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RUTH'S WEDDING DAY.
She had left it all to him, receiving his instructions by letter. It was to be quite private, as he had told Mr. Trask. She would ride down to the village in her customary grey habit, as though on an early errand of shopping. He would lodge overnight at the Ferry Inn, and be awaiting her by the chancel step. Afterwards--ah, that was her secret! In this, their first stage in married life, he had promised--reversing the marriage vow--to obey.
Happiness bubbled within her like a spring; overshadowed by a little awe, but not to be held down. Almost at the last moment she must take Mrs. Strongtharm into her confidence. She could not help it.
"Granny," she whispered. (They were great friends.) "I am to be married to-morrow."
"Sakes!" exclaimed Mrs. Strongtharm, peering at her, misdoubting that she jested.
But Ruth's face told its own tale. "May I?" asked the elder woman, and her arm went about the girl's waist. "God bless ye, dear, and send ye a long family! Who's the gentleman? Not him as came an' took the rooms for ye? He said you was a near relation o' his. . . . Well, never mind! The trick's as old as Abram."
"Be down at the church at nine to-morrow, and you shall see him, whoever he is. But it is a secret, and you are not to tell Mr. Strongtharm."
"Oh!" said Mrs. Strongtharm. "Him!"
"But you ought to make some difference," whispered the good woman next morning, after breakfast, as she was preparing to slip away to the village. "Be it but a flower in your bodice. But we've no garden, and the season's late."
Ruth took her kiss of benediction. She was scarcely listening; but the words by a strange trick repeated themselves on her brain a few minutes later, upstairs, as she went about her last preparations.
She leaned out at the lattice over the river. A lusty creeper, rooted in terra firma at the back of the house, had pushed its embrace over west side and front. The leaves, green the summer through, were now turned to a vivid flame-colour. She plucked three or four and pinned them over her bosom, glanced at the effect in the mirror, and went quickly down the stairs.
Fairer day could hardly have been chosen. "Happy is the bride the sun shines on." ... In the sunshine by the stable door Mr. Strongtharm sat polishing his gun. She asked him what sport he would be after to-day.
He answered, "None. I don't reckon 'pon luck, fishing, after a body's mentioned rabbits; and I don't go gunning if I've seen a parson. A new parson, I mean. Th' old Minister's all in the day's work."
"You have seen a strange clergyman to-day?"
"Yes; as I pulled home past the Ferry. I'd been down-stream early, tryin' for eels. On my way back I saw him--over my left shoulder too. He was comin' out o' the Inn by the waterside door, wipin' his mouth: a loose-featured man, with one shoulder higher than t'other, and a hard drinker by his looks."
Ruth saddled-up and mounted in silence. Fatally she recognised the old fellow's description; but--was it possible her lover had brought this man to marry them?--this man, whose touch was defilement, to join their hands? If the precisians of Port Nassau had made religion her tragedy, this man had come in, by an after-blow, to turn it into a blasphemous farce. If Ruth had lost Faith, she yet desired good thoughts, to have everything about her pure and holy--and on this day, of all days!
Surely Oliver--she had taught herself to call him Oliver--would never misunderstand her so! Why, it was a misunderstanding that went down, down, almost to the roots. Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder . . . but here was cleavage, and from within. Say rather of such sundering. What man could remedy it? Those whom God hath joined together--ah, by such hands!
It was not possible! In all things her lover had shown himself considerate, tender; guessing, preventing her smallest wish. As she rode she sought back once more to the wellspring of love. Had he not stooped to her as a god, lifted her from the mire? It was not possible.
Yet, as she rode, the unconquerable common sense within her kept whispering that this thing was possible. . . . It darkened the sunlight. She rode as one who, having sung carelessly for miles, surmises a dreadful leap close ahead. Still she rode on, less and less sure of herself, and came to the church porch, and alighted.
The church was a plain oblong building, homely within to the last degree. The pews were of pitch-pine, the walls and rafters coated with white-wash, some of which had peeled off and lay strewing the floor. A smell of oil filled the air; it was sweet and sickly, and came from the oozings of half a dozen untended lamps. Ornament the place had none, save a decent damask cloth on the Communion table.
Oliver Vyell stood by the chancel rail. The rest of the congregation comprised Mr. Trask, seated stiff and solitary in the largest pew, Mrs. Strongtharm, and half a score of children whom Mrs. Strongtharm had collected on the way and against her will. They followed her by habit, after goodies; but just now, though they sat quiet, her reputation was suffering from a transient distrust. (Allurements to piety rarely fell in the path of a New England child; but even he was child enough to suspect them when they occurred.) At the sound of the mare's footsteps they turned their heads, one and all. Mr. Silk, clad in white surplice and nervously turning the pages of the Office by the holy table, faced about also.
