To the truth of this general outline the three homes’ domestics, dominated by Sarah Stebbens, certified with cordial and loyal brevity. Yet when Ruth wrote Godfrey how well things were going, there lurked between her bright lines one or two irrepressible meanings that locked his jaws till they creaked.
In fact, both his brother and hers were “ailing.” Both carried a jaded, almost a broken look, and Arthur was taking things to make him eat and sleep; while Leonard had daily accepted more and more of the young rector’s complicating cares, until he was really the parish’s chief burden-bearer.
“No,” he said to his father, “Arthur carries his whole work manfully on his own shoulders.”
“But, my son,” replied the old General, “don’t you see you’re carrying Arthur?”
“No, I sha’n’t do that,” dryly responded the son; but Ruth saw a change on his brow as on that of a guide who fears he has missed the path.
The four young friends spent many delightful evenings together in the Winslow house, with Mrs. Morris and the General on one side at cribbage. Ruth had frequent happy laughs, observing Isabel’s gift for making Leonard talk. It gave her a new joy in both of them to have the lovely hostess draw him out, out, out, on every matter in the wide arena to which he so vitally belonged; eliciting a flow of speech so animated that only afterward did one notice how dumb as any tree on Bylow Hill he had been in regard to himself.
“They are bow and violin,” said Arthur to Ruth, with his dark, unsmiling face so free from resentment that she gratefully wondered at him, and was presently ashamed to find herself asking her own mind if he was growing too subtle for her.
On these occasions Isabel was wont to court Ruth’s counsel concerning her wifely part in Arthur’s work, thus often getting Leonard’s as well. Sometimes she impeached his masculine view of things, in her old skirmishing way. Then she would turn rose-color once more and mirthfully sigh, while Ruth laughed and wished for Godfrey, and Mrs. Morris breathed soft ho-ho’s from the cribbage board.
So came the Thanksgiving season, with strong, black ice on the mill pond, where the four skated hand in hand. Then the piling snows stopped the skating with a white Christmas, the old year sank to rest, the new rose up, and Bylow Hill, under its bare elms and with the pine-crested ridge at its back, sat in the cold sunshine like a white sea bird with its head in its down. And when the nights were frigid and clear its ruddy lights of lamp and hearth seemed to answer the downward gaze of the stars in silent gratitude for conditions of happiness strangely perfect for this imperfect world, and the town marvelled at the young rector’s grasp of his subject when his text was, “The heart knoweth his own bitterness.”
THE HOUR STRIKES
But on a day in the very last of winter, when every one was in the thick of all the year’s tasks and cares, there came to Leonard this letter:—