A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 4
Too Much about Nothing.
There were no Indian runners available by whom to report to distant parts the important occurrences of any day; nevertheless news of all kinds quickly spread, and the day following the accident to Ruth members of every family in the valley and beyond its bounds came hither, the men usually gathering at the wheelwright-shop and the women at Ruth's home, that the minutest details of the accident might be obtained. John Bishop, to his great annoyance, was the hero of the hour, and when not being closely questioned was gazed at as the fortunate man who had rescued Ruth. The prominence of Matthew Watson in the community had, of course, much to do with such general interest in an incident which really had no heroic element. Indeed, one observing old man had been heard to say, "Had it been poor folks, none on 'em would so much as lookt out o' their winders."
The eye-witnesses naturally came in for a full share of attention also, and it was amusing to hear each one explain how it was that he was too late to be of any real use in the emergency. Their explanations made them heroes only in their own eyes. One, more loquacious and a coward at heart, remarked, as if it was a witty thought, "It looks like to me that John knew all about it beforehand, and it was planned to have old Watson look with favor on him," and then laughed immoderately; but his merriment was soon cut short. The remark had been overheard, and without seeing who struck him, the fellow rolled upon the grass. Robert Pearson had no patience with idle babblers, and besides that, Ruth was distantly related.
John Bishop took the praise bestowed upon him patiently at first, but before the day passed it became tiresome and then distasteful. The truth was, the incident had influenced him in a way that his neighbors did not suspect. He constantly saw, not Ruth merely rescued, but her single piercing glance, and then staring at him with those dark-blue eyes that really saw not; and then there would come the vision of Ruth pleading to be allowed to walk home, with those eyes reillumined with a light not merely of consciousness returned—or was this all but a feverish fancy of his own?
It was not until two days after the accident that Matthew Watson called at the shop to thank John for his timely assistance. The latter saw him coming and divined his errand, but there was no escaping the inevitable interview, and John put on as cheerful a countenance as possible and determined to anticipate Matthew by changing the character of the conversation, or if the girl's rescue must be mentioned, he would do the talking himself. He had been a passive listener long enough.
"How is thy daughter, Ruth, this morning?" he asked as Matthew entered the shop. "I trust she is well over the annoyance of an unintended bath and is in no danger of catching a fever from after-excitement."
"Yes, um! yes; I called, John, to tell thee how greatly indebted—"
"Now please be good enough, Neighbor Watson, not to talk of the matter. Why, for two whole days there has been nothing for me to do but stand and listen, and if I took up a hammer or saw, it was plain that I gave offence," and John hoped the appeal would end the conversation, but was mistaken. In the quiet of colonial days events did not follow in such quick succession that in two days a matter like this would be forgotten.
"But then it was proper that I should express—"
"Yes, yes, I know; but really, Neighbor Watson, there is too much made of the matter, and if Ruth has not suffered any ill effects, there is nothing further to be said." And John again hoped for silence in the future.
Matthew Watson could not understand John's motive in baffling his efforts to talk the matter over, and John did not suspect that Matthew had more to say than merely a formal thanking for effective assistance at a critical time. It seemed too good an opportunity to let his views be known concerning Ruth's future to be prevented by the ready tongue that had interrupted him so successfully.
"What thee says, John, may be quite true," remarked Matthew, after a moment's pause in the conversation, "but I had another matter on which I had a concern to speak to thee, and it seems more fitting to do so now than ever before, although upon my mind and a concern, too, of Ruth's mother."
What can he have upon his mind? wondered John, as he carefully laid his hammer upon the bench and faced Matthew, with his arms folded. "If I am to be lectured, why, here I am, and let's get through with it," he said, lightly.
"Thee knows, John, that thy mind leads thee to Ruth, for it is common report, and Friends have remarked how, in meeting, thy eyes continually rest upon her."
Matthew evidently expected a reply, pausing as he did for so long a time, for John simply kept his eyes fixed upon the speaker.
"We cannot approve of it; she is but a child and thee has yet thy way to make in the world. It will be years yet before thou hast acquired—"
"Stop!" interrupted John, with a step forward that was just short of a menace. "I do not know what the common report is, but I would like to know who started it. And my eyes rest upon Ruth, do they? in meeting. Well, I suppose thee means upon her bonnet, for it covers her head more completely than thy hat does thine. And my thoughts are upon her! Did thee not say she was but a child? If I mistake not, she is almost out of her childhood, and thee can rest assured that her own thoughts of her own self will be entirely respected by John Bishop. I do not know what thy plans for the future may be concerning Ruth, nor is it my business at all, but if ever a young man may speak to an older one advisedly, let me say, at this time, that thy plans will come to nothing unless they accord with Ruth's. And now, if thee pleases, I will return to my work, for there are neighbors waiting for me." And saying this, John went to the shop door and called his partner, who had been busy out of doors at John's suggestion, and was all-impatiently waiting to be recalled.
