Chapter 32




THE BRIDEGROOM.


Mr. Trask had not concluded the bargain for his winter fodder. Just a week later he rode over from Port Nassau, to clinch it, and had almost reached the foot of the descent to the river meadows when a better mounted rider overtook him.

"Ah!" said the stranger, checking his horse's stride as he passed. "Good-morning, Mr. Trask! But possibly you do not remember me?"

"I remember you perfectly," answered Mr. Trask. "You are Sir Oliver Vyell."

"Whom, once on a time, you sentenced to the stocks. You recall our last conversation? Well, I bear you no malice; and, to prove it, will ask leave to ride to the ferry with you. You will oblige me? I like companionship, and my one fellow-traveller--a poor horseman--I have left some way behind on the road."

"I have no wish to ride with you, Sir Oliver," said Mr. Trask stiffly. "Forbye that I consider ye a son of Belial, I have a particular quarrel with you. At the time you condescend to mention, I took it upon me to give you some honest advice--not wholly for your own sake. You flouted it, and 'that's nothing to me' you'll say; but every step we take worsens that very sin against which I warned ye, and therefore I want none of your company."

"Honest Mr. Trask," Sir Oliver answered with a laugh. "I put it to you that, having fallen in together thus agreeably, we shall make ourselves but a pair of fools if one rides ahead of the other in dudgeon. Add to this that the ferry-man, spying us, will wait to tide us over together; and add also, if you will, that I have the better mount and it lies in my will that you shall neither lag behind nor outstrip me. Moreover, you are mistaken."

"I am not mistaken. This day week I met Ruth Josselin and had speech with her."

"Satisfactory, I hope?"

"It was not satisfactory; and if I must ride with you, Sir Oliver, you'll understand it to be under protest. You are a lewd man. You have taken this child--"

Here Mr. Trask choked upon speech. Recovering, he said the most unexpected thing in the world.

"I am not as a rule a judge of good looks; and no doubt 'tis unreason in me to pity her the more for her comeliness. But as a matter of fact I do."

Sir Oliver stared at him. "You to pity her! You to plead her beauty to me, who took it out of the mud where you had flung her, mauled by you and left to lie like a bloody clout!"

But the armour of Mr. Trask's self-righteousness was not pierced. "I sentenced her," he replied calmly, "for her soul's welfare. Who said--what right have you to assume--that she would have been left to lie there? Rather, did I not promise you in the market-square that, her chastening over, my cart should fetch her? Did I not keep my word? And could you not read in the action some earnest that the girl would be looked after? Your atheism, sir, makes you dull in spiritual understanding."

"I am glad that it does, sir."

"If your passion for Ruth Josselin held an ounce of honesty, you would not be glad; for even in this world you have ruined her."

"Mr. Trask, I have not."

Mr. Trask glanced at him quickly.

"--Upon my honour as a gentleman I have not, neither do I desire it . . . Sir, twice in this half-mile you have prompted me to ask, What, here on this meadow, prevents my killing you? Wait; I know your answer. You are a courageous man and would say that as a magistrate you have schooled yourself to accept risks and to despise threats. Yes," Sir Oliver admitted with a laugh, "you are an infernally hard nut to crack, and somehow I cannot help liking you for it. Are you spending the night yonder, by-the-bye?" He nodded towards the village.

"No, sir. I propose returning this evening to Port Nassau."

"Then it is idle to invite you to my wedding. I am to be married at nine o'clock to-morrow."

Mr. Trask eyed him for a moment or two. Then his gaze wandered ahead to the river, where already the ferrymen had caught sight of them and were pushing the horse-boat across with long sweeps; and beyond the river to a small wooden-spired church, roofed with mossy shingles that even at this distance showed green in the slant sunlight.

"Yonder?" he asked.

"Ay: you would have been welcome."

"I will attend," said Mr. Trask. "A friend of mine--a farmer--will lodge me for the night. A hospitable man, who has made the offer a score of times. After so many refusals I am glad of an excuse for accepting."

"I stipulate that you keep the excuse a secret from him. It is to be quite private. That," said Sir Oliver, turning in saddle for a look behind him, "is one of my reasons for outriding my fellow-traveller."

"The clergyman?"

"Ay . . . To-morrow, maybe, you'll admit to having misjudged us."

"Maybe," Mr. Trask conceded. "I shall at any rate thank God, provisionally. He is merciful. But I have difficulty in believing that any good can come of it."




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