Chapter 38




SIR OLIVER SAILS.


Mr. Langton was right. Theologians, preaching mysteries, are helpless before the logical mind until they abandon defence and boldly attack their opponents' capital incapacity, saying, "Precisely because you insist upon daylight, you miss discovering the stars." The battle is a secular one, and that sentence contains the reason, too, why it will never be ended in this world. But the theologians may strengthen their conviction, if not their argument, by noting how often the more delicate shades of human feeling will oppose themselves to the logical mind as a mere wall of blindness.

Oliver Vyell loved his bride as passionately as his nature, hardened by his past, allowed him. To the women who envied her, to the gossips and backbiters, he opposed a nescience inexpugnable, unscalable as a wall of polished stone: but the mischief was, he equally ignored her sensitiveness.

Being sensitive, she understood the hostile shadows better than the hard protecting fence. To noble natures enemies are often nearer than friends, and more easily forgiven.

But Mr. Langton was also right in guessing her ignorant of the rumours set going by Silk, who, as yet, had whispered falsehoods only. The worst rumour of all--the truth--was beyond his courage.

Ruth loved her lord devoutly. To love him was so easy that it seemed no repayment of her infinite debt. She desired some harder task; and therefore, since he laid this upon her, she--who would have chosen a solitude to be happy in--rejoiced to meet these envious ladies with smiles, with a hundred small graces of hospitality; and still her bliss swallowed up their rancour, scarcely tasting its gall. He (they allowed) was the very pattern of a lover.

He was also a model man of business. Even from his most flagrant extravagances, as Batty Langton notes in another epistle, he usually contrived to get back something like his money's worth. He would lend money, or give it, where he chose: but to the man who overreached him in a money bargain he could be implacable. Moreover, though a hater of quarrels, he never neglected an enmity he had once taken up, but treated it with no less exactitude than a business account.

Their happiness had endured a little more than three months when, one morning, he entered Ruth's morning-room with a packet of letters in his hand. He was frowning, not so much in wrath, as in distaste of what he had to tell.

"Dear," he said brusquely, bending to kiss her, "I have ill news. I must go back to England, on business."

"To England ?" she echoed. Her wrists were laid along the arms of her chair, and, as she spoke, her fingers clutched sharply at the padding. She was not conscious of it. She was aware only that somehow, at the back of her happiness this shadow had always lurked; and that England lay across the seas, at an immense distance. . . .

He went on--his tone moody, but the words brief and distinct. "For a few months, only; five or six, perhaps; with any luck, even less. That infernal aunt of mine--"

"Lady Caroline ?" She asked it less out of curiosity than as a prompter gives a cue; for he had come to a full stop. She was wondering how Lady Caroline could injure him, being so far away. . . .

He laughed savagely, yet--having broken his news, or the worst of it--with something of relief. "She shall smart for it--if that console you?"

"Is it on my account?"

"Only, as I guess, in so far as she accuses you of having played the devil with her plan for marrying me up with my cousin Di'? If Di' had been the last woman in the world. . . . But the old harridan never spoke to me after the grooming I gave her that morning at Natchett. 'Faith, and I did treat her to some plain talk!" he wound up with another laugh.

"But what harm can she do you?"

He explained that his late uncle Sir Thomas had, in the closing years of his life, shown unmistakable signs of brain-softening, and that a symptom of his complaint had been his addiction to making a number of wills--"two-thirds of 'em incoherent. Every two or three days he'd compose a new one and send for Huskisson, his lawyer; and Huskisson, after reading the rigmarole through, as solemn as a judge, would get it solemnly witnessed and carry it off. He had three boxes full of these lunacies when the old man died, and I'll wager he has not destroyed 'em. Lawyers never destroy handwriting, however foolish. It's against their principles."

"But," said Ruth, musing. "I understood that he died of a jail fever, caught at the Assizes, where he was serving on--what do you call it?"

"The Grand Jury."

"Well, how could he be serving on a Grand Jury if his head was affected as you say?"

"You don't know England," he assured her. "Ten to one as a County magnate he stickled for it, and the High Sheriff put him on the panel to keep him amused."

"But a Grand Jury deals sometimes with matters of life and death, does it not?"

