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"Hey, what is it?" the Collector demanded, slewing himself to the half-about in his chair.
The girl stepped forward into the candle-light. Over her shoulders she wore a faded plaid, the ends of which her left hand clutched and held together at her bosom.
"Your Honour's pardon for troubling," she said, and laying a gold coin on the table, drew back with a slight curtsy. "But I think you gave me this by mistake; and now is my only chance to give it back. I am going home in a few minutes."
The Collector glanced at the coin, and from that to the girl's face, on which his eyes lingered.
"Gad, I recollect!" he said. "You were the wench that pulled off my boots?"
"Well, upon my honour, I forget at this moment if I gave it by mistake or because of your face. No, hang me!" he went on, while she flushed, not angrily, but as though the words hurt her, "it must have been by mistake. I couldn't have forgot so much better a reason."
To this she answered nothing, but put forward her hand as if to push the coin nearer.
"Certainly not," said he, still with eyes on her face. "I wish you to take it. By the way, I heard the landlady's voice just now, letting loose upon somebody. Was it on you?"
"And you are going home to-night, you say. Has she turned you out?"
"Yes." The girl's hand moved as if gathering the plaid closer over her bosom. Her voice held no resentment. Her eyes were fixed upon the coin, which, however, she made no further motion to touch; and this downward glance showed at its best the lovely droop of her long eyelashes.
The Collector continued to take stock of her, and with a growing wonder.
The lower half of the face's oval was perhaps Unduly gaunt and a trifle overweighted by the broad brow. The whole body stood a thought too high for its breadth, with a hint of coltishness in the thin arms and thick elbow-joints. So judged the Collector, as he would have appraised a slave or any young female animal; while as a connoisseur he knew that these were faults pointing towards ultimate perfection, and at this stage even necessary to it.
For assurance he asked her, "How old are you?"
"That's as I guessed," said he, and added to himself, "My God, this is going to be one of the loveliest things in creation!" Still, as she bent her eyes to the coin on the table, he ran his appraising glance over her neck and shoulders, judging--so far as the ugly shawl permitted--the head's poise, the set of the coral ear, the delicate wave of hair on the neck's nape.
"Why is she turning you out?"
"A window curtain took fire. She said it was my fault."
"But it was not your fault at all!" cried Dicky. "Papa, the curtain took fire in my room, and she beat it out. The whole house might have been burnt down but for her. She beat it out, and made nothing of it, though it hurt her horribly. Look at her hands, papa!"
"Hold out your hands," his father commanded.
She stretched them out. The ointment, as she turned them palms upward, shone under the candle rays.
"Turn them the other way," he commanded, after a long look at them. The words might mean that the sight afflicted him, but his tone scarcely suggested this. She turned her hands, and he scrutinised the backs of them very deliberately. "It's a shame," said he at length.
"Of course it's a shame!" the boy agreed hotly. "Papa, won't you ring for the landlady and tell her so, and then she won't be sent away."
"My dear Dicky," his father answered, "you mistake. I was thinking that it was a shame to coarsen such hands with housework." He eyed the girl again, and she met him with a straight face--flushed a little and plainly perturbed, but not shrinking, although her bosom heaved--for his admiration was entirely cool and critical. "What is your name?" he asked.
He appeared to consider this for a moment, and then, reaching out a hand for the decanter, to dismiss the subject. "Well, pick up your guinea," he said. "No doubt the woman outside has treated you badly; but I can't intercede for you, to keep you a drudge here among the saucepans; no, upon my conscience, I can't. The fact is, Ruth Josselin, you have the makings of a beauty, and I'll be no party to spoiling 'em. What is more, it seems you have spirit, and no woman with beauty and spirit need fail to win her game in this world. That's my creed." He sipped his wine.
"If your Honour pleases," said the girl quietly, picking up the coin, "the woman called me bad names, and I was not wanting you at all to speak for me."
"Oho!" The Collector set down his glass and laughed. "So that's the way of it--'Nobody asked you, sir, she said.' Dicky, we sit rebuked."
"But--" she hesitated, and then went on rapidly in the lowest of low tones--"if your Honour wouldn't mind giving me silver instead of gold? They won't change gold for me in the town; they'll think I have stolen it. Most Sundays I'm allowed to take home broken meats to mother and grandfather, and to-night I shan't be given any, now that I'm sent away. They'll be expecting me, and indeed, sir, I can't bear to face them--or I wouldn't ask you. I beg your Honour's pardon for saying so much."
