"Have you not finished yet?" Miss Diana closed the door, glanced from one to the other, and laughed with a genial brutality. "Well, it's time I came. Dear mamma, you seem to be getting your feathers pulled."
There was a byword among the Whig families at home (who, by intermarrying, had learned to gauge another's weaknesses), that "the Pett medal showed ill in reverse." Miss Diana had heard the saying. As a Vyell--the Vyells were, before all things, critical--she knew it to be just, as well as malicious; but as a dutiful daughter she ought to have remembered.
As it was, her cool comment stung her mother to fury. The poor lady pointed a finger at Ruth, and spluttered (there is no more elegant word for the very inelegant exhibition),--
"A strumpet! One that has been whipped through the public streets."
There was a dreadful pause. Miss Diana, the first to recover herself, stepped back to the door and held it open.
"You must excuse dear mamma," she said coolly. "She has overtired herself."
But Lady Caroline continued to point a finger trembling with passion.
"Her price!" she shrilled. "Ask her that. It is all these creatures ever understand!"
Miss Diana slipped an arm beneath her elbow and firmly conducted her forth. Ruth, hearing the door shut, supposed that both women had withdrawn. She sank into a chair, and was stretching out her arms over the table to bury her face in them and sob, when the voice of the younger said quietly behind her shoulder,--
"It is always hard, after mamma's tantrums, to bring the talk back to a decent level. Nevertheless, shall we try?"
Ruth had drawn herself up again, rallying the spirit in her. It was weary, bruised; but its hour of default was not yet. Her voice dragged, but just perceptibly, as she answered Miss Vyell, who nodded, noting her courage and wondering a little,--
"I am sorry."
"Yes; it was partly my fault--very largely my fault. But your mother angered me from the first by assuming--what she had no right to assume. It was horrible."
Diana Vyell seated herself, eyed her steadily for a moment, and nodded again. "Mamma can be raide, there's no denying. She was wrong, of course; that's understood. . . . Still, on the whole you have done pretty well, and had your revenge."
Ruth's eyes widened, for this was beyond her.
Diana explained. "You have let us make the most impossible fools of ourselves. It may have been more by luck than by good management, as they say; but there it is. Now don't say that revenge isn't sweet. . . . I've done you what justice I can; but if you pose as an angel from heaven, it's asking too much." While Ruth considered this, she added, "I don't know if you can put yourself in mamma's place for a moment; but if you can, the hoax is complete enough, you'll admit."
"I had rather put myself in yours."
Their eyes met, and Diana's cheek reddened slightly. "You are an extraordinary girl," she said, "and there seems no way but to be honest with you. Unfortunately, it's not so easy, even with the best will in the world. Can you understand that?"
"If you love him--"
"Oh, for pity's sake spare me!" Diana bounced up and stepped to the window. The red on her cheek had deepened, and she averted it to stare out at the poultry in the yard. "You are unconscionable," she said after a while, with a vexed laugh. "I have known my cousin Oliver since we were children together. Really, you know, you're almost as brutal as mamma. . . . The truth? Let me see. Well, the truth, so near as I can tell it, is that I just let mamma have her head, and waited to see what would happen. This was her expedition, and I took no responsibility for it from the first."
"I understand." Ruth, watching the back of her head, spoke musingly, with pursed lips.
"Excuse me"--Diana wheeled about suddenly--"you cannot possibly understand just yet. This last was my tenth season in London. One grows weary . . . and then in the confusion of papa's death-- It comes to this, that I was ready for anything to get out of the old rut. I--I--shall we say that I just cast myself on fate? It may have been at the back of my head that whatever happened might be worse, but couldn't well be wearier. But if you think I had any design of setting my cap at him--"
"Hush!" said Ruth softly. "I had no such thought."
"And if you had, you would not have cared," said Diana, eyeing her again long and steadily. "Mamma--you really must forgive mamma. If you knew them, there was never a Pett that was not impayable. Mamma spoke of asking your price. . . . As if, for any price, he would give you up!"
"I have no price to ask, of him or of any one."
"No, and you need have none. I am often very disagreeable," said Diana candidly, "but my worst enemy won't charge me with disparaging good looks in other women."
"May I use your words," said Ruth, with a shy smile, "and say that you have no need?"
"Rubbish! And don't talk like that to me, sitting here and staring you in the face, or I may change my mind again and hate you! I never said I didn't envy. . . . But there, the fault was mine for speaking of 'good looks' when I should have said, 'Oh, you wonder!'" broke off Diana. "May I ask it--one question?"
"Twenty, if you will."
"It is a brutal one; horrible; worse even than mamma's."
"As I remember," said Ruth gravely, "Lady Caroline asked none. It was I who did the questioning, and--and I am afraid that led to the trouble."
Diana laughed, and after a moment the two were laughing together.
"But what is your question?"
"No, I cannot ask it now." Diana shook her head, and was grave again.
"Well, then, tell me--" She drew back, slightly tilting her chin and narrowing her eyes, as one who contemplates a beautiful statue or other work of art. "Is it true they whipped that, naked, through the streets?"
Ruth bent her head.
"It is true."
"I wonder it did not kill you," Diana murmured.
"I am strong; strong and very healthy. . . . It broke something inside; I hardly know what. But there's a story--I read it the other day--about a man who wandered in a dark wood, and came to a place where he looked into hell. Just one glimpse. He fainted, and when he awoke it was daylight, with the birds singing all around him. But he was changed more than the place, for he listened and understood all the woodland talk--what the birds were saying, and the small creeping things. And when he went back among men he answered at random, and yet in a way that astonished them; for he saw and heard what their hearts were saying, at the back of their talk. . . . Of course," smiled Ruth, "I am not nearly so wonderful as that. But something has happened to me--"
Diana nodded slowly. "--Something that, at any rate, makes you terribly disconcerting. But what about Oliver? They tell me that he browbeat the magistrates and insisted on sitting beside you."