"Often, but only in the first instance. It finds a true bill usually, and sends the cause down to be tried by judge and jury, who dispose of it. Actually the incompetence of a grand juror or two doesn't count, if the scandal be not too glaring. . . . But I see your drift. It will be a point for the other side, no matter how lunatic the document, that after perpetrating it he was still thought capable by the High Sheriff of his county."

"I do not know that the point struck me. I was wondering--" Here she broke off. The thought, in fact, uppermost in her mind was that he had not suggested her voyaging to England with him.

"It is a point, anyway," he persisted. "But it won't stand against Huskisson's documentary proof of lunacy. . . . You see, the greater part of the property was entailed, and the poor old fool couldn't touch it. But there's an unentailed estate in Devonshire--Downton by name--worth about two thousand a year. By a will made in '41, when his mind was admittedly sound, he left it to me with a charge upon it of five hundred for Lady Caroline. By a second, made three years later and duly witnessed, he left her Downton for her life; and with that I chose not to quarrel, though I could have brought evidence that he was unfit to make any will. I agreed with the infernal woman to let things stand on that. But now, being at daggers drawn with me, she digs up (if you please) a will made in '46 and apparently sane in wording, by which, without any provision for the heir-at-law, the whole bagful, real and personal, goes to her, to be used by her and willed away, as she pleases; this, although she well knows I can prove Sir Thomas to have been a blethering idiot at the time."

"Is it worth while?"

"Worth while?" he echoed, as if doubtful that she had understood. "The woman is doing it out of spite, of course. Very likely she is fool enough to think that, fixed here with the Atlantic between us, I shall give her the double gratification of annoying me and letting her win by default."

"It is a large sum," she mused.

"Of course it is," he agreed sharply. "An estate yielding two thousand pounds interest. You would not suggest my letting it go, I should hope!"

"Certainly not, if you cannot afford it."

"If it were a twentieth part of the sum, I'd not be jockeyed out of it." He laughed harshly. "As men go, I am well-to-do: but, dear, has it never occurred to you to wonder what this place and its household cost me?"

She answered with a small wry smile. "Often it has occurred to me. Often I tell myself that I am wicked to accept, as you are foolish perhaps to give, all this luxury."

"You adorn it. . . . Dear, do not misunderstand me. All the offering I can bring is too little for my love."

"I know," she murmured, looking up at him with moist eyes. "I know; and yet--"

"I meant only that you are not used to handling money or calculating it--as why should you be?"

"If my lord will only try me!"

"Hey?"

"Of what use is a wife if she may not contrive for her husband's good--take thought for his household? Ah, my dear, these cares are half a woman's happiness! . . . I might make mistakes. Nay, 'tis certain. I would the house were smaller: in a sense I would that your wealth were smaller--it would frighten me less. But something tells me that, though frightened, I should not fail you."

He stared down at her, pulling his lip moodily. "I was thinking," said he, "to ask Langton to be my steward. Would you really choose to be cumbered with all this business?"

She held her breath for a moment; for his question meant that he had no design to take her with him. Her face paled a little, but she answered steadily.

"It will at least fill my empty hours. . . . Better, dear--it will keep you before me in all the day's duties; since, though I miss you, all day long I shall be learning to be a good wife."

As she said it her hand went up to her side beneath her left breast, as something fluttered there, soft as a bird's wing stirring. It fluttered for a moment under her palm, then ceased. The room had grown strangely still. . . . Yet he was speaking.

He was saying--"I'll teach these good people who's Head of the Family!"

Ah, yes--"the Family!" Should she tell him? . . . She bethought her of Mrs. Harry's sudden giddiness in the waggon. Mrs. Harry was now the mother of a lusty boy--Sir Oliver's heir, and the Family's prospective Head. . . . Should she tell him? . . .

He stooped and kissed her. "Love, you are pale. I have broken this news too roughly."

She faltered. "When must you start?"

"In three days. That's as soon as the Maryland can take in the rest of her cargo and clear the customs."

"They will be busy days for you."

"Desperately."

"Yet you must spare me a part of one, and teach me to keep accounts," said she, and smiled bravely albeit her face was wan.




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