A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 8
The New Partnership.
The winter that seemed so distant to William Blake, when the bargain was closed and he and Matthew Watson were the vessel's owners, had set in earlier than usual. The river was filled with floating ice, and it was no longer safe to trust so small a boat as the "Fish-hawk" to the huge masses that, borne by the currents, would soon wear away her sides if exposed to them. The boat must be put in winter quarters, be safely harbored in some little cove on the south bank of the creek; of course, within sight of the Watson house. As his late partner predicted, William Blake was also in winter quarters, with but a single occupation, that of paying his board weekly, and very deep in despair, too, because with no means of earning the requisite number of shillings. Perhaps he did not mean it as unkind, but Matthew Watson had assured him that the venture was an excellent one; his share of the profits would certainly enable him to pay his board every winter, and that would be a source of anxiety removed, for which he should be thankful.
"Why did thee let me buy the boat?" William often asked of John, for during the long winter days he found the shop a more pleasant place to spend his idle time than at Neighbor Watson's, where business continually called him, as his partner was full of projects that forever called for more of William's money as an offset to the "advantages" Matthew cunningly set forth. "I believe thee could have taken better care of my property than I have done, and thee never even advised me," William often said when they were alone.
"Thee never asked my advice, and I surely could not be expected to intrude it upon thee," John would reply; and then the poor man, who believed himself to have been victimized, would express his fears of his partner's designs, and to all this was added a sorrow of no mean measure, that Ruth would not favor him with even the briefest conversation when they happened to meet. He had made a great blunder, and would he, John, take him back, if he could prevail upon his present partner to buy his share of the boat and so set him free?
John would not promise, and endeavored to allay his fears, talking extravagantly of the increased trade of the coming season, and how two boats would be needed instead of one. On all subjects John spoke freely, but always without the slightest reference to Ruth. William Blake noticed this in time, and began talking so freely about her that John could no longer escape making a reply. He endeavored first to put a check upon William's volubility, but this was ineffectual. There was, however, one consolation, she was never referred to when others were present. Day after day passed, and finally William more earnestly than ever sought John's opinion. "Thee is well acquainted with Ruth, John, and can tell me, if thee will, why it is she turns from me so. I have always treated her well, and yet she seems very unwilling to listen to me." John would bite his under lip and look out of the shop window, and when his companion had done speaking, force himself to smile and bid the poor fool remember about faint hearts and fair ladies. This was, of course, wholly unsatisfactory, indeed incomprehensible to him, and he would seek for something more definite, as though John was the ruler of Ruth's destinies.
"Neighbor Watson approves of my suit, I think," William had recently remarked, in the course of a long account of his troubles, and at this assertion John had exclaimed, Oh! so suddenly that William was startled and would have asked endless questions, but his one time partner positively refused to continue the conversation, and forbade the subject being again broached in such a manner that even William could understand, and was henceforth silent on that point.
John Bishop from that morning worked more steadily than before. Never for a moment did his tools lie unused upon the bench or the fire get low. He had hundreds of nails and spikes to make, for there were two houses to be built in the coming season, and, too, for one of them he was to furnish the crane for the kitchen fireplace, and not a farmer for miles around but had ploughs to be repaired, and many a farmer's wife had sought his skill in fashioning some simple piece of furniture. From morning till night he was busy, and bargained with two good workmen, who were now as steadily occupied as himself. Everywhere was evidence of unusual thrift. William, or any other idler, if he came, soon found himself in the way, and left wondering what had changed John so. The fact is his work had gotten ahead of him, but now he was far ahead of his work. There were no delays now, no broken promises, and in all the dust and smoke John saw Ruth as we often see a bright streak of rosy light piercing a storm-cloud, and the ring of the hammer on the anvil, which meant but thrift to casual ears, was the cheery voice of Ruth, as, wandering by the hedge or strolling over the fields for wild flowers, she sang those simple songs that once heard he could not forget and often found himself humming when alone.
After all, it was not strange that observing people should continually associate John and Ruth in their minds, although so very seldom were they seen together. An aged Friend that day had expressed surprise when she overheard John humming a lively air to himself. "John, I am shocked at thy increasing worldliness. Has thee no greater concern than spending thy time with idle music and the world's follies?"
"Did not David play upon a harp and sing psalms? There was and is nothing particularly worldly about my thoughts at this time. I was thinking of a friend and felt particularly happy, and silence does not suit my heart, which at times must speak out, in what thee called music, but which I take it was hardly that."
"When concerned with the weighty words of Friends who have ministered unto us, would not silence be more fitting?"
John laughed merrily, to the questioner's astonishment. He was not thinking of a Friend of that sort. "I confess, Neighbor Bunting, that I was thinking of one among us that I have not seen very lately, but she is not a minister."