"Hullo!" exclaimed the Collector. "Why, yes, to be sure, you must be grandchild to the old man of the sea--him that I met on the beach this afternoon, t'other side of the headland. Lives in a hovel with a wood pile beside it, and a daughter that looks out for wreckage?"
"Your Honour spoke with them?" Into Ruth's face there mounted a deeper tide of colour. But whereas the first flush had been dark with distress, this second spread with a glow of affection. Her eyes seemed to take light from it, and shone.
"I spoke with the old man. Since you have said so much, I may say more. I gave him food; he was starving."
She bent her head. Her hands moved a little, with a gesture most pitiful to see. "I was afraid," she muttered, "with these gales, and no getting to the oyster beds."
"He took some food, too, to his daughter, with a bottle of wine, as I remember."
A bright tear dropped. In the candle-light Dicky saw it splash on the back of her hand, by the wrist.
"God bless your Honour!" Dicky could just hear the words.
The door opened and Manasseh entered, bearing the coffee on a silver tray.
"Manasseh," said his master, "take that guinea and bring me change for it. If you have no silver in the treasury get the landlady to change it for you."
Manasseh was affronted. His hand came near to shaking as he poured and handed the coffee.
"Yo' Hon'ah doan off'n use de metal," he answered. "Dat's sho'. But whiles an' again yo' Hon'ah condescends ter want it. Dat bein' so, I keep it by me--an' polished. I doan fetch yo' Hon'ah w'at any low trash has handled."
He withdrew, leaving this fine shaft to rankle, and by-and-by entered with a small velvet bag, from the neck of which he shook a small cascade of silver coins, all exquisitely polished.
"Count me out change for a guinea," commanded his master.
"Now empty the bag, put into it what you have counted, and sweep up the rest."
Manasseh dropped in the coins one by one, and tied the neck of the bag with its silken ribbon. The Collector took it from him and tossed it to the girl.
"Here--catch!" said he carelessly.
But her burnt hands shrank from closing on if, and it fell to the floor. She stooped, recovered it, and slipped it within her bodice. As she rose erect again her eyes rested in wonder on the black servant who with a crumb-brush was sweeping the rest of the money off the table and catching it upon the coffee-salver. The rain and clash of the coins appeared to confuse her for a moment. Then with another curtsy and a "Thank your Honour," she moved to the door.
"But wait," said the Collector sharply, on a sudden thought. "You are not meaning to walk all the way home, surely?"
"At this hour?"
"The wind has gone down. I do not mind the dark, and the distance is nothing. . . . Oh, I forgot: your Honour thinks that, with all this money, some one will try to rob me?"
The Collector smiled. "You would appear to be a very innocent young woman," he said. "I was not, as a fact, thinking of the money."
"Nobody will guess that I am carrying so much," she said simply; "so it will be quite safe."
"Nevertheless this may help to give you confidence," said he. Feeling in the breast pocket of his laced satin waistcoat, he drew forth a diminutive pistol--a delicate toy, with a pattern of silver foliated over the butt. "It is loaded," he explained, "and primed; though it cannot go off unless you pull back the trigger. At close quarters it can be pretty deadly. Do you understand firearms?"
"Grandfather has a fowling-piece," she answered; "and, now that his sight has failed, on Sundays I try to shoot sea-birds for him. He says that I have a good eye. But last week the birds had all flown inland, because of the gale."
"Then take this. It is nothing to carry, and you may feel the safer for it."
She put up a hand to decline. "Why should I need it?"
"We'll hope you will not. But do as I bid you, girl. I shall be passing back along the beach in two days' time, and will call for it."
She resisted no longer.
"I will take it," she said. "By that time I may have thought of words to thank your Honour."
She curtsied again.
"Manasseh!" Captain Vyell pointed to the door. The negro opened it and stood aside majestically as she passed out and was gone.
Let moralists perpend. Ruth Josselin had knocked at that door after a sharp struggle between conscience and crying want. The poverty known to Ruth was of the extreme kind that gnaws the entrails with hunger. It had furthermore starved her childhood of religion, and her sole code of honour came to her by instinct. Yet she had knocked at the door with no thought but that the Collector's guinea had come to her hand by mistake, and no expectancy but that the Collector would thank her and take it back. She was shy, moreover. It had cost courage.
"Honesty is the best policy." True enough, no doubt. Yet, when all is said, but for some radical instinct of honesty, untaught, brave to conquer a more than selfish need, Ruth had never brought back her guinea. And, yet again, from that action all the rest of this story flows. When we have told it, let the moralists decide.
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