A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 18

A Colonial Wooing  (1895)  by Charles Conrad Abbott
Chapter 18: Robert defies Matthew

Chapter XVIII.

Robert defies Matthew.

Wild stories of pirates, robbery, and abduction were soon rife about Bordentown, and fearful tales as carried from one to another soon reached Matthew Watson. His boat had been destroyed, the crew lashed to the deck, and Ruth carried away; and then, quickly following these harrowing details, came a more nearly correct version of the incident. No one was injured, no property taken or destroyed, but Ruth had disappeared. There had been no outcry, no call for help, the crew were asleep, and everything pointed to its having been a voluntary act on the girl's part, but with whom was she in collusion? Well, Matthew could not say he was surprised, much as he regretted it. The affair cast a shadow upon him as her natural guardian, but he had done his whole duty for sixteen years, and should submit his version of the matter to the meeting. But with whom could she have gone? Not with John Bishop, for he was at his shop until late that day, and again, cheerful and unconcerned, early the next morning. Had Robert Pearson seen any suspicious conditions when he saw Ruth on board the shallop? Matthew Watson asked himself this question, and determined that he would repeat it to Robert and press him for an answer; then, too, it was her cousin who had taken her in his cart to Bordentown, and so the last to talk with her.

Sympathizing friends soon gathered about Ruth's afflicted mother, and, leaving her to their care, Matthew hurried to the Pearson house, acting so well the part of an anxious parent that he favorably impressed every one whom he met. He was glad to find Robert at home, and not a little surprised to see how slight an interest he took in the subject when Ruth's disappearance was mentioned. Robert replied in detail to every question put to him by Matthew. Ruth had said nothing about such a madcap scheme, and was very cheerful nearly all the time. He had gone on the boat with her, and saw that she might be fairly comfortable if the trip was short; but why had he directed that they should start with that tide, instead of twelve hours later, which would still leave plenty of time, and avoid the night on the boat? and did he know that William Blake had come from Philadelphia to Bordentown to be with her? Was this not a scheme to further William's wishes and compromise Ruth? Good Quaker methods of furthering a whim. And Robert spoke in such a sneering tone that Matthew grew very red in the face and twisted uneasily in his chair. "Yes," Robert said, in conclusion, "I left Ruth on the boat, and soon after returned home. I made good my promise, but I am sorry I did so. Was it to be done over again, I would do very differently, and openly interfere and prevent her going; at least, I would be strongly tempted to do so."

"I am amazed to hear thee talk in this way, though I know thee to be a rash, worldly man."

"Well, people do not see the world alike, and I am very glad that I have not Quaker eyes," Robert replied, without any trace of irritation. "As I look at it, Ruth's surroundings, except her mother's presence, have never been what they should. She is much the superior of the flock of namby-pamby women that have swooped down on the Crosswicks Valley and changed every laughing feature to a sober one. I have faith in Ruth, an abiding, boundless faith, and have no fear for her future. She has doubtless not been so rash as now appears, and all will be well. Her mother should not worry. Would Matthew tell his wife what her cousin thought?" And then Robert pulled vigorously at his pipe, until the tobacco burned again, and he sent wreaths of fragrant smoke to the ceiling and watched their progress, quite oblivious to the fact that his visitor was eying him intently.

"Underneath thy fine speeches, Robert," Matthew finally remarked, "I believe thee is concealing something from me. Thee could tell me more if thee was willing, and it is my right to be informed, and thy duty to tell me all thee knows."

"What!" exclaimed Robert, jumping from his chair and turning his back to the fireplace. "Tell all that I could? Well, if I did that, the township would be all upset for the season. You came here and asked me a long string of questions, not waiting for answers, and I replied in the same order, as near as I could remember. What question did you put that I forgot to reply to?" And Robert replaced his pipe and sent more wreaths of smoke to the ceiling.

"Does thee know where Ruth is, and who did she go away with? Can thee answer these, and will thee?"

"I can," replied Robert; "but for the present I shall not."

