Chapter 31




NESTING.


She spent a week in Port Nassau, recognised by none. She walked its streets, her features half hidden by a veil; and among the Port Nassauers she passed for an English lady of quality who, by one of those freaks from which the wealthy suffer, designed to rent or build herself a house in the neighbourhood. Her accent by this time was English; by unconscious preference she had learnt it from her lover, translating and adapting it to her own musical tones. It deceived the Port Nassauers completely.

She visited many stores, always with a manservant in attendance; and, always paying down ready-money, bought of the best the little town could afford (but chiefly small articles of furniture, with some salted provisions and luxuries such as well-to-do skippers took to sea for their private tables). The waggon had arrived; it, too, contained a quantity of wine and provisions, camp furniture, clothes, etc.

At the end of the week she left Port Nassau with her purchases, the two men escorting her, the laden waggon following. They climbed the hill above the town, and struck inland from the base of the peninsula, travelling north and by west. The road--a passably good one--led them across a dip of cultivated land, shaped like a saddle-back, with a line of forest trees topping its farther ridge. This was the fringe of a considerable forest, and beyond the ridge they rode for miles in the shade of boughs, slanting their way along a gentle declivity, with here and there glimpses of a broad plain below, and of a broad-banded river winding through it with many loops.

But these glimpses were rare, and a stranger could not guess the extent of the plain until, stepping from the forest into broad day, he found himself on the very skirts of it.

An ample plain it was; a grass ground of many thousand acres, where fifty years ago the Indians had pastured, but where now the farmers laboriously saved their hay when the floods allowed, and in spring launched their punts and went duck-shooting with long guns and wading-boots. For in winter one sheet of water--or of ice, as it might happen--covered the meadows and made the great river one with the many brooks that threaded their way to her. But at this season they ran low between their banks and the eye easily traced their meanderings, while the main stream itself rolled its waters in full view--in places three hundred yards wide, and seldom narrower than one hundred. Dwarf willows fringed it: at some distance back from the shore, alders and reddening maples dotted the meadows, with oaks here and there, and everywhere wild cranberry bushes in great moss-like hummocks.

It ran sluggishly, and always--however long the curve--up to its near or right bank the plain lay flat, or broken only by these hummocks. But from the farther shore the ground rose at a moderate slope, and here were farmhouses and haystacks planted above reach of the waters. A high ridge of forest backed this inhabited terrace, and dense forest filled the eastward gap through which the river passed down to these levels from the cleft hills.

At one point on the farther shore the houses had drawn together in a cluster, and towards this the road ran in a straight line on the raised causeway that had suffered much erosion from bygone floods. It cost the travellers an hour to reach the river-bank, where a ferry plied to and from the village. It was a horse-boat, but not capable of conveying the waggon, the contents of which must be unladen and shipped across in parcels, to be repacked in a cart that stood ready on the village quay. Leaving her men to handle this, Ruth crossed alone with her mare and rode on, as the ferryman directed her, past the village towards her lodging, some two miles up the stream. The house stood beside a more ancient ferry, now disused, to which it had formerly served as a tavern. It rested on stout oaken piles driven deep into the river-mud; a notable building, with a roof like the inverted hull of a galleon, pierced with dormer windows and topped by a rusty vane. Its tenants were a childless couple--a Mr. and Mrs. Strongtharm: he a taciturn man of fifty, a born naturalist and great shooter of wildfowl; she a douce woman, with eyes like beads of jet, and an incurable propensity for mothering and spoiling her neighbours' children.

The couple received her kindly, asking few questions. Their dwelling was by many sizes too large for them, and she might have taken her choice among a dozen of the old guest-chambers. But Sir Oliver had come and gone a month before and selected the best for her. Its roof-timbers, shaped like the ribs of a ship, curved outwards and downwards from a veritable keelson; and it was reached by way of a zig-zagging corridor, lit by port-holes, and adorned in every niche and corner with cases of stuffed wildfowl. Ruth supped well on game Mr. Strongtharm's gun had provided, and slept soundly, lulled between her dreams by the ripple of water swirling between the piles that supported, far below her, the house's cellarage.