The interview was not a satisfactory one. Matthew Watson saw defiance in John's eyes, if he could not discover it in his words, and stood gazing intently into the ashen coals that had nearly lost their ruddy glow. There was so much he would like to say, but he felt that he was watched by a determined man, who would check at its very outset any further attempt to speak. Matthew Watson, one of the community's petty tyrants, and a most prominent figure in meeting, had met his match.
"William," remarked John, as that young man entered the shop, "had we not better finish Stacy's cart-wheel? He may call for it to-morrow."
"Yes, John—Good-morning, Friend Watson. How is Ruth to-day? I do hope she is none the worse for her terrible fright." And William hovered about him as though he were the king and he an expectant subject.
John nearly lost his temper, and after some struggling with himself, finally said, in rather commanding tones, "This is not the time to give to such matters; let us heat the irons and fit them now." And William Blake, with an imploring look towards Matthew, for he longed to hear something of Ruth that he might repeat to any callers who might happen in, worked vigorously at the bellows and sent myriads of sparks darting up the chimney.
Still, Matthew continued to gaze intently at the fire, unheeding William for the time, and vainly endeavoring to so collect his thoughts that he might at least fire a parting shot on retiring, and appear not to be the defeated man that he was. It would be something gained to have the truth concealed from William; but Matthew was not equal to the occasion. All he could say was, "Yes, William, Ruth is quite well, and would be pleased to see thee. The Friends have all been very kind."
William was about to follow Matthew Watson from the shop, desirous of sending Ruth some pretty message, it may be, but John stopped him before he had taken a second step. "Thy place is here, William; and if thee cannot remain at thy work we must close this partnership."
"Close this partnership!" repeated William, in a surprised and slightly frightened manner; "why, John, I have forty pounds to thy ten, and surely that gives me the advantage."
John smiled, although his temper was yet aroused. "I am not sure what thee means by an advantage, but what would thy forty pounds be without I looked after them and thee and my own interests? It may be forty to ten, but the care and labor is all on my side, and I will gladly buy thee out."
"But what would I do?" asked William, now a good deal worried, for he saw his partner was wholly in earnest and expected a serious reply. "Has thee the ready money?"
"Do? why, spend thy time visiting Ruth; or, better yet, perhaps Neighbor Watson would employ thee on his plantation, and then thee could see her every day." And John threw down a hammer in his hand and looked out the little window near the forge.
"Does thee really think that Ruth would look with favor on my visits and—"
"William, now and for all time let me say that I must not hear Ruth discussed in this shop. There is a limit to my patience if none to others' lack of judgment; and isn't it very unchristian to be engaged in such idle conversation, and unworthy a man to talk so freely of other people, and of a most worthy young woman at that? Do confine thyself to thy work and to what we spoke of. I will gladly buy thy interest, for I feel that we can thrive better if more widely planted."
"I did not know thee was dissatisfied. Thee has said nothing like this until now; and why, as I have been taught my trade, should I not buy thee out?" asked William, and he looked very uncomfortable as he spoke, for it was a dangerous question, as he had learned to depend upon his partner whenever serious matters arose, and feared his own judgment upon most occasions.
"I would rather buy than sell," replied John, "and I do not see in what manner it is a concern of others. Thee did not consult with thy friends when we entered upon this venture, and why take thy personal affairs to them when it is proposed to withdraw from it? Has thee no judgment of thy own?"
"But, John, we are prospering now, and if we remain blessed, why, perhaps Ruth—"
"Hush!" John exclaimed, fiercely; so fiercely, indeed, that William nearly fell over the anvil, he was so startled. It was a fortunate fright, so far as John was concerned, for William said, meekly, "If thee insists, I suppose I must."
"There is no insistence and no 'must' about it. I will buy thy interest, if thee will cheerfully and of thy own accord part with it; but if thee feels forced or over-persuaded, then I will not."
"But if thee is so desirous in the matter, what better can I do?" asked William, with endless trouble pictured in his countenance.
"That is for thee to judge," replied John.
Before another word was spoken a shadow crossed the floor of the shop and John, looking up, saw the outline of Matthew Watson's head and shoulders near the little window, which was open. Why he was there he could not tell. There was no apparent reason. Had he been listening to the conversation? He was about to call through the window, then checked himself, and with nothing further being said about the dissolution of partnership, John and William worked steadily upon the irons of Stacy's cart-wheel.