A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 10
Ruth and her Cousin.
Ruth's mother and Robert Pearson were second cousins, and about the same age, but he seemed to every one much younger than he really was. It was not altogether by chance that Matthew Watson had located where he did when he came to America. He had heard from his wife of her cousin Robert's flourishing condition. How with but a mere remnant of a wrecked fortune he had come to West Jersey, and now, in a few years, had become a substantial man of affairs. He had preceded the Watsons several years, and, fond of company and partial to his own kin, had been very urgent, when he heard of their arrival at Philadelphia, that they should take up the tract of land that was separated in part from his own by the creek. He had succeeded in carrying his point, and Matthew Watson had had no fault to find. Nothing had been misrepresented, and in every business relation Robert Pearson had been pre-eminently just and considerate, but soon a strained feeling arose that nothing could overcome. Robert was not a Friend, and had never realized what was the full purport of Quaker principles until he had met Matthew, who unfortunately represented much more than the tenets of George Fox called for. He had found beneath the plain coat and broad-brimmed hat abundant evidences of our common nature. He had found that both Quakers and Churchmen had like weaknesses, and learned too, to his surprise, that the latter were considered legitimate game of the former. There was an elasticity of conscience occasionally exhibited that at first disgusted and then amused. Matthew could do that which would benefit himself, but could not repeat it for the benefit of another. In short, Robert Pearson looked upon him as a fraud, but said nothing in public; the public looked upon him as a wonderful man and were never tired of shouting his praises.
As in all such cases, the whole truth was never quite laid bare.
As Ruth grew to womanhood, Robert had watched her career with great interest and encouraged in every way her friendship with his own daughters, who were younger than she. It was a red-letter day to him when he discovered by mere chance the interest that she had excited in John Bishop's breast; for Friend though he professed to be, John was a Quaker of a different type, and recent events had made him more and more the friend of Robert. It was the latter who had, while keeping in the background, urged the dissolution of the partnership with William Blake, and since then had aided John in purchasing a small plantation adjoining his own, a hundred acres of upland and meadow that partly laid between the Pearson and Watson tracts.
As the day was fine and the walking excellent, Ruth and Robert were in no hurry to reach the Pearson house; they strolled rather leisurely along; so deliberately, in fact, that Ruth thought there was a purpose in it, and finally said, "What is on thy mind, cousin? Thy gayety, that made the boys stare when we left the house, has all gone. Has thee repented of thy bargain already to see me to thy house? I know the way and can go unattended without risk. There are no drunken Indians lurking in the woods, I suppose." And Ruth looked archly at Robert, who still maintained a sobering silence.
"Well, cousin," Ruth again remarked, after they had gone some distance, "if thee doesn't speak soon I snail turn back."
"I was thinking, Ruth; and let me ask," said Robert at last, "was there anything serious going on when I called, or is it none of my business? I have noticed that your step-father has been very self-occupied of late, much more so than usual, and gives less attention to the affairs of the province, to every one's surprise."
"Why, don't thee know? I am offered a fortune if I will go back to England and stay there with my cousins. Uncle Timothy has done this, and I don't know whether I am glad or not. To-day, thee knows, I said I would go, but poor mother—" And Ruth did not dare go on, her voice rapidly failing her.
"I have heard something of it, as has everybody in the township, but nothing very definite, and have been waiting for particulars, without caring to ask any pointed questions. Now, do please tell me all about it, if it is no secret," urged Robert. And she gave him all the details, so far as she knew them.
"That's very strange," her cousin remarked when she finished her story. "You should insist upon seeing the letter."
"It would be of no use to insist. He may have hidden or burnt it, for all I know."
"That is not likely, and others might prevail where you could not," Robert suggested.
"Then he might blame mother and worry her still more. No, no, don't do that." And Ruth showed she was frightened at the mere suggestion.
"Then I would not go," said Robert, impatiently.
"But I have promised now to do so, and what else can I do, as he is urgent, and mother—" And here again Ruth's voice trembled too much to speak further.
"Come, come, Ruth, don't bother about it." And, quickening his steps, Robert looked about him and said, "I believe it is going to snow."