She awoke at daybreak to the humming of wind; and looked forth on a leaden sky, on the river ruffled and clapping in small waves against a shrill north-easter, and on countless birds in flocks rising from the meadows and balancing their wings against it. Before breakfast-time the weather had turned to heavy rain. But this mattered nothing; she had a day's work indoors before her.

She spent the morning in unpacking the stores, which had arrived late overnight from the ferry, and in putting a hundred small touches to her bedroom and sitting-room, to make them more habitable. By noon she had finished the unpacking, and dismissed the two grooms to make their way back to Boston and report that all was well with her. It rained until three in the afternoon; and then, the weather clearing, she saddled Madcap with her own hands and rode to the edge of the forest. Little light remained when she reached its outskirts, and she peered curiously between the dim boles for a few minutes before turning for her homeward ride. She had brought a beautiful scheme in her head, and the forest was concerned in it; but for the moment, in this twilight, the forest daunted her. She had--for she differed from most maidens--left her lover to arrange all the business of the marriage ceremony, stipulating only that it must be private. But she had at the same time bound him by a lover's oath that all details of the honeymoon must be left to her; that he should neither know where and how it was to be spent, nor seek to enquire. She would meet him at the church porch in the village below--in what garb, even, she would not promise; and after the ceremony he must be ready to ride away with her--she would not promise whither.

Her project had been to build a camp far in the woods; and to this end she had made her many purchases in Port Nassau. They included, besides an array of provisions and cooking-pots, a hunter's tent such as the backwoodsmen used in their expeditions after beaver and moose. It weighed many pounds, and a part of her problem was how to convey it to any depth of the forest unaided.

The easterly gale blew itself out. The next morning broke with rifts of blue, and steadied itself, after two hours, to clear sunshine. She awoke in blithe spirits, and after breakfast went off without waste of time to saddle Madcap. By the stable door she found Mr. Strongtharm seated and polishing his gun, and paused to catechise him on the forest tracks, particularly on those leading up through Soldier's Gap--by which name he called the gorge at the head of the plain.

"The best track beyond, you'll find, lies pretty close 'longside the river," he said. "But 'tis no road for the mare. I doubt if a mule could manage it after the third mile. The river, you see, comes through in a monstrous hurry--by the look of it here you'd never guess. No, indeed, 'tisn't a river at all, properly speakin', but a whole heap o' streams tumblin' down this-a-way, that-a-way, out o' the side valleys; and what you may call the main river don't run in one body, but breaks itself up considerable over waterfalls. Rock for the most part, an' pretty steep, with splashy ground below the falls. I han't been right up the Gap these dozen years; an' a man's job it is at the best--a two days' journey. The las' time I slept the night, goin' an' comin', in Peter Vanders' lodge."

"A lodge?"

"That's what they call it. He was a trapper, and a famous one, but before my time; an' that was his headquarters--a sort o' cabin, pretty stout, just by the head in the sixth fall, or maybe 'tis the seventh-- I forget. He lived up there without wife or family--" Mr. Strongtharm would have launched into further particulars about the dead trapper, whose skill and strange habits had passed into a legend in the valley. But Ruth wished to hear more of the cabin.

"It's standin', no doubt, to this day. Vanders was a Dutchman, an' Dutchmen build strong by nature. The man who built this yer house was a Dutchman, an' look at the piles of it--an the ribs you may ha' noticed. Ay, the lodge will be there yet; but you'll never find it, not unless I takes ye. That fourth fall is a teaser."

Ruth saddled her mare, and rode off in the direction of the gap, thoughtfully. Mr. Strongtharm had given her a new notion. . . .

It was close upon nightfall when she returned. She was muddy, but cheerful; and she hummed a song to herself in her chamber as she slid off her mired garments and attired herself for supper.

