A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 3
"There's Many a Slip, etc."
The lane leading from Matthew Watson's to the creek was a short but very winding one, and for much of the way well shaded by thrifty trees. A more direct route might have been laid out without the loss of any tillable or pasture land. Years ago, when the house was built, there had been some discussion concerning this lane, and Matthew now regretted at times that he had yielded to others, for he knew it to be a common saying among his worldly neighbors that the lane was as crooked as its owner. But Matthew's wife had taken matters in hand at the critical moment and astonished her overbearing husband by a firmness that was before then unsuspected. All attractiveness should not be sacrificed to the selfish convenience of the men. The landscape, as she saw it from the single window of her little parlor and from the two larger windows of the roomy kitchen, had several pleasing features, and these she succeeded in preserving, when the suggestion was made to clear the intervening ground of its scattered trees and cut a straight and level road to the creek's bank. A stately tulip-tree, a branching elm, and half a dozen sturdy scarlet-oaks crowned a bit of slightly rising ground, and between them she had the road to wind, and even prevailed on her husband to plant other trees and a short hedge of rhododendron, that the whole way might in time become a most pleasant place. She would indeed have gone even further in this matter of landscape gardening, but Matthew's patience was exhausted, and some one had made the unfortunate remark that his wife seemed to be reproducing some of the features of her old home. Then Matthew became obstinate beyond cure, for it had ever been a sore trial that his wife could not see the world about them with his eyes. Were they not abundantly prosperous, and was not this all-sufficient, and an evidence, too, that heaven was smiling upon them? What more could a woman want? "Had they not a home, and food and clothing in abundance?" he had been known to remark on more than one occasion, but he never gave a thought to the fact that the yarn was spun, the food prepared, while he was leisurely discussing with his neighbors the affairs of the meeting. But Matthew was neither lazy nor heartless, nor his wife given to complaining. It was merely an instance of a woman's unspoken thoughts not always according with her husband's expressed convictions.
Sauntering down this pleasant lane came Ruth with her two brothers, and when she felt sure she was quite out of hearing she slowly sang, to the boys delight,—
Reclined beside the crystal rill,
When all is lonely, all is still,
Save wild birds' songs from yonder hill,
Oh, let me muse in secrecy.
Here let me in these shades reclined
Forget the ills I left behind,
That love was vain or friends unkind,
That fortune looked not smilingly.
A song of sorrow suits the day,
No star of love doth light my way,
Friendships ere yet they bloom decay,
All is delusive phantasy.
Before her song was finished they were standing at the water's edge. The crimson flush of the Virginia-creeper that climbed a tall cedar behind her was a perfect background for this fair young woman as she stood gazing into the swift stream, catching glimpses of herself whenever, for a second, the water's surface was unruffled. Pleasures come and go as quickly as these reflections of myself, she was thinking, and then she held her face up and looked intently across the stream, but not so much at the wooded slope that on that side hemmed it in, as at the curling smoke that she knew came from the fire in John Bishop's shop. "How could mother get such an idea into her head?" she said to herself, but loud enough for her brothers to hear.
"What has mother got in her head?" asked the younger of the two boys, a persistent, inquisitive lad of eleven summers.
"Nothing, dear," Ruth replied. "Please try to catch me a fish for supper."
"But I want to know," he whined, in his usual trying way.
"And thee cannot know, so go on with thy fishing."
"Then I'll ask mother when we get home."
"And then I will no more sing to thee, my boy."
"Thee is real ugly to me; I won't catch thee any fish."
"Am I, dear? Well, I am ugly to everybody and feel cross as a bear." And again Ruth looked at the little thread of smoke that curled among the branches of the towering oak by the shop door.
But if ugly in the eyes of her little brother, she was not to others as she stood on the bank of the creek, her stately figure trim as the timid fawns that she often started in the woods, her golden-brown hair that rippled down her back like the laughing waters of a pebbly brook, her clear skin that was slightly darkened by the sunshine to which it was constantly exposed, but not to the concealment of the color that came and went according to her mood, the well-arched eyebrows darker than her hair, the straight nose and well rounded, but not too prominent chin; these made up a picture that seemed to need just such an occasion to flash their full significance upon the beholder, and there she stood when John Bishop and Robert Pearson, leading the little group that we have seen at the shop, came suddenly into view, directly across the stream.
Ruth recognized them at a glance and turned suddenly to go home, or at least to be out of sight, but she was not sufficiently guarded in her movements. She had been standing on apparently firm ground and had paid no heed to its constant trembling nor noticed its gradual yielding to her weight. Her more violent motion now caused the earth, which was deeply undermined, to suddenly give way. She was not quick enough to leap from where she stood to the fast ground, and in an instant was struggling in the rapid water and borne by the current into its channel. A piercing cry went up as she disappeared, a cry that was more than one for help, yet he who so plainly heard it had no such thought. She had not cried out "help!" but "John!"
In an instant, seeing what had happened, John Bishop had freed himself of his coat and heavy boots and plunged into the creek, before his companions had realized what had really happened. A few strokes brought him to the spot where Ruth had sunk, and the moment he reached it she reappeared, her hair floating at full length upon the surface of the water and her eyes widely opened, but staring vacantly at the sky, after a single glance of recognition. John placed an arm beneath her shoulders, and thus bearing his fainting burden, with no little difficulty stemmed the current and reached the shore.
John had but followed an ordinary impulse; he had seen a human being in imminent danger and snatched her from it, so he thought; but what meant that strange feeling in his breast when he looked so steadily into her vacant, staring eyes, as he laid her limp form upon the ground and, still supporting her head, said, imploringly, "Ruth, Ruth, you are in no danger now; do speak!"
The effects of the shock were slowly passing away, and before John's companions could reach him, by means of the clumsy ferry, Ruth had revived and murmured, but not so gently that John did not hear her, "I thank thee, John; do please let me return home."
Ruth attempted to rise as she spoke, but her strength had not returned with her consciousness, and she was utterly helpless.
"Let me carry thee home, Ruth," said John, very gently. And he was about to take her up in his arms as a mother would lift her little child, when the men, who had crossed the creek, came up and made a circle about them. All asked at once concerning her and were anxious to be of use, and the bewildering babel of many voices was evidently having an ill effect upon Ruth's tortured nerves. John was quick to see the annoyance their presence caused, and motioning to them to stand aside and keep silent, he lifted Ruth from the ground and started towards her home. The men slowly followed. She made no movement as she was borne along in this strange manner, and without a word spoken the little procession reached Matthew Watson's house.
Ruth's mother chanced to see them coming, and met them at the door. The two boys, who until now had been too frightened to speak, rushed up to her and shouted, "Sister's drowned!"
"Not drowned, but might have been," John remarked, hastily. "Speak, Ruth." But Mrs. Watson did not hear him. Her boys' words were ringing in her ears, and with clasped hands she sank upon the seat of the little porch and gazed vacantly at her daughter, still firmly held in John's strong arms. For a moment she could not speak, and then recovering, she asked, "Is she really gone?"
Assured to the contrary by both Ruth and John, who spoke at the same moment, she arose and led the way into the house.