Ruth's eyes confirmed it. They were moist, yet proud. They shone.
"I had always," mused Diana, "looked on my cousin as a carefully selfish person, even in the matter of that Dance woman. You must have turned his head completely."
"It was not that."
Diana stared, the low tone was so earnest, vehement even. "Well, at all events I know him well enough to assure you he will never give you up."
"Ah!" Ruth drew a long sigh over the joy in her heart, and, a second later, hated herself for it.
"Afterwards?" the girl echoed.
"Afterwards. My cousin Oliver is a tenacious man, and you would seem to have worked him up to temporary heroics. But I beg you to reflect that what for you must have been a real glimpse into hell"--Diana shivered--" was likely enough for him no more than an occasion for posing. Fine posing, I'll allow." She paused. "It didn't degrade him, actually. He's a Vyell; and as another of 'em I may tell you there never was a Vyell could face out actual degradation. You almost make me wish we were capable of it. To lose everything--" She paused again. "You make it more alluring, somehow, than the prospect of endless London seasons--Diana Vyell, with a fading face and her market missed--that's how they'll put it--and, pour me distraire this side of the grave, the dower-house, a coach, a pair of wind-broken horses, and the consolations of religion! If we were capable of it. . . . But where's the use of talking? We're Vyells. And--here's my point--Oliver is a Vyell. He may be strong-willed, but--did mamma happen to talk at all about the 'Family'?"
"I think," answered Ruth with another faint flash of mirth, "it was I who asked her questions about it."
Diana threw out her hands, laughing. "You are invincible! Well, I cannot hate you; and I've given you my warning. Make him marry you; you can if you choose, and now is your time. If there should be children-- legitimate children, O my poor mamma!--there will be the devil to pay and helpless family councils, all of which I shall charge myself to enjoy and to report to you. If there should be none, we're safe with Mrs. Harry. She'll breed a dozen. . . . Am I coarse? Oh, yes, the Vyells can be coarse! while as for the Petts--but you have heard dear mamma."
They talked together for a few minutes after this. But their talk shall not be reported: for with what do you suppose it dealt?
--With Dress. As I am a living man, with Dress.
In the midst of it, and while Ruth listened eagerly to what Diana had to tell of London fashions, Lady Caroline's voice was heard summoning her daughter away.
Diana rose. "It is close upon dusk," she said, "and Mrs. Harry has command of the waggon. She drives very well--not better than I perhaps; but she understands this country better. All the same, the road--call it an apology for one--bristles with tree-stumps, and mamma's temper will be unendurable if the dark overtakes us before we reach the next farm. I forget its name."
"Yes, Natchett. We spend the night there."
"But why did not Mr. Silk drive you over?"
"Did mamma tell you he was escorting us?"
"No. I guessed."
"Nasty little fellow. Sloppy underlip. I cannot bear him. Can you?"
"I do not like him."
"It's a marvel to me that my cousin tolerates him. . . . By the way, I shall not wonder if he--Oliver, I mean--loses his temper heavily when he learns of our expedition, and bundles us straight back to Europe. I warned mamma."
"So--I am afraid--did I."
"Yes?"--and again they laughed together.
"My poor parent! . . . She assured me that her duty to the Family was her armour of proof. Hark! She's calling again."
They found Lady Caroline impatient in the verandah. Ruth, to avoid speech with her, walked away to the waggon. Farmer Cordery stood at the horse's head, and Mrs. Harry beside the step, ready to mount and take the reins.
But for some reason Mrs. Harry delayed to mount. "Is it you?" she said vaguely and put out a hand, swaying slightly. Ruth caught it.
"Are you ill?"
They were alone together for a moment and hidden from the farmer, who stood on the far side of the horse.
"Nothing--a sudden giddiness. It's quite absurd, too; when I've been as strong as a donkey all my life."
Ruth asked her a question. . . . Some word of woman's lore, dropped years ago by her own silly mother, crossed her memory. (They had been outspoken, in the cottage above the beach.) It surprised Mrs. Harry, who answered it before she was well aware, and so stood staring, trembling with surmise.
"God bless you!" Ruth put out an arm on an impulse to clasp her waist, but checked it and beckoned instead to Diana.
"You take the reins and drive," she commanded.
Diana questioned her with a glance, but obeyed and climbed on board. Ruth was helping Mrs. Harry to mount after her when Lady Caroline thrust herself forward, by the step.
Now since Diana had hold of the reins, and Mrs. Harry was for the moment in no condition to lend a hand, and since Lady Caroline would as lief have touched leprosy as have accepted help from Ruth Josselin, her ascent into the van fell something short of dignity. The rearward of her person was ample; she hitched her skirt in the step, thus exposing an inordinate amount of not over-clean white stocking; and, to make matters worse, Farmer Cordery cast off at the wrong moment and stood back from the horse's head.
"Losh! but I'm sorry," said he, gazing after the catastrophic result. "Look at her, there, kickin' like a cast ewe. . . ." He turned a serious face on Ruth and added, "Vigorous, too, for her years."
Ruth, returning to the verandah, bent over little Miss Quiney, who sat unsmiling, with rigid eyes. "Dear Tatty,"--she kissed her--"were they so very dreadful?"
Miss Quiney started as if awaking from a nightmare.
"That woman--darling, whatever her rank, I cannot term her a lady!--"
"Go on, dear."
"I cannot. Sit beside me, here, for a while, and let me feel my arm about you. . . ."
They sat thus for a long while silent, while twilight crept over the plain and wrapped itself about the homestead.
Ruth was thinking. "If I forfeit this, it will be hardest of all."
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