Now Tatty, when Sir Oliver had led Ruth indoors and presented her as his affianced wife, had been taken aback; not scandalised, but decidedly— and, for so slight a creature, heavily—taken aback. It is undoubted that she loved Ruth dearly; nay, so dearly that in a general way no fortune was too high to befall her darling. What dreams she had entertained for her I cannot tell. Very likely they had been at once splendid and vague. Miss Quiney was not worldly-wise, yet her wisdom did not transcend what little she knew of the world. She had great notions of Family, for example. She had imagined, may be—still in a vague way—that Sir Oliver would some day provide his protegee with a mate of good, or at least sufficient, Colonial birth. She had been outraged by Lady Caroline’s suggestions. Now this, while it triumphantly refuted them, did seem to show that Lady Caroline had not altogether lacked ground for suspicion.
In fine, the dear creature received a shock, and in her flurry could not dissemble it.
Sir Oliver did not perceive this. In the first flush of conquest all men are a trifle fatuous, unobservant. No woman is. Miss Quiney’s arms did not suddenly go out to Ruth. Ruth noted it. She was just: she understood. But (I repeat) she was a woman, and women remember indelibly whatever small thing happens at this crisis of their lives.
In the end Miss Quiney stretched forth her arms; but at first she seemed to shrivel and grow very small in her chair. Nor can her first comment be called adequate,—
“Dear sir—oh, but excuse me!—this is so sudden!”
Later, when she and Ruth were left alone, she explained, still a little tremulously, “You took me all of a heap, my dear! I can hardly realise it, even now. . . . Such a splendid position! You will go to London, I doubt not; and be presented at Court; and be called Lady Vyell. . . . Have you thought of the responsibilities?”
She had, and she had not. Her own promised splendours, the command of wealth and of a great household—this aspect of the future was blank to her as yet. But another presented itself and frightened her: it engaged her conscience in doubts even when she shook it free of fears. The Family—that mysterious shadow of which Lady Caroline no doubt showed as the ugliest projection! Ruth was conscientious. She divined that behind Lady Caroline’s aggressiveness the shadow held something truly sacred and worth guarding; something impalpable and yet immensely solid; something not to be defied or laughed away because inexplicable, but venerable precisely because it could not be explained; something not fashioned hastily upon reason, but built by slow accretion, with the years for its builders—mortared by sentiments, memories, traditions, decencies, trivialities good and bad, even (may be) by the blood of foolish quarrels—but founded and welded more firmly, massed more formidably, than any structure of mere reason; and withal a temple wherein she, however chastely, might never serve without profaning it.