Ruth was seen alighting, out there in the sunlight. She hitched the mare's bridle over a staple and came lightly stepping through the shadow of the porchway. Her lover walked down the aisle to meet her. He, too, stepped briskly, courteously.
Three paces within the doorway she came to a halt. The sunlight fell on her again, through the first of the southern windows. It flamed on the leaves pinned to her bosom.
He offered his arm. But she, that had come stepping like a wild fawn, like a fawn stood at gaze, terrified, staring past him at the figure by the table. Mr. Silk commanded an oily smile and, book in hand, advanced to the chancel step.
"Ah, no!" she murmured. "It is wicked--"
She cast her eyes around, as though for help. They did not turn--it was pitifullest of all--to him who was about to swear to help her throughout life. They turned and encountered Mr. Trask's.
With a sob, as Sir Oliver would have taken her arm, she threw it up, broke from him, and fled back through the porchway. As she drew back that one pace before fleeing, the sun fell full again on that breast-knot of scarlet leaves.
He stared after her dumbfoundered, still doubting her intent. He saw her catch at the mare's bridle, and, with a bitter curse, ran forward. But he was too late. She had mounted, and was away.
He heard the mare's hoofs clattering up the street. His own horse was stabled at the Ferry Inn. It would cost him ten minutes at least to mount and pursue. . . .
"I said 'provisionally.'" It was Mr. Trask's voice, speaking at his elbow. "Nay, man, don't strike me; since you meant business, 'tis yourself you should strike for a fool. You were a fool to invite me; but she was scared before ever she caught sight of me--by that buck-parson of yours, I guess."
He had fetched Bayard, had mounted, and was after her. He pulled rein at her lodgings. Yes, Mr. Strongtharm had seen her go by. The old fellow did not guess what was amiss; as how should he? "It's cruel for the mare's hoofs," he commented, "forcing her that pace on the hard road. She rides well, s' far as ridin' goes; but the best womankind on horseback has neither bowels nor understandin'."
He pointed towards Soldiers' Gap. "She rides there most days," he said; "but it can't be far. There's no Christian road for a horse, once you're past the second fall."
Oliver Vyell struck spur and followed. Already he had the decency to curse himself, but not yet could he understand his transgressing.
"Your atheism"--Mr. Trask had said it--"makes you dull in spiritual understanding."
Sceptics are of two orders, and religious disputants gain a potential advantage, but miss truth, by confusing them. Oliver Vyell was dull, and his dullness had betrayed him, precisely because his reason was so lucid and logical that it shut out those half-tones in which abide all men's, all women's, tenderest feelings. He knew that Ruth had no more faith than he in Christian dogma; no faith at all in what a minister's intervention could do to sanctify marriage. He had inferred that she must consider the tying of the knot by Mr. Silk, if not as a fair jest, at least as a gentle mockery, the humour of which he and she would afterwards taste together. Why had she not pleaded against rite of any kind? . . . Besides, the dog had once insulted her with a proposal. Sir Oliver never allowed Mr. Silk to guess that he had surprised his secret; and Mr. Silk, tortuous himself in all ways, could not begin to be on terms with a candid soul such as Ruth's, craving in all things to be open where it loves. Sir Oliver had supposed it a pretty lesson to put on a calm, negligent face, and command the parson, who dared not disobey, to perform the ceremony. Mr. Silk had cringed.
Likewise, when inviting Mr. Trask to the nuptials, he had looked on him but as a witness to his triumph. The very man who had sentenced her to degradation--was there not dramatic triumph in summoning him to behold her exalted?
For behind all this reasoning, of course, and below all his real passion for her, lay the poisonous, proud, Whig sense of superiority, the conviction that, desirable though she was, his choice exalted her. Would not ten thousand women--would not a hundred thousand--have counted it heaven to stand in her place?
Yet she had earnestly begged off the rite which to every one of these women would have meant everything. This puzzled him.
On second thoughts the puzzle had dissolved. She accepted his negations, and, woman-like, improved on them. The marriage service was humbug; therefore she had willed to have none of it. The attitude was touching. It might have been convenient, had he been less in love.
But he was deeply in love, so deeply that in good earnest he longed to lift and set her above all women. For this, nonsensical though they were, due rites must be observed.
At the last pinch she had broken away. Was it possible, then, that after all she did not love him? She had crossed her arms once and called herself his slave. . . .
Not for one moment did he understand that other scepticism which, forced out of faith, clasps and clings to reverence; which, though it count the rite inefficient, yet sees the meaning, and counts the moment so holy that to contaminate the rite is to poison all.
Not as yet did he understand one whit of this. But he vehemently desired her, and his desire was straight. Because it was straight, while he rode some inkling of the truth pierced him.
For, as he rode, he recalled how she had cast up an arm and turned to flee. His eyes had rested confusedly on the breast-knot of scarlet leaves, and it seemed to him, as he rode, that he had seen her heart beating there through her ribs.
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