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The breakers boomed up the beach, and in the blown spray Old Josselin pottered, bareheaded and barefoot. His eyesight had grown dimmer, but otherwise his bodily health had improved, for nowadays he ate food enough: and, as for purblindness, why there was no real need to keep watch on the sea. He did it from habit.
Ruth came on him much as Sir Oliver had come on him three years before; the roar of the breakers swallowing all sound of Madcap's hoofs until she was close at his shoulder. Now as then he turned about with a puzzled face, peered, and lifted his hand a little way as if to touch his forehead.
"Your ladyship--" he mumbled, noting only her fine clothes.
She slipped down from saddle and kissed him, in sight of the grooms, who had reined up fifty yards away.
"What? Ruth, is it? . . . Here's news, now, for your mother, poor soul!"
"How is she? Take me to her at once, please."
"Eh! . . . Your mother keeps well enough; though doited, o' course-- doited. Properly grown you be, too, I must say. . . . I didn't reckernise ye comin' on me like that. Inches ye've grown."
"And you--well, you look just the same as ever; only fuller and haler."
"Do I?" The old man gave her in the old way certain details of his health. "But I'm betterin'. Food's a blessin', however ye come by it."
On a sudden, as she read his thought, the very tokens of health in his face accused her . . . and, a moment since, she had been merely glad to note them.
"Clothes too, ye'll say? I don't set store by clothes, meself; but a fine han'some quean they make of ye. That's a mare, too! Cost a hundred guineas, I shouldn't wonder. . . . Well, an' how's the gentleman keepin'? Turned into a lord, you told us, in one o' your letters: that, or something o' the sort."
"Then at any rate you have read my letters?"
"Why, to be sure. My old eyes can't tackle 'em; but your mother reads 'em out, over an' over, an' I tell her what this an' that means, an' get the sense into her head somehow."
"Take me to her." Ruth signalled to the grooms, who came forward. They were well-trained servants, recent imports from England, and Sir Oliver had billeted them where they could hear no gossip of her history. They had kept their distance with faces absolutely impassive while their mistress kissed and chatted with this old man, and they merely touched their hats, with a "Very good, miss," when she gave over the mare, saying she would walk up to the cottage and rest for an hour.
"Oo-oof! the dear old smell!" Ruth, before she turned, drew in a deep breath of it. There was no one near to observe and liken her, standing there with blown tresses and wind-wrapt skirt on the edge of Ocean, to the fairest among goddesses, the Sea-born.
She walked up the beach, the old man beside her.
"Ay: you reckernise the taste of it, I dessay. But you'd not come back to it, not you. . . . It must be nigh upon dinner: my belly still keeps time like a clock. M'ria shall cook us a few clams. Snuffin' won't bring it back like clams." He chuckled, supposing he had made a joke.
Her mother had caught sight of them from the window where she sat as usual watching the sea. As they climbed the slope, picking their way along loosely-piled wreckwood, she opened the door and stood at first fastening a clean apron and then rubbing her palms up and down upon it, as though they were sweaty and she would dry them before she shook hands.
"That's so, M'ria!" the old man shouted cheerfully, as his eyes made out the patch of white apron in the doorway. "It's our Ruth, all right-- come to pay us a visit!" He bawled it, at close quarters. This was his way of conveying intelligence to the crazed brain.
Mrs. Josselin, awed by her daughter's appearance--a little perhaps, by her loveliness; more, belike, by her air of distinction and her fine dress (though this was simple enough--a riding suit of grey velvet, with a broad-brimmed hat and one black feather)--withdrew behind her back the hand she had been wiping, and stood irresolute, smiling in a timid way.
It was horrible. Ruth stretched out her arms lest in another moment her mother should bob a curtsy.
She took the poor creature in her arms and held her, shivering a little as she sought her lips; for Mrs. Josselin, albeit scrupulously clean, had a trace of that strange wild smell that haunts the insane. Ruth had lived with it aforetime and ceased to notice it. Now she recognised it, and shivered.
"Surely, surely," said the mother as soon as the embrace released her. "I always said you would come back, some day. In wealth or in trouble, I always told grandfather you would come back. . . . That hat, now--the very latest I'll be bound. . . . And how is your good gentleman?"
"Mother! Please do not call him that!"
