They passed one another, and she believed that he had not recognised her; but after a few paces she heard him check his horse.
She halted, and he came slowly back.
“You are Ruth Josselin,” he said.
“I am, sir.”
“And what are you doing here?”
She smiled at him a little scornfully. “Do you ask as a magistrate, sir, or in curiosity?”
He frowned, narrowing his eyes. “You are marvellously changed. You appear prosperous. Has Vyell married you yet?”
“Nor as yet cast you off, it would seem.”
“Ah, well, go your ways. You are a beautiful thing, but evil; and I would have saved ye from it. I whipped ye, remember.”
Her face burned, but she held her eyes steady on him. “Mr. Trask,” she said, “do you believe in hell?”
“Eh?” He was taken aback, but he could not frown away the question; for she asked it with a certain authority, albeit very courteously. “Eh? To be sure I do.”
“I am going to prove to you (and some day you may take comfort from it) that, except on earth, there is no such place.”
“Ye’d like to believe that, I daresay!”
“For you see,” she went on, letting the sneer pass, “it is agreed that, if there be a hell, none but the wicked go there.”
“Why, then, hell must defeat itself. For, where all are wicked together, no punishment can degrade, because no shame is felt.”
“There’s the pain, madam.” He eyed her, and barked it in a short, savage laugh. “The torment—the worm that dies not, the fire that’s not quenched. Won’t these content ye, bating the shame?”
Her eyes answered his in scorn. “No, sir. Because I once suffered your cruelty, you have less understanding than I; but you have more ingenuity than the Almighty, being able, in your district, to make a hell of earth.”
“You blaspheme thus to me, that honestly tried to save your soul?”
“Did you? . . . Well, perhaps you did in your fashion, and you may take this comfort for reward. Believe me, who have tried, hell is bottomless, but in its own way. Should ever you attain to it—and there may in another world be such a place for the cruel—go down boldly; and it may be you will drop through into bliss.”
“You, to talk of another world!” he snapped.
“And why not, Mr. Trask? Once upon a time you killed me.”
He turned his grey horse impatiently. “I whipped ye,” was his parting shot. “If ’twarn’t too late, I’d take pleasure to whip ye again!”
Mr. Trask had not concluded the bargain for his winter fodder. Just a week later he rode over from Port Nassau, to clinch it, and had almost reached the foot of the descent to the river meadows when a better mounted rider overtook him.