That song was her nesting song. Away Boston-wards, her lover, too, was building in his magnificent fashion; but Ruth had found a secret place, such as birds love, and shyly, stealthily as a mating bird, she set about planning and furnishing. It is woman's instinct. . . . Every day, as soon as breakfast was done, she saddled and rode towards the Gap, and always with a parcel or two dangling from the saddle-bow or strapped upon Madcap's back.

For the first time in her life she had money to handle; money furnished by Sir Oliver to be spent at her own disposal on the honeymoon. It seemed to her a prodigious sum, but she was none the less economical with it. I fear that sometimes she opened the bags and gloated over the coins as over a hoard. She was neither miser nor spendthrift; but unlike many girls brought up in poverty, she brought good husbandry to good fortune.

Yet "shopping"--to enter a store and choose among the goods for sale, having money to pay, but weighing quality and price--was undeniably pleasant. Twice or thrice, bethinking her of some trifle overlooked at Port Nassau, she enjoyed visiting the village store--it boasted but one--and dallying with a purchase.

She was riding back from one of these visits--it had been (if the Muse will smile and condescend) to buy a packet of hairpins--when, half-way up the village street, she spied a horseman approaching. An instant later she recognised Mr. Trask.

There was really nothing strange in her meeting him here. Mr. Trask owned a herd of bullocks, and had ridden over from Port Nassau to bargain for their winter fodder. He had not aged a day. His horse was a tall grey, large-jointed, and ugly.

Ruth wore a veil, but it was wreathed just now above the brim of her hat. Her first impulse was to draw it over her face, and her hand went up; but she desisted in pride, and rode by her old enemy with a calm face.

They passed one another, and she believed that he had not recognised her; but after a few paces she heard him check his horse.

"Hi, madam!"

She halted, and he came slowly back.

"You are Ruth Josselin," he said.

"I am, sir."

"And what are you doing here?"

She smiled at him a little scornfully. "Do you ask as a magistrate, sir, or in curiosity?"

He frowned, narrowing his eyes. "You are marvellously changed. You appear prosperous. Has Vyell married you yet?"

"No, sir."

"Nor as yet cast you off, it would seem."

"No, sir."

"Ah, well, go your ways. You are a beautiful thing, but evil; and I would have saved ye from it. I whipped ye, remember."

Her face burned, but she held her eyes steady on him. "Mr. Trask," she said, "do you believe in hell?"

"Eh?" He was taken aback, but he could not frown away the question; for she asked it with a certain authority, albeit very courteously. "Eh? To be sure I do."

"I am going to prove to you (and some day you may take comfort from it) that, except on earth, there is no such place."

"Ye'd like to believe that, I daresay!"

"For you see," she went on, letting the sneer pass, "it is agreed that, if there be a hell, none but the wicked go there."

"Well?"

"Why, then, hell must defeat itself. For, where all are wicked together, no punishment can degrade, because no shame is felt."

"There's the pain, madam." He eyed her, and barked it in a short, savage laugh. "The torment--the worm that dies not, the fire that's not quenched. Won't these content ye, bating the shame?"

Her eyes answered his in scorn. "No, sir. Because I once suffered your cruelty, you have less understanding than I; but you have more ingenuity than the Almighty, being able, in your district, to make a hell of earth."

"You blaspheme thus to me, that honestly tried to save your soul?"

"Did you? . . . Well, perhaps you did in your fashion, and you may take this comfort for reward. Believe me, who have tried, hell is bottomless, but in its own way. Should ever you attain to it--and there may in another world be such a place for the cruel--go down boldly; and it may be you will drop through into bliss."

"You, to talk of another world!" he snapped.

"And why not, Mr. Trask? Once upon a time you killed me."

He turned his grey horse impatiently. "I whipped ye," was his parting shot. "If 'twarn't too late, I'd take pleasure to whip ye again!"




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