"But it is my right to know," exclaimed Matthew, also rising from his chair. "This is a conspiracy that may bring thee great trouble if thee is not very careful."

"Perhaps it is, Neighbor Watson; you say it is your right to know as much as I do in this matter. All I can say is, proceed to enforce it."

"But thee knows that it is against our principles—" But Robert promptly checked the speaker here and assured him that he was dealing with one not a Quaker, and must proceed in accordance with the laws of the province.

"I did not run away with Ruth, and so there's an end of that matter; but I do know who took her from the boat last night." And Robert looked Matthew very squarely in the eyes as he made the announcement.

"And what scandal has she brought upon the household, the community, and her poor mother!" remarked Matthew, with an ill attempt to be pathetic.

"One word, Matthew, on that score, and only one. Don't you prate about scandal and couple it with Ruth's name. Not here, in my house, or anywhere in my hearing. There'll be an end to that sort of tattle very quick if the old women get to shaking their heads or wagging their long tongues. It is an outrage that I will not tolerate." And Robert showed plainly how thoroughly he meant what he had said.

"But is it not most unseemly that a young woman should be out in a boat, and at night and alone?"

"What! That from you! And who put her on a boat to be alone, day and night, for perhaps two days, and with a man, too, she detests? The less you say of all this the better, or the tide will turn against you and swallow you up, as I only wish it would. What did happen may have been unfortunate, but it was necessary, and now let us come back to business. You have reckoned all along without your host, as you will find out. You said just now Ruth's fair name might be tarnished, but there'll be no washing the blot from the name of the step-father, if I read aright the world's way of thinking. Yes, I know where she is, and can prove the truth of my assertion. She is under this roof, safe and happy, and her only wish is that her mother shall know this. I did not intend to tell you at first, but I have changed my mind. Not that anything you have said has influenced me. Ruth is tired and needs all the rest she can get, so you cannot see her. Wife is an excellent nurse, so you need have no care as to her welfare." And, after the delivery of this long speech, Robert yawned so long and audibly that Matthew saw he was anxious to close the interview.

"Thee seems to look lightly upon thy part in this affair, and I am astonished at the stand thee has taken. May I ask how Ruth got here? Thee said thee did not assist her to leave the boat."

"I do not know that I am called upon to go into particulars. When it is necessary I will do so."

"This, I suppose, is the world's way of looking at it. It may be I cannot force thee to speak, but I can think of thee as I choose," said Matthew, making a desperate effort to look like dignity offended.

Robert laughed at him. "Well, Matthew, you can make a pretty shrewd guess as to what I think. It is enough to know that Ruth did get here, limp as a rag and all hollow-eyed with much crying and all that, but my wife got her well composed in short order, and when you came in she was still sound asleep; and this is all that I have to tell you, except that if you think I am liable before the law for what part I have taken in her rescue, do take up the matter at once, for as soon as May comes in Ruth and John Bishop will be married, if I am not altogether mistaken. Until then she will make her home with me." And Robert put on a defiant air that puzzled Matthew, who wanted to say more, but must have time to collect his thoughts.

At last he found words wherewith to express his feelings. "I was not prepared when I came for such extraordinary tidings—"

"Which," said Robert, interrupting him, "were not half so extraordinary as your own acts, for which there was no apparent reason. Isn't John Bishop an improvement over William Blake?"

Matthew paid no attention to Robert's words, and continued, "—to be thus boldly told to my face that I cannot see or have the custody of my child."

"She is not your child!" exclaimed Robert, angrily, "and she is my cousin, though a distant one, and until she is safely married she shall not leave me, unless it be her will to do so; and now let's put an end to this palaver. Go tell Cousin Anne that Ruth is safe, and if you've any sense of decency, keep out of sight."

Robert's manner spoke as plainly as his words; and Matthew, seeing there was nothing to be gained by prolonging his stay, picked up his ungainly hat and with a most formal and scarcely audible "farewell" left the house.