A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 16
The Departure of Ruth.
The day of Ruth's departure came at last, and she, knowing how full of events the next few days were likely to be, woman-like, was more eager to be off than distressed at the thought of leaving home. She knew, of course, far more than did her neighbors, but they, in their ignorance, attributed her "heartlessness" to that general strangeness that had marked all her career; and as John Bishop did not go about with a long face, it was supposed the engagement that had been rumored had been broken. "Poor John," his neighbors said among themselves, "to be carried away by a pretty face, but with nothing behind it." These comments may or may not have come to John's ears, but he made no sign. However much he might have liked to let the world know the truth, it was his part to remain silent; and while Robert Pearson was very active and continually coming and going to and from John's shop, Matthew Watson's house, and the landing where the boat was being made ready for the first trip of the season, John was passive. There was an abundance of work to be done, and he and his helpers were busy all day long, and he worked the harder, so his neighbor's thought, that he might drown the disappointment he had suffered. To think that Ruth Davenport had dared to trifle with so good a man; to accept him as her lover, it might be said, when she was poor, and then, finding herself an heiress, coolly going away, without a trace of regret. "It must weigh heavily upon her poor mother to have so heartless a child," was the common verdict all over Chesterfield and Nottingham. Little wonder at this, for the children of the township suffered terribly when a comparison was drawn. Healthy, good-looking children, and all that, but Ruth was rarely beautiful.
Ruth had failed almost entirely to learn the details of her step-father's plans, and not until two days before his boat was to start for Philadelphia did she positively learn whether the voyage was to commence at Watson's landing or she was to go on board at Bordentown and so escape a wearisome day on the creek, where, indeed, she might have to remain all night if wind and tide did not suit when the mouth of the creek was reached.
Ruth's mother began, at the very last, to realize how crudely planned was the whole matter and how little Ruth's comfort had been considered. Was it to save Matthew a little trouble or expense? She began to fear the truth of this and rebelled, and was the more firm in the stand she took after a long conference with Robert Pearson, who urged that Ruth should not go by the boat at all; but, if necessary, then let her go aboard at Bordentown, and so be as little time as possible on the cramped shallop that could afford almost no privacy and but meagre shelter if it was stormy. And so, though Matthew demurred and rudely resented Robert's interference, it was determined that Ruth should go in her cousin's wagon, the only pretentious vehicle in the township, and not at all comfortable, but better than the boat, and he would himself see her safely on board. Her few personal effects had been packed in the old chest, and the morning that it was to be placed on board the shallop, to the surprise of every one, Robert brought her two new oaken chests with stout iron clasps.
"Her clothes are already packed in one chest that I have given her," remarked Matthew Watson, impatiently, "and there was no use of this at all. Has not John enough to do not to concern himself in such matters? Am I not charged with her welfare and the proper one to see her safely on her journey? She has weighed heavily upon me of late, and will, it seems, to the end."
"It was an act of kindness on John's part," his wife replied, gently.
"It would be more of one to have done nothing of the kind."
"The new chests are stronger than the old, but one of them is large enough for what Ruth needs to take. The old one is not full. I do not think it will take long to make the change," said Mrs. Watson, in the same quiet way; "but here comes Ruth and she can judge."
"Yes, she can judge, so thee has always thought, and we have been led astray continually by allowing her to judge, where we should have done so for her. Thee has humored Ruth from her youth up, and so brought many a concern upon us," continued her husband, his impatience more and more pronounced.
"Well, father, the days of thy trials, so far as I am concerned, will very soon be over, so try to have a little more patience, and don't blame mother when I only am at fault. What are these?" And Ruth looked and pointed at the two chests.
"Ruth dear, John has sent them to thee for thy journey."
"How nice in him, when I said I did not need them! Thee knows I changed my mind when we talked the matter over."
"Talked the matter over?" repeated Matthew, in a surprised manner.
"Yes, it was a whim of mine, but I afterwards thought otherwise; but John, it seems, did not. Come, mother, let's out of the old and into the new. One will do for me, and thee keep the other for linen."
Matthew seeing, as usual, that he was wholly ignored by Ruth, and that his words would fall in all likelihood on deaf ears, turned away with some low muttered words that neither woman heard, and in a short time after they were left to themselves the unpacking and repacking was accomplished. Then Ruth said, "Now, mother, let me be alone here in my little room awhile. I go to-morrow, thee knows, and I would be alone; but, mother dear, I will join thee very soon, and then—" But Ruth's emotions overcame her, and, resting her head on her mother's shoulder, she wept bitterly.
How few in that community knew what a trying ordeal was hers, and how bravely she was passing through it! But when, an hour later, she left her room, it was to greet her mother with the old-time winning smiles, and as she sat, as she had so often done, at her feet, she sang, in her own sweet, peculiar way a few stanzas that seemed fitting to the occasion and then a long, unbroken silence ensued.
Mother and daughter were alike oblivious to Matthew Watson's presence, and he would surely have interrupted Ruth had he dared, when she was singing. As it was, his subsequent scolding about the scandal brought upon him and his house by Ruth's conduct was spent upon his patient wife.
The parting was a painful one, and many were the neighbors that gathered at the Watson house when, seated in her cousin Robert's wagon, she commenced her long journey. Many a neighbor, critical as they had been in times past, shed an honest tear as she passed down the winding lane and was gone.
Matthew Watson looked more stern and forbidding than ever, and was indisposed to converse with any one. The truth was, he had been baffled at many points and his importance lessened, he feared, even in his own house. At least in some particular he would have his own way, and, without informing his wife, who had denied herself that day to every caller, he returned the unused chest that John Bishop had made.
Ruth's ride to Bordentown was uneventful. The road was terrible, a mere mass of mud and tree-stumps that threatened disaster at every turn of the wheels. She and her cousin talked at a lively pace on every subject but that which most nearly concerned her. No allusion was made to the journey, but when the village was reached, Robert made haste to learn if the Watson boat had reached the mouth of the creek. It had not, and the time was spent in a call upon friends with whom they were both acquainted. It was late in the day when the boat reached the little wharf and the cabin inspected by Robert, who expressed surprise that Matthew had even done as much as appeared. Ruth could be alone, but in such cramped quarters, Robert charged her never to stay in the place long, or she could never straighten out again. The crew were charged to look after Ruth's comfort above all else, and then the moment for the second parting came. Ruth held her cousin's hand for a moment as they stood on the little deck of the shallop, and then turned her face upward as if expecting to be kissed. He bent his head down, but only to whisper a few words, and slipped a folded bit of paper into her other hand. Then he turned away abruptly and left her, and Ruth, glancing at the wide expanse of water as if it were a farewell look, went into the cabin.
The light was fast fading as she unfolded the crumpled bit of paper and read, "When the owl hoots thrice in quick succession, go on deck to the rudder-post, and if any attempt is made to stop you, take a leap in the dark. They will not start until after midnight. William Blake will be on board." Ruth shuddered as she read these words, and her strength was well-nigh gone. Her only source of comfort was in crying, and this she did. She gave way to her feelings freely yet without attracting attention. She had reached a crisis in her life, and could she meet it? Why had she not fought for her right to remain? Why had not John married her, even if out of meeting? Why was her cousin Robert willing she should go? What was a fortune in England and all her friends in this country? These and a score of other questions she asked, forgetting that she was really not going away.
It was fortunate for her that she gave way to her feelings as she did. It was the passing shower that makes the world clearer and brighter than before, and she lay down for a short nap, knowing that through the night she must be widely awake and quick to catch the signal, "when the owl hoots thrice in quick succession."