It ran sluggishly, and always—however long the curve—up to its near or right bank the plain lay flat, or broken only by these hummocks. But from the farther shore the ground rose at a moderate slope, and here were farmhouses and haystacks planted above reach of the waters. A high ridge of forest backed this inhabited terrace, and dense forest filled the eastward gap through which the river passed down to these levels from the cleft hills.
At one point on the farther shore the houses had drawn together in a cluster, and towards this the road ran in a straight line on the raised causeway that had suffered much erosion from bygone floods. It cost the travellers an hour to reach the river-bank, where a ferry plied to and from the village. It was a horse-boat, but not capable of conveying the waggon, the contents of which must be unladen and shipped across in parcels, to be repacked in a cart that stood ready on the village quay. Leaving her men to handle this, Ruth crossed alone with her mare and rode on, as the ferryman directed her, past the village towards her lodging, some two miles up the stream. The house stood beside a more ancient ferry, now disused, to which it had formerly served as a tavern. It rested on stout oaken piles driven deep into the river-mud; a notable building, with a roof like the inverted hull of a galleon, pierced with dormer windows and topped by a rusty vane. Its tenants were a childless couple—a Mr. and Mrs. Strongtharm: he a taciturn man of fifty, a born naturalist and great shooter of wildfowl; she a douce woman, with eyes like beads of jet, and an incurable propensity for mothering and spoiling her neighbours’ children.
The couple received her kindly, asking few questions. Their dwelling was by many sizes too large for them, and she might have taken her choice among a dozen of the old guest-chambers. But Sir Oliver had come and gone a month before and selected the best for her. Its roof-timbers, shaped like the ribs of a ship, curved outwards and downwards from a veritable keelson; and it was reached by way of a zig-zagging corridor, lit by port-holes, and adorned in every niche and corner with cases of stuffed wildfowl. Ruth supped well on game Mr. Strongtharm’s gun had provided, and slept soundly, lulled between her dreams by the ripple of water swirling between the piles that supported, far below her, the house’s cellarage.
She awoke at daybreak to the humming of wind; and looked forth on a leaden sky, on the river ruffled and clapping in small waves against a shrill north-easter, and on countless birds in flocks rising from the meadows and balancing their wings against it. Before breakfast-time the weather had turned to heavy rain. But this mattered nothing; she had a day’s work indoors before her.