A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 11
The New Year.
As the older people of the Crosswicks Valley found, and the younger element, in later years, too discovered, the nominally long winter drew all too rapidly to a close. Everywhere there was a hint of the coming spring. Noisy blackbirds hovered over the marshy meadows; starlings whistled from the willow hedges; even the song sparrows in Watson's gooseberry hedge sang so cheerfully that Ruth's mother often stopped to listen, and her husband, busy out of doors, seeing his wife bareheaded, at an open door or window, wondered if she were calling him and he had not heard, and so asked if he were wanted, in those harsh tones that silenced every sparrow and caused his wife, after a vigorous negative shake of the head, to shut the door or window in despair.
It was the beginning of the year, and Matthew Watson was stirring in the matter of taking advantage of the first open water to have the boat begin her trips to and from Philadelphia. Through the winter he had talked much with William Blake in glittering generalities, but thought and planned more with himself, down to the minutest details. In spite of the golden future he set forth to his partner, there lingered a feeling of distrust on William's part, and he was ready to sell out at any time, if not at a loss; and Matthew's propositions all required some sacrifice.
Worn almost to illness and wholly despairing of gaining the affections of Ruth, William thought seriously of his partner's suggestion to return to England with her, and who knows what change might take place in the girl's mind when away from all her old acquaintances but him. Matthew Watson had hinted of this and of leaving him as his agent in the boating business. He could then speak of his investments in America, Matthew had suggested, and the words had a charm for William's weak mind that was powerful if not quite overpowering. Should he sell or make such arrangement as had been suggested? His own efforts to solve a problem were always futile, and he sought John Bishop's advice; but there he could get no satisfaction. It was not an easy question to answer, and why not seek some prominent man of affairs; why not consult William Emley or Thomas Lambert? If distrustful of his partner, why not sell out, even at a loss? for it was worth something to be rid of worry. This last bit of advice was lost on William, however. What transpired after his last visit to John's shop William did not tell, but a bargain was reached, and he was for the second time free to come and go and to invest his steadily diminishing capital.
So the days passed. There was activity both within doors and without, for Ruth had to make her preparations for the journey, and her mother was busied about it too whenever her ordinary household duties would permit; but "why do this and why that?" her mother often asked. "Can thee not get better suited when thee gets home?" And her voice would always change at the utterance of that last word; so much so that Ruth had learned to expect it, and would try to kiss her mother before it was spoken.
"But don't thee know, mother, I am to be so busy there converting my cousins? Father says that I may be the instrument of a great change among my people; but really, has thee ever discovered any converting tendencies in me? Father's words are not always in accord, for he has charged me with perverting others by my example. Oh, dear! I do wonder what England is like." And Ruth would go on steadily with her needlework, and if she looked up from it, her eyes would wander but in the one direction.
"What does thee think, mother," Ruth asked one day, "of my plan of having John make me two small oaken chests to hold all my worldly possessions? I want them made of oak from the creek's north shore, and he can use the brasses that are on the old chest in the garret that got so badly broken on shipboard when we came over."
"The chest, dear, is not so badly broken but it can be mended, so father says, and one, even if large, would be better suited to thy needs than two, and John has scarcely time for such work now."
"He has fully two weeks, and it is his trade, mother, and why not humor me since I am so soon to leave thee? I still have those silver shillings that thee has said were always mine, and I feel as if I ought to begin to be a woman of affairs and make my own purchases."
"Thee is a strange child, Ruth, and I am much concerned for thee, but I see no serious reason why thee should not have this whim, as thee calls it, carried out. Why does thee not ask father? and if he thinks proper, let him speak to John."
"Will the time never come when I can speak myself to John without the whole province raising its eyebrows? Wherever I go it is John, John, John; not shouted at me, but it might as well be, for that is the meaning of the noddings and smiles and wise looks of everybody in Chesterfield and Nottingham. I wish this same 'everybody' was just one person, and John would give him or it a ducking in Crosswicks Creek." And Ruth's eyes flashed as she gave this full expression to her feelings.
"Ruth dear, I am astonished at thy words."
"So am I. Bother these words; they are none of them strong enough, and I dread to shock thee with some of the words of the world's people. Just for half a day how I would like to be a man and swing my arms right and left among some of the gatherings about the old oak in the meeting-house yard. I never heard a syllable, but it always seems to me, judging from appearances, that every group is gossiping about Ruth and John—John and Ruth."
Her mother could not repress a smile, although she tried to look serious. A good deal of her old self was welling up to the surface, but she said, "Has it never occurred to thee, Ruth, that thee might be giving more thought to thyself than others do concerning thee? Are we not too apt to hold ourselves at more than our real value? I think I have seen the world enough to say it is a common failing."
"True, mother; but there's a difference—"
"Ah! Ruth, each of us holds herself as the exception to everything undesirable."
"But, mother," Ruth insisted, "there is a difference. I do not concern myself with my neighbors, and why should I be singled out as the target for all their gossipy arrows? Would it not be more fitting, if I must be criticised, for the Friends to wait until I have really done something terrible, or—or—well—well, until John Bishop asks me to marry him? I wish he would."
"Why, Ruth!" exclaimed her mother, in astonishment.
"Yes, I wish he would; for then I could give him an answer that would end this tattle."
"But would thee, Ruth?" asked her mother, recovering from the shock of her daughter's strange declaration."Would I, mother? Why, how can I tell until he asks?" And then, leaving the little rocking-chair, she took a stool and placed it at her mother's feet, and taking her mother's hands in her own, rested her head upon them, and sang in a low voice,—
Oh, for the laddie with merry een,
The laddie I greet when I gae
For a walk i' the field; 'twas so yestreen,
His words were as music to me.