The sky was then overcast with one dull leaden cloud, and by the time they had crossed the creek and were following the winding path through the oak woods on the creek's north shore feathery flakes began to fall. Faster and faster they came, so that the air was filled with them when Ruth and her cousin reached the Pearson house.
Robert had not announced their coming, as he had proposed, and, stopping a moment at the gate before they entered the little kitchen door-yard, said, "Ruth, do not speak of this letter from England to the folks here, please, and let me think the matter over for you. There may be something behind it all you know nothing about."
"Why, cousin, what do you mean?" asked Ruth, with a puzzled look.
"I cannot explain now, but trust me. I am as much thy friend as thy step-father—"
What more Robert was about to say will never be known. While he was speaking, a jaunty titmouse clung to a drooping branch of the elm that towered above them and clearly whistled, "Sweet here! sweet here!"
"Take a hint from that little bird, Ruth. Don't you know what it says? It's 'sweet here,' and I hope you'll find it so. There are the girls now, looking out of the window. Come, let's go in."
Ruth quite forgot her cares, doubts, and general conflict of emotions when with the Pearsons. Kindly greeted by the girls' mother and smothered in kisses by the girls themselves, she made one great effort to swallow the lump that was rising in her throat and succeeded. Everywhere in the house there was sunshine, though now so gloomy out of doors, and she could have kissed the grinning slaves, Rebecca and Hagar, she was so happy. Every reasonable means of enjoyment, even to a few books, had been provided, and the Pearsons were accustomed to discuss every political feature of the province, and selected by his agent in town what little current literature drifted to Philadelphia; for Robert had always found shillings to spare when there was a book to be bought. These volumes were ever an attraction to Ruth, who had been taught to read and write by her mother, but with no other books in the house than those that treated of their religious society. "No Cross, no Crown" had been her spelling-book, and was now in use again as her brother's "reader." Matthew Watson had a mutilated copy of the Bible. It had originally been a portly volume carefully bound in leather, with elaborately tooled edges and corners and with ornate brass clasps. Besides the Old and New Testaments, there had been the order of Common Prayer, the Apocrypha, and the whole Book of Psalms, collected into English metre. All these had been cut out and destroyed, except a few pages of the rhymed version of the Psalms. These Ruth had found and most carefully concealed. To read them was one of her stolen pleasures, and from them she had received her earliest impressions of poetry, and soon began making little verses for her own amusement. In later years she had heard at Pearson's portions of Shakespeare read aloud, and when she had ventured to read a little for herself, the world seemed everywhere so full of meaning, except in her step-father's house. Here at Pearson's, too, her education had been advanced and her faculties quickened by the judiciously narrated history of her own times and those troublous ones that preceded it, told by Robert's mother, now a very aged woman with weakened body, but with mind and memory unimpaired.
It is true, her mother had made Ruth's life a most pleasant one while she was yet a child, and now the boundless love of the daughter for her mother made Ruth's life far from irksome while at home, but in spite of it all there was a constant longing for a wider outlook that could not be repressed; and the failure to discover that wickedness reputed among the "world's people," as all non-Quakers were called, had made her sceptical concerning the wisdom embodied in Fox's Journal and Barclay's Apology. "There may be less soberness, mother," Ruth had been heard to say, "but I have not yet heard indiscreet speaking. There is laughter continually, but it is like the songs of the birds to which thee loves to listen. Father is like a sturdy tree that grows in the forest; my young cousins are like the wild roses that grow beneath the windows, and, mother, did not the Lord make them both?"
Ruth's mother scarcely suppressed a faint smile and merry twinkle in her eyes when thus questioned, but her husband's step was heard, and she had but time to reply, "Thee is too young yet, Ruth, to understand these things. Be careful that thy words do not prove a wile of the adversary."
"Does thee mean thy cousin Robert is the evil one?" she whispered, and then, kissing her mother, darted away before her step-father could cast a shadow over them.
