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Ruth Lady Vyell stood in the empty minster beneath her husband's epitaph, and conned it, puckering her brow slightly in the effort to keep her thoughts collected.
She had not set eyes on the tablet since the day the stonemasons had fixed it in place; and that was close upon eight years ago. On the morrow, her pious duty fulfilled, she had taken post for Plymouth, there to embark for America; and the intervening years had been lived in widowhood at Eagles until the outbreak of the Revolution had forced her, early in 1775, to take shelter in Boston, and in the late fall of the year to sail back to England. For Eagles, though unravaged, had passed into the hands of the "rebels"; and Ruth, though an ardent loyalist, kept her old clearness of vision, and foresaw that King George could not beat his Colonists; that the stars in their courses fought against this stupid monarch.
This pilgrimage to Bath had been her first devoir on reaching England. She had nursed him tenderly through his last illness, as she had been in all respects an exemplary wife. Yet, standing beneath his monument, she felt herself an impostor. She could find here no true memories of the man whose look had swayed her soul, whose love she had served with rites a woman never forgets. This city of Bath did not hold the true dust of her lord and love. He had perished--though sinning against her, what mattered it?--years ago, under a fallen pillar in a street of Lisbon. Doubtless the site had been built over; it would be hard to find now, so actively had the Marquis de Pombal, Portugal's First Minister, renovated the ruined city. But whether discoverable or not, there and not here was written the last of Oliver Vyell.
Somehow in her thoughts of him on the other side of the Atlantic, in her demesne of Eagles where they had walked together as lovers, she had not separated her memories of him so sharply. Now, suddenly, with a sense of having been cheated, she saw Oliver Vyell as two separate men. The one had possessed her; she had merely married the other.
With the blank sense of having been cheated mingled a sense that she herself was the cheat. The tablet accused her of it, confronting her with words which, all too sharply, she remembered as of her own composing. "After a tedious and painful Illness, sustained with the Patience and resignation becoming to a Christian." Why to a Christian more than to another? Was it not mere manliness to bear (as, to do him justice, he had borne) ill-health with fortitude, and face dissolution with courage? How had she ever come to utter coin that rang with so false and cheap a note? She felt shame of it. The taint of its falsehood seemed to blend and become one with a general odour of humbug, sickly, infectious, insinuating itself, stealing along the darkened Gothic aisles. Since nothing is surer than death, nothing can be corrupter than mortality deceiving itself. . . . The west door of the Abbey stood open. Ruth, striving to collect her thoughts, saw the sunlight beyond it spread broad upon the city's famous piazza. Sounds, too, were wafted in through the doorway, penetrating the hush, distracting her; rumble of workday traffic, voices of vendors in distant streets; among these--asserting itself quietly, yet steadily, regularly as a beat in music--a footfall on the pavement outside. . . . She knew the footfall. She distinguished it from every other. Scores of times in the watches of the night she had lain and listened to it, hearing it in imagination only, echoed from memory, yet distinct upon the ear as the tramp of an actual foot, manly and booted; hearing it always with a sense of helplessness, as though with that certain deliberate tread marched her fate upon her, inexorably nearing. This once again--she told herself--it must be in fancy that she heard it. For how should he be in Bath?
She stepped quickly out through the porchway to assure herself. She stood there a moment, while her eyes accustomed themselves to the sunlight, and Captain Hanmer came towards her from the shadow of the colonnade by the great Pump-room. He carried his left arm in a sling, and with his right hand lifted his hat, but awkwardly.
"I had heard of your promotion," she said after they had exchanged greetings, "and of your wound, and I dare say you will let me congratulate you on both, since the same gallantry earned them. . . . But what brings you to Bath? . . . To drink the waters, I suppose, and help your convalescence."
"They have a great reputation," he answered gravely; "but I have never heard it claimed that they can extract a ball or the splinters from a shattered forearm. The surgeons did the one, and time must do the other, if it will be so kind. . . . No, I am in Bath because my mother lives here. It is my native city, in fact."
"Ah," she said, "I was wondering--"
"Wondering?" He echoed the word after a long pause. He was plainly surprised. "You knew that I was here, then?"
"Not until a moment ago, when I heard your footstep." As this appeared to surprise him still more, she added, "You have, whether you know it or not, a noticeable footstep, and I a quick ear. Shall I tell you where, unless fancy played me a trick, I last proved its quickness?"
He bent his head as sign for assent.
"It was in Boston," she said, "last June--on the evening after the fight at Bunker Hill. At midnight, rather. Before seven o'clock the hospitals were full, and they brought half a dozen poor fellows to my lodgings in Garden Court Street. Towards midnight one of them, that had lain all the afternoon under the broiling sun by the Mystic and had taken a sunstroke on top of his wound, began raving. My maid and I were alone in the house, and we agreed that he was dangerous. I told her that there was nothing to fear; that for an hour past some one had been patrolling the side-walk before the house; and I bade her go downstairs and desire him to fetch a surgeon. You were that sentinel."
Again he bent his head. "I was serving on board the Lively," he said, "in the ferry-way between you and Charlestown. I had heard of you--that you had taken lodgings in Boston, and that the temper of the mob might be uncertain. So that night I got leave ashore, on the chance of being useful. I brought the doctor, if you remember."
"But would not present yourself to claim our thanks." She looked at him shrewdly. "To-day--did you know that I was in Bath?" she asked.
He owned, "Yes; he had read of her arrival in the Gazette, among the fashionable announcements." He did not add, but she divined, that he had waited for her by the Abbey, well guessing that her steps would piously lead her thither and soon. She changed the subject in some haste.
"Your mother lives in Bath?"
"She has lived here all her life."
"Sir Oliver spent his last days here. I am sorry that I had not her acquaintance to cheer me."
"It was unlikely that you should meet. We live in the humblest of ways."
"Nevertheless it would be kind of you to make us acquainted. Indeed," she went on, "I very earnestly desire it, having a great need--since you are so hard to thank directly--to thank you through somebody for many things, and especially for helping Dicky."
He laughed grimly as he fell into step with her, or tried to--but his obstinate stride would not be corrected. "All the powers that ever were," he said, "could not hinder Dicky. He has his captaincy in sight--at his age!--and will be flying the blue before he reaches forty. Mark my words."
On their way up the ascent of Lansdowne Hill he told her much concerning Dicky--not of his success in the service, which she knew already, but of the service's inner opinion of him, which set her blood tingling. She glanced sideways once or twice at the strong, awkward man who, outpaced by the stripling, could rejoice in his promotion without one twinge of jealousy, loving him merely as one good sailor should love another. She noted him as once or twice he tried to correct his pace by hers. Her thoughts went back to the tablet in the Abbey, commemorating a husband who (if it told truth) had never been hers. She compared him, all in charity, with two who had given her an unpaid devotion. One slept at Lisbon, in the English cemetery. The other walked beside her even with such a tread as out somewhere on the dark floor of the sea he had paced his quarter-deck many a night through, pausing only to con his helm beneath the stars.
They turned aside into an unfashionable by-street, and halted before a modest door in a row. Ruth noted the railings, that they were spick-and-span as paint could make them; the dainty window-blinds. Through the passage-way, as he opened the door, came wafted from a back garden the clean odour of flowering stocks.
In the parlour to the right of the passage, a frail, small woman rose from her chair to welcome them.
"Mother," said her son, "this is Lady Vyell."
The little woman stretched out her hands, and then, before Ruth could take them, they were lifted and touched her temples softly, and she bent to their benediction.
"My son has often talked of you. May the Lord bless you my dear. May the Lord bless you both. May the Lord cause His face to shine upon you all your days!"
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