Oh, for this laddie with dark-brown hair
And skin that is kissed by the sun;
Oh, when shall it be his love he'll declare,
Oh, when can I call him my own?
Oh, for this laddie, who knows no fear;
With him, hand in hand, to the end
I would walk, all my days a-laughing at care,
Then die in the arms of my friend.
Then for almost an hour they sat as they were, neither speaking.
Matthew Watson had gone to Burlington and the boys were out of hearing. Ruth and her mother knew that they were free from interruption, and it is not strange that they should have been so superlatively happy. The thought of their soon parting did not trouble the mother for the moment, and the daughter seemed never to give it a second thought. She treated it like some ordinary occurrence, and so had roused her mother's curiosity. Never again might there be such an opportunity for mutual confidences.
"Ruth dear, tell me, what is thy feeling towards John?"
"Why, didn't I tell thee in my little song? That is what I meant to do. I love him, mother."
"Has he ever spoken to thee of this?"
"No, mother, but I can read his thoughts; and oh, if I should misread them!" And Ruth drew a long breath and pressed her hands to her heart.
"Why, Ruth, what is the matter? asked her mother, much impressed by such a violent gesture.
"Was thee ever young thyself? Why does thee ask?"
"Then, dear, what will thee tell him, if he should ask thee, before thee goes away?"
"That he must go away too."
"But thy cousins in England would scarcely approve of John; he is not of thy father's rank in life, and they account such things of much importance, as I learned when thy father—"
"Do, mother, let us talk of something else. Thee has sought my confidence and I have given it. If John asks me to marry him, I shall say, 'I will,' and will hold to my promise, if it means giving up that fortune over there and coming back, and I wish it would. Better John with what he can acquire than what Uncle Timothy has left me with an 'if.' But, mother, suppose any one should have heard our conversation, wouldn't tongues be wagging all over Chesterfield?" And Ruth laughed merrily as she thought of such a thing happening. "I shall write a message on a slip of birch bark to save paper, and send it to John by the boys. I'll find out, at least, if he can make them."
"Had thee not better let father attend to this?" asked her mother.
"Decidedly not, mother. Let me have my own way this time."
"This time?" repeated her mother. "Has it not always been so?"
The note was written, the boys called from their play and sent upon the errand of delivering it to John. They were not gone long, and brought back with them the reply: Dear Ruth,—There is no mention of the size desired, and the brasses of one large chest will hardly fit two small ones. Shall I call for particulars?—J. B.
Ruth laughed at the indefiniteness of her note, and while debating with herself as to the desirability of writing another and more explicit note, she saw John Bishop approaching the house.
"After the boys left," he said, on entering the house, "I thought to save thee trouble I had better come directly for the necessary directions. Of course I can make the chests, but I am puzzled about the old brasses."
"Oh dear, father is not home, and I do not know that I can have them. Never mind; I will use the old chest, which mother says can be mended. It was a foolish notion that I had of having two small chests instead of one that is large enough to hold all I've got and me too; at least this side of the ocean."
"What does thee think of Ruth's returning to England, John?" asked Ruth's mother, at the same time watching his countenance closely as he listened and replied.
"I have scarcely given it a thought, Neighbor Watson."
"Well!" exclaimed Ruth; "that is not very flattering, I must say; but then we are not supposed to make pretty speeches about each other."
John looked a little confused, but quickly caught himself and said, "Surely I am very sorry. Perhaps she will return to thee one of these days. I do not believe our old homes will be as attractive to her as these newer ones that we have here. Ruth cannot remember England, surely."
"Oh, no, and I don't care to go back, either, even on a visit. It's a case of necessity, it seems, that I wish had not arisen."
The idea of the new chest was abandoned with a promptness that made Ruth's mother wonder if it had been but an excuse on her daughter's part to have John call. This was not a generous view to take nor a correct one, and the girl would have been furious had she thought her mother entertained it for an instant; but circumstances did point that way. John, too, was surprised at the sudden abandoning of the plan, and, seeming to have no further reason for staying, bade them farewell in the formal fashion of the day. But Ruth walked with him to the door, and as he was about leaving the threshold, upon which he paused for a moment, she said, in a subdued tone that was not natural to her, "I am sorry, John, that I gave thee so much trouble."
"Sorry? Ruth, don't let such a trifle as that annoy thee. I am sorry I cannot be of any use to thee. So it is really settled that thee is going away." And John as he spoke looked directly into her eyes.
"Oh, yes, it has been settled for some time; but I do wish William Blake was not going in the same ship."
"Had I not better go too, to keep William from worrying thee?" asked John, trying hard to smile, but too much in earnest.
He had asked a question in mingled fun and seriousness to which she must reply, but how could she without opening up to him her whole life? She bit her lower lip until it almost bled to restrain her feelings. In another moment she would have precipitately fled, but John caught her hands and said, in a manner that meant everything, "Ruth."
"Yes, John," she whispered, with eyes brighter than he had ever seen them, and then withdrawing her hands, turned away.
John Bishop walked with lighter steps than he had ever done. The hills, the trees, the creek, his shop, all the world was wrapped in a new light. Ruth's mother, standing by the window, saw him go, and said, as her daughter came to her side, "John walks as if thee had given him pleasant tidings."
"Mother, I have given him my heart."