The storm was raging without, but not an intimation of it crossed the Pearson threshold. There was abundant warmth and light in the grand old kitchen, and the walls, to the outermost corners of the sitting-room, were aglow, reflecting the forked tongues of flame that leaped from the hickory logs piled upon the andirons. There had been game after game, from sunset until now, an hour after supper, when fortune-telling had been proposed, and Ruth was to personate a gypsy queen. No one could do it better. She knew the whims and fancies of the young folks present, and made all happy by her witty suggestions of each applicant's future. Then, when there was little left to be said, she remarked, "But nobody has told me mine!"
"Let me do so," suggested Robert Pearson; and, taking his stand near Ruth, said, looking at the palm of her extended hand,—
"An excellent fortune shall be thine,
But not from across the sea.
It awaits thee now, if I read the sign,
My pretty Quaker fairie."
All laughed heartily, except Ruth. Her cousin's conversation before they had entered the house recurred to her, and what could he mean by hinting of the letter now? This sobered her for a moment, and then she, too, laughed, saying, "Thank thee, Cousin Robert." As she spoke, she looked towards the door, for some one was coming in. It was John Bishop.
Coming forward, he shook hands with Ruth and said, "I trust Friend Pearson is no false prophet. What is thy view of the matter? I did not know of thy expectations from across the sea, except a vague rumor, until William Blake told me this afternoon."
"What, pray, has William been telling thee, John?" asked Ruth, not aware that John still held her hand.
"That thee is to return to England very soon, and he is to accompany thee. He did not know the latter part of these strange tidings himself until thy brothers told him. It seems they overheard thy parents talking of the matter, and Friend Watson is desirous that William should sell his share of the boat to him, or let him act as his agent, and return to England with thee."
This sudden breaking of the news in the Pearson household caused all present to gather about Ruth and John, and there was naturally a babel of questioning and expressions of disapproval and regret. Ruth stood the ordeal wonderfully well, but John was much chagrined to find that he had unwittingly published what was in some measure a secret. But he did not deserve the blame he put upon himself. He had not been cautioned in any way, and then had not Robert referred to it in the fortune-telling? Besides, how was he, still a young man, and desperately in love, to keep wakeful guard forever on his tongue? He had called this very night to say a word or give a look that Ruth might interpret, for he had seen her pass near his shop that day on her way to Pearson's, and he knew she had not returned.
Robert Pearson looked troubled for the time, and then said, rather loudly, to show that he meant it for all, "When we see a great smoke there is likely to be some fire at the base of it, and so with Ruth. An old uncle has left her something, but all tied up in conditions, and so perhaps not worth going after. I for one won't let her go after it, if I can help it, when there's many a stout lad in the province that would only be too glad to lay all he had at her feet."
"Cousin, cousin!" cried Ruth, her face red as a rose; and, putting her hands to her ears, she ran out of the room.
The young people ran after her, and Robert, turning to John, touched him upon the arm and said, "Let's go into the kitchen and smoke our pipes. I want to say a word about this matter." And seated there, in comfortable chairs, Robert told John all that he knew of Ruth's affairs, and added, "I believe it is an ugly business and should be thwarted." Then, after a pause, for John could make no reply, so confusing were his thoughts, Robert said, "Have you spoken to Ruth?"
"Why, about yourself." And Robert laughed heartily. "Man alive! everybody knows you are in love, and I for one am glad to know it. Why else did you talk to Bunting's old hound in that queer way some time ago? You didn't know, of course, there was an eavesdropper about, but there was. Well, speak to her your very first chance, for I'm sure she likes you, and then it will give her a chance to punish you for interfering with her bathing." And Robert laughed again.
"I will be guided by your advice, Friend Pearson," replied John, and might have said more, but was interrupted by Robert's remark,—
"Please call me by my name. I have seen just a little too much of this 'Friend this' and 'Friend that' to altogether like it."
"But I am a Friend," John replied, with a broad smile lighting his pleasant face.
"Yes, but of another sort."
"Good-night, father; good-night, Neighbor Bishop," was heard from the head of the stairs. "Ruth's going to bed, and so are we. Good-night."
So John saw no more of Ruth; but when, an hour later, he went out into the storm, it was with so many pleasant thoughts, that he scarcely noticed that it was still storming.