A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 17

A Colonial Wooing  (1895)  by Charles Conrad Abbott
Chapter 17: A Night on the Creek

Chapter XVII.

A Night on the Creek.

John Bishop worked in his shop as usual the morning that Ruth left her step-father's house with Robert Pearson; and not for an instant did he give a look or utter a word indicative of his busy thoughts. To the world he appeared resigned, giving heed to that inward voice that was reproving him for his errors in regard to Ruth, so Friend Bunting thought; for after failing to see Ruth's mother, she had called at the shop, with the flimsiest of excuses on her lips and her real purpose showing clearly in her every word and action. All went well for a while, and John did not lose his temper, but as the day drew to a close, he was finally roused to a pitch of excitement, and told his hired men he would close the shop early and they might go. He felt that he must be alone after he saw the chest that he had made brought back by Matthew Watson's boys.

"Did your father send this back?"

"Yes, he told us to bring it. Mother was up-stairs when we came, but I guess she knows too. Sister Ruth hadn't enough to put in both, and father said thee might find some one who wanted this, and what was the charge for the one sister took?"

John bit his lip to keep from laughing, and quite forgot the two lads that stood wondering and waiting for an answer. Finally coming back from the world of day-dreams to this more prosy one, he said, "Tell your father, boys, that Ruth paid for them both, but I will keep this one for the present." The boys left without delay, and John again said to his helpers he would close the shop and they might go. "I have some accounts to cast up and such work, and will be some time." The men left, wondering what had happened, and, knowing a little and thinking they knew a great deal more, drew their own conclusions.

John had not told a white lie. He did have a rude account-book with him, and when alone he trimmed a quill, and, opening the ink-horn, wrote and figured for some time. Then going to the shop door, he looked up and down the road, and, neither seeing nor hearing any one, he came back, laid a broad board against the little window by the forge, and took hold of the handles at the ends of the little chest. Its weight surprised him, for surely it was not that heavy when he sent it to Ruth. He tried the lid, but found it locked. He looked and frowned and puzzled over it, and then, hurriedly searching through a box of old keys, he tried one after another until a fitting one was found. The bolt turned; he raised the lid and there saw, carefully folded, one of Ruth's dresses, and clothing was beneath it to the bottom of the chest. What did it mean? Then he saw, pinned to the uppermost fold of the dress, the little note-book Robert Pearson had given her. This he took so eagerly that he endangered both it and the dress, and found on its first page a message from her, the second he had ever received. It ran as follows: Dear John,—I am playing a part now that I was not told to do. Father will surely send back the other chest, so I have filled the one that goes to the boat with rubbish, and hope my other will safely reach you before I need its contents. Can thee not send it to cousin Pearson's? I have not time to add any loving words, and why should I? unless cousin is over-confident. Let us hope not.—Ruth.

John read the note over and over again; then closing the little book, he arranged his dress, putting on an outer coat, and from behind a pile of oak and ash strips that were used in his work took a stout hickory cane. Then, stepping out, he carefully locked the doors and turned towards Crosswicks Creek. It was not as dark as he wished, but he looked at the sky and saw with evident satisfaction that the night bid fair to be cloudy before very long. Avoiding the highway where bounded by open fields, John walked rapidly, swinging the stout cane and at times striking viciously at the twigs that crossed his path. At heart John was a Quaker, no one could doubt this, but to-night he was one of the fighting type,—and they are everywhere,—if we judged by his actions. Instead of a hat, broad-brimmed and high-crowned, he wore a closely-fitting fur cap, and his outer coat was so closely buttoned that his general appearance was much altered. An intimate friend might meet him in the dim light and be in doubt as to his identity.

The path that John had taken was well known to him, and he made rapid progress, and, as the distance between the shop and Bordentown was but five miles, he was by no means fatigued when he reached the outskirts of the village. Then he sat down to rest and to wait, for he was ahead of time and had abundant leisure for the supper he had brought with him.

"This is a strange affair, and not till now have I realized what Friend Pearson's cunning scheming means," John said to himself as he sat in the retired woods, shielded from every observer who might pass near by; but people were not likely to be abroad at such a time, and there were no roving bands of Indians about that he had heard of.

The little peeping frogs in the far-off marshes were whistling and clicking merrily, and as the breeze bore this strange sound nearer and then carried it away until almost unheard, so John's hopes and fears came and went. Not cowardice at the possible danger to himself of carrying out his plans, but lest for reasons beyond his control they might not succeed. Then the flood-tide of his love for Ruth would sweep over him, and he was ready to meet the world on any terms. What though the meeting should question the stand that he had taken? He knew that the truth could be preached from the hill-tops without reflection upon her or upon himself, and the murmured slander, the meaning look, the hint, suspicion on the part of his nearest friends,—all this he must meet, it may be, but with Ruth by his side he would have strength to do it. "But," continued John, musing, "there must not come an ugly word directly to my ears." And the Friends' principle of non-resistance and long suffering sank into the background. "I should regret the necessity but not the nature of the step," John said to himself, with a fixedness of purpose ringing in every word; and then, leaving his resting-place, he turned at right angles to the path he had been following, and, pushing through a weedy tangle of vines, dwarfed shrubbery, and sprouting weeds, he came in a few moments to the bank of the creek, and found, as he expected, a large canoe with three paddles moored near the muddy shore.