"Why, you ha'n't quarrelled, ha' you?"
"That's right." Mrs. Josselin nodded, looking extremely wise. "Show a good face always, no matter what happens; and, with your looks there's no saying what you can't persuade him to. All the Pococks were good-looking, though I say it who shouldn't: and as for the Josselins--"
"Sit down, mother," Ruth commanded. She must get this over, and soon, for it was straining at her heart. "Sit down and listen to what I have to tell. Afterwards you shall get me something to eat; and while you are dishing it--dear mother, you were always briskest about the fireplace--we will talk in the old style."
"Surely, surely." Mrs. Josselin seated herself on the block-stool.
"You remember the promise? In three years--and yesterday the three years were up--I was to come back and report myself."
"Is it three years, now? Time do slip away!"
"The gel's right," corroborated old Josselin, pausing as he filled a pipe. "I remember it."
"This is what I have to report--Sir Oliver has asked me to marry him."
There was a pause. "I dunno," said the old man sourly--and Ruth knew that tone so well! He always used it on hearing good news, lest he should be mistaken for genial--"I dunno why you couldn' ha' told us that straight off, without beatin' round the bush. It's important enough."
"He has asked me to marry him, and I have said 'yes.'"
"What else could ye say?"
"Of course she said 'yes,' the darling!" Mrs. Josselin clapped her hands together, without noise. "What did I ever say but that 'twas a chance, if you used it? But when is it to be?" she added, suspiciously.
"Very soon. As soon as I please, in fact."
"You take my advice and pin him to it. The sooner the better--eh, darling?"
Ruth rose wearily. "I see the pot boiling," she said with a glance at the fireplace, "and I have been on horseback since seven o'clock. Mother, won't you give me food, at least? I am hungry as a hunter."
--But this was very nearly a fib. She had been hungry enough, half an hour ago. Now her throat worked in disgust--not at the hovel and its poverty; for these were dear--but at the thought that thus for three years her dearest had been thinking of her. It had been the home of infinite mutual tolerance, of some affection--an affection not patent perhaps--and for years it had been all she owned. Now it lived on, but was poisoned; the atmosphere of the humble place was poisoned, and through her.
"Food?"--her mother rose. "Food be sure, and a bed, deary: for you'll be sleeping here, of course?"
"No. I go on to Port Nassau; and thence in a few days to a lodging up in the back country."
"Such a mare as she's ridin' too!" put in the old man.
"I wouldn' put up at Port Nassau, if I was you," said her mother pausing as she made ready to lift the pot-handle. "They won't know what you've told us, and they'll cast up the old shame on you."
"M'ria ha'n't talked so sensible for days," said the old man. "Joy must ha' steadied her. . . . Clams, is it? Clams, I hope."
The meal over, Ruth took leave of them, reproaching herself for her haste, though troubled to have delayed the grooms so long.
She mounted and rode forward thoughtfully.
The grooms did not wear the Vyell white and scarlet, but a sober livery of dark blue. Between more serious thoughts Ruth wondered if any one in Port Nassau would recognise her.
The hostess of the Bowling Green did not, but came to the door and dropped curtsies to her, as to a grand lady. She startled Ruth, however, by respectfully asking her name.
Ruth, who had forgotten to provide against this, had a happy inspiration.
"I am Miss Ruth," she said.
The landlady desired to be informed how to spell it. "For," said she, "I keep a list of all the quality that honour the Bowling Green."
Ruth signed it boldly in the book presented, and ordered supper to be brought to her room; also a fire to be lit. She was given the same room in which she had knelt to pull off Oliver Vyell's boots.
Whilst supper was preparing, in a panic lest she should be recognised she tied her hair high and wound it with a rope of pearls--her lover's first gift to her. In her dress she could make little change. The waggon following in her wake would be due to-morrow with her boxes; but for to-night she must rely on the few necessaries of toilet the grooms had brought, packed in small hold-alls at their saddle bows.
Her fears proved to be idle. The meal was served by a small maid, upon whom she once or twice looked curiously. She wondered if the landlady scolded her often.
After supper she sat a long while in thought over the fire, shielding its heat from her with her hands. They were exquisite hands, but once or twice she turned them palms-uppermost, as though to make sure they bore no scars.
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