Meanwhile the judge’s condition was slowly improving.
One afternoon Sandy sat at his table, deep in his work. He heard the key turn in its lock and the door open, but he did not look up. Suddenly he was aware of the soft rustle of skirts, and, lifting his eyes, he saw Ruth. For a moment he did not move, thinking she must be but the substance of his dream. Then her black dress caught his attention, and he started to his feet.
“Carter?” he cried—“is he—”
Ruth nodded; her face was white and drawn, and purple shadows lay about her eyes.
“He’s dead,” she whispered, with a catch in her voice; then she went on in breathless explanation: “but he told me first. He said, ’Hurry back, Ruth, and make it right. They can come for me as soon as I can travel. Tell Kilday I wasn’t worth it.’ Oh, Sandy! I don’t know whether it was right or wrong,—what you did,—but it was merciful: if you could have seen him that last week, crying all the time like a little child, afraid of the shadows on the wall, afraid to be alone, afraid to live, afraid to die—”
Her voice broke, and she covered her face with her hands.
Sandy started forward, then he paused and gripped the chair-back until his fingers were white.
“Ruth,” he said impatiently, “you’d best be going quick. It’ll break the heart of me to see you standing there suffering, unless I can take you in me arms and comfort you. I’ve sworn never to speak the word; but, by the saints—”
“You may!” sobbed Ruth, and with a quick, timid little gesture she laid her hands in his.
For a moment he held her away from him. “It’s not pity,” he cried, searching her face, “nor gratitude!”
She lifted her eyes, as honest and clear as her soul.
“It’s been love, Sandy,” she whispered, “ever since the first.”
[Illustration: “‘It’s been love, Sandy, ... ever since the first’”]
Two hours later, when the permit came, Sandy walked out of the jail into the court-house square. A crowd had collected, for Ruth had told her story and the news had spread; public favor was rapidly turning in his direction.
He looked about vaguely, as a man who has gazed too long at the sun and is blinded to everything else.
“I’ve got my buggy,” cried Jimmy Reed, touching him on the arm. “Where do you want to go?”
Sandy hesitated, and a dozen invitations were shouted in one breath. He stood irresolute, with his foot on the step of the buggy; then he pulled himself up.
“To Judge Hollis,” he said.
THE PRIMROSE WAY
Spring and winter, and spring again, and flying rumors fluttered tantalizing wings over Clayton. Just when it was definitely announced that Willowvale was to be sold, Ruth Nelson returned, after a year’s absence, and opened the old home.