“Suppose you help me, sir,” said Ruth meekly.
“That’s right. I’m here to help, and in more ways than one. . . . Well, I know Sir Oliver; Lady Caroline knows him too; and if it’s marriage you’re after, you might as well whistle the moon. You don’t believe me?” he wound up, for she was eyeing him with an inscrutable smile.
She lifted her shoulder a little. “For the sake of your argument we will say that it is so.”
“Then what’s to be the end? I repeat. Look here, missy. We spar a bit when we meet, you and I; but I’d be sorry to see you go the way you’re going. ’Pon my honour I would. You’re as pretty a piece of flesh as a man could find on this side of the Atlantic, and what’s a sharp tongue but a touch of spice to it? Piquancy, begad, to a fellow like me! . . . And—what’s best of all, perhaps—you’d pass for a lady anywhere.”
She shrank back a pace before this incredible vulgarity; but not even yet did she guess the man’s drift.
“So I put it to you, why not?” he continued, flushing as he came to the point and contemplated his prey. “You don’t see yourself as a parson’s wife, eh? You’re not the cut. But for that matter I’m not the ordinary cut of parson. T’other side of the water we’d fly high. They’ll not have heard of Port Nassau, over there, nor of the little nest at Sabines; and with Lady Caroline to give us a jump-off—I have her promise. She runs a Chapel of her own, somewhere off St. James’s. Give me a chance to preach to the fashionable—let me get a foot inside the pulpit door—and, with you to turn their heads in the Mall below, strike me if I wouldn’t finish up a Bishop! La belle Sauvage—they’d put it around I’d found my beauty in the backwoods, and converted her. . . . Well, what d’ye say? Isn’t that a prettier prospect than to end as Sir Oliver’s cast-off?”
She put a hand backwards, and found a gate-rail to steady her.
“Ah! . . . How you dare!” she managed to murmur.
“Dare? Eh! you’re thinking of Sir Oliver?” He laughed easily. “Lady Caroline will put that all right. He’ll be furious at first, no doubt; my fine gentleman thinks himself the lion in the fable—when he shares out the best for himself, no dog dares bark. But we’ll give him the go-by, and afterwards he can’t squeal without showing himself the public fool. . . . Squeal? I hope he will. I owe him one.”
At this moment young George and Increase Cordery came past the far corner of the house with their team, their harness-chains jingling as they rode afield. At sight of them a strong temptation assailed Ruth, but she thrust it from her.
“Sir”—she steadied her voice—“bethink you, please, that I have only to lift a hand and those two, with their brothers, will drag you through the farm pond.”
Before he could answer, she called to them. As they turned and walked their horses towards her she glanced at Mr. Silk, half mischievously in spite of her fierce anger. He was visibly perturbed; but his face, mottled yellow with terror, suggested loathing rather than laughter.