There's one thing. You may suppose that, as his wife, I am as much concerned as any--perhaps more than these others. But I don't want you to think that I suggested hunting you up."
"I do not think anything of the sort. In fact I am sure you did not."
Ruth had a mind to ask "Who, then, had brought them?" but refrained. She had guessed, and pretty surely.
"Well," she said with half a laugh, "you have been good and given me time to recover. It's heavy odds, you see, and--and I have not been trained for it, exactly. But I feel better. Shall we go back and face them?"
"One moment, again!" Mrs. Harry's kindly face hung out signals of distress. "It's heavy odds, as you say. Everything's against you. But the Lord knows I'm a well-meaning woman, and I'd hate to be unjust. If only I could be sure--if only you would tell me--"
Ruth stood still and faced her.
"Look in my eyes."
Mrs. Harry looked and was convinced. "But you love him," she murmured; "and he--"
"Ah, ma'am," said Ruth, "I answer you one question, and you would ask me another!"
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