"Not Ruth Davenport, John!"
"Yes, of Ruth."
"John, let me assure thee that thee is greatly on my mind. Ruth is a sore trial to her parents, as thee must know, and I am sad to think of her unless she turns from her worldly ways. Thee is not as constant at meeting as we wish, and it has been long upon my mind to speak to thee. Does Ruth prevent thy coming."
John Bishop came very near getting angry, but Friend Bunting was very aged, and he could only submit to her questioning with apparent excellent grace. Of course it was her right, as an elder, to call his attention to matters concerning the meeting and his relation thereto, but at the same time he did wish she was a man, that he might speak what he really thought. Was it to be his lot to preach a new phase of Christianity? he sometimes asked himself. Well, with Ruth for a helpmeet it would not be so great a hardship as to be forever under the fire of criticising neighbors, who sometimes overstepped the mark and encroached upon private concerns. He was getting pretty tired of the whole matter.
"No," he replied, a little curtly, "not Ruth, but my shop. I cannot keep my customers waiting, and must often be absent on Fifth days."
"No occupation would require thy absence from appointed meetings unless thee gave heed to worldly inclination." And with this parting admonition, John was left to his own reflections.
As he walked to his shop, a gorgeous red-bird crossed his path and whistled merrily when perched in a cedar hard by. "What a gay worldling, and whistling too!" exclaimed John. "How I wish Ruth could see and hear this bird!" And he looked in the direction of her home, wondering what she might then be doing. Friend Bunting had made no very deep impression.
While John had been thus engaged, William Blake was on the other side of the creek, and had been engaged in two very momentous conversations. An unusual amount of bravery had found a lodgement in his breast, and, believing his investment was, if not in doubt, in a bewildering entanglement of claims that his partner had woven about it, he had actually demanded in plain terms why it was that he, William Blake, was paying for everything and yet nothing appeared to be his. It was the most important mental problem he had ever formulated, and his own words staggered him as he pronounced them, one at a time, as if repeating the speech of another. "Thy words, Neighbor Watson, are all fair sounding, but always wind up with the suggestion that I put my hand in my pocket, and never we put our hands in." William Blake that day made the discovery, the only one he ever made, that he was a fool, and could not remedy the trouble.
Matthew Watson was astonished, and then, feeling sure of his position, acted the part of an indignant man. Of course, he could withdraw if dissatisfied, but hardly expect to do so without a loss. He might go to Philadelphia or return to England, or remain, that he could decide for himself; or he might find some one who would buy him out, but it must be a person acceptable to him, as he did not wish to be associated with those who were not his co-religionists. Matthew talked in this indifferent, if not heartless way, and put his partner in a steadily more depressing frame of mind, and at last, as usual, overdid the matter. William said that he should ask for a committee investigation, though he really had no grounds for this, for he had not been defrauded, as the world looks upon business transactions, but misled; but the very idea of being closely questioned so frightened Matthew that he did explain and promise to put in writing and satisfy William's friends, and so drove the shadows from the deluded man's brows and put him more at ease; and then Matthew urged him home to dine with him, and as they passed up the lane from the landing to the house, he made William feel as if he was a prosperous ship-owner, and the two shillings he jingled in his pocket were a dozen golden pounds.
William entered the house with a glad heart, and, would wonders never cease, Ruth was as beaming as her step-father had been. For once he was really happy, because full of hope, and, seeking an opportunity, he called Ruth to one side, and in a low tone that was lost on all other ears he laid his fortune at her feet, and would gladly have put himself there also, did Friends' discipline permit of such a proceeding.
Ruth was too astonished to make any reply. This was the first intimation she had had that this rattle-brained youth had ever given her a second thought. What could it mean? Was it the property in England, of which he had, of course, heard, and supposed she would go to claim? A hundred wild ideas rushed through her mind, and, forgetting where she was or who were present, she turned and ran out of doors, down the winding lane, and on and on until out of breath, and then, turning about, ran back again, but not to where she had left William standing in blank amazement, but by him to her mother, and, catching her by the hands, said, "Mother, is the world coming to an end, as one of our ministers is always predicting? William Blake wants me to marry him."
William Blake looked very much as if he would like to escape if he saw any means of doing so. Ruth's brothers laughed and stared at him. Matthew Watson drummed the toe of one of his heavy boots very distinctly on the bare floor; and then followed a brief but oppressive silence.
Finally her mother spoke, to the relief of the older people present. "Ruth, thee is no longer a child, and should not treat thy friends so strangely. Perhaps thee did not understand what William said."
"I do not think there was a chance for that. No, William, I cannot marry thee. It is very kind to make the offer. Perhaps—"
"Well, Ruth, well!" exclaimed William, with strong hopes filling his breast again.
"Perhaps I may go to England in the spring."