"He said I would find what I wanted at the boat," John muttered to himself; and stealthily and silently as an Indian on the war-path—here we have a professed Friend as one—he cut a long, slender switch, but not too yielding, as he held it at full length over the water. Withdrawing it, he laid it lengthwise in the canoe, and using his outer coat, which he had taken off, as a shield, he struck fire from his flint, kindled a bit of tinder, and then lit a small lantern, which he securely tied to the tapering end of the long pole. This he covered carefully with his coat. "If it doesn't go out or burn out I shall be thankful, and it will be the only time it was of any use," John said to himself, so cheerfully that doubtless he was smiling when he spoke. It was a plan of Robert Pearson's that John classed among the over-confidences of the plan as a whole.

"And now for the seat of war," continued John, almost audibly,—a queer phase for a Friend's mouth. And with the skill of the Indian who had taught him to paddle a canoe he shot out into the stream and headed for Bordentown. Every moment it was growing darker, and if there were other people abroad at this time in boats, John thought how readily an accident might happen. Frequently he stopped to listen, but only the chatter of the peeping frogs or the swirl of the rapid waters as the incoming tide swept about stranded tree-trunks was heard. Then on and on, guided by the little light that filtered through the clouds, he at last saw a dull red light gleaming fitfully near the water's surface, and he knew that the Watson boat, with Ruth on board, was near. John paddled more cautiously now, and when the boat was but a hundred yards distant as he judged, he placed a twisted bit of birch bark to his mouth and sent the eagle-owl's hollow cry down the valley of the creek,—Hoŏ hoŏ hoŏ, hōō hōō! and then urged the canoe ahead with rapid but silent strokes. Again he sounded the same wild cry, and now the boat was very near. He thought he could see the mast, and for the third time, though not so loudly, sounded the owl-cry signal. The boat was now reached, and John, with skilled hand, held the canoe astern with the paddle.

By standing he could dimly see the full sweep of the deck, and knew, if Ruth appeared, he could follow her movements. Would she never come? No one can count the seconds of an anxious minute. Was she asleep? Hark! he saw a crouching figure coming towards the canoe. It was she! Reaching the rudder-post, she whispered, "Cousin Robert."

"Not Robert, but John."

"John! Oh! why did thee come?"

"Step over the rail and let me help thee. Quick; step anywhere!"

"But, John."

"Step quick; they're coming." And Ruth was as much drawn over the boat's stern as she moved by her own volition; and when her hands loosened their hold on her step-father's boat, she sank helplessly into the bottom of the canoe.

"Courage, dear," whispered John; "do not give way now, or all may be lost." But his words were lost upon Ruth.

"Who's there?" sounded a rough voice, and the boat's light was held up as if to cast a glow upon the water.

John made no reply, but with a powerful stroke of the paddle made towards shore.

"Speak, or I'll shoot!" cried the same rough voice.

"Then you may shoot a woman," John replied in an unnatural voice; and lifting the pole carefully, the coat fell from it, and to his inexpressible thankfulness the little lantern showed a gleam of light. Steadying the canoe, he held it out at arm's length, away from them, and said to Ruth, who had given some evidence of consciousness, "If they do shoot, this light will deceive them." But the canoe was drifting, and this would never do. John dropped the pole and paddled vigorously, but so quietly that he heard the voices of those on board the Watson boat, and above all else recognized William Blake's voice, bemoaning that "Ruth had gone; her cabin was empty."

A flush of fiery indignation thrilled him as he heard these words, but there was no time now for other than his single duty. Ruth was rescued, but not yet ashore. Carefully guiding the canoe, which he found was not followed, John paddled as swiftly as he dare, but kept near the shore until he had made considerable headway, when he turned to the channel as a safer course, and proceeded homeward.

The danger was over, and now again he spoke to Ruth, and assured her that all was well.

"Oh John," she sobbed, "if it had been Cousin Robert!"

"And why not I as well? Friend Pearson could not manage a canoe."

"But, John, alone, here."

The meaning of her words flashed across John's mind, and he was dumb. Could the world be so cruel? he thought. "Speak, Ruth, speak to me; it was the only way to thwart thy father's plans and save thee from a worse fate perhaps than the breath of scandal. Does thee put no trust in me?"

John's pleading brought Ruth to her better senses.

"Trust thee, dear; who then, John, might I trust? To thee and Cousin Robert I owe my life."

"And thee shall be in thy cousin's charge before thee thinks," replied John, cheerily. "Put on my outer coat that I brought thee, if thee can without much moving, for the night is chilly; but don't upset us." And John spoke in a way that was for the first time that day wholly natural.

"I think I have been pretty well upset already," replied Ruth; and hearing her words, free from all trace of fear or feeling of shame, John laughed in a quiet way that was not lost upon Ruth. They were again their natural selves, and so happy beyond measure.

"Here are the Swan Island flood-gates," exclaimed John. "Hark!"

A long, low whistle was heard, as though a dreaming red-bird had announced the dawn, and John replied, again imitating the eagle-owl. The canoe was headed in shore, and scarcely had its bottom grated on the sandy shore than Ruth rose, but to fall, almost a-faint, in the arms of her cousin Robert.

No time was lost. The canoe was quickly anchored; and Robert, John, and Ruth, seated in the wagon, were on their way to Pearson's. The horse was urged to the limit of its strength, and before cock-crow Robert Pearson's anxious wife had seen Ruth safely at rest.