“Be down at the church at nine to-morrow, and you shall see him, whoever he is. But it is a secret, and you are not to tell Mr. Strongtharm.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Strongtharm. “Him!”
“But you ought to make some difference,” whispered the good woman next morning, after breakfast, as she was preparing to slip away to the village. “Be it but a flower in your bodice. But we’ve no garden, and the season’s late.”
Ruth took her kiss of benediction. She was scarcely listening; but the words by a strange trick repeated themselves on her brain a few minutes later, upstairs, as she went about her last preparations.
She leaned out at the lattice over the river. A lusty creeper, rooted in terra firma at the back of the house, had pushed its embrace over west side and front. The leaves, green the summer through, were now turned to a vivid flame-colour. She plucked three or four and pinned them over her bosom, glanced at the effect in the mirror, and went quickly down the stairs.
Fairer day could hardly have been chosen. “Happy is the bride the sun shines on.” ... In the sunshine by the stable door Mr. Strongtharm sat polishing his gun. She asked him what sport he would be after to-day.
He answered, “None. I don’t reckon ’pon luck, fishing, after a body’s mentioned rabbits; and I don’t go gunning if I’ve seen a parson. A new parson, I mean. Th’ old Minister’s all in the day’s work.”
“You have seen a strange clergyman to-day?”
“Yes; as I pulled home past the Ferry. I’d been down-stream early, tryin’ for eels. On my way back I saw him—over my left shoulder too. He was comin’ out o’ the Inn by the waterside door, wipin’ his mouth: a loose-featured man, with one shoulder higher than t’other, and a hard drinker by his looks.”
Ruth saddled-up and mounted in silence. Fatally she recognised the old fellow’s description; but—was it possible her lover had brought this man to marry them?—this man, whose touch was defilement, to join their hands? If the precisians of Port Nassau had made religion her tragedy, this man had come in, by an after-blow, to turn it into a blasphemous farce. If Ruth had lost Faith, she yet desired good thoughts, to have everything about her pure and holy—and on this day, of all days!
Surely Oliver—she had taught herself to call him Oliver—would never misunderstand her so! Why, it was a misunderstanding that went down, down, almost to the roots. Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder . . . but here was cleavage, and from within. Say rather of such sundering. What man could remedy it? Those whom God hath joined together—ah, by such hands!
It was not possible! In all things her lover had shown himself considerate, tender; guessing, preventing her smallest wish. As she rode she sought back once more to the wellspring of love. Had he not stooped to her as a god, lifted her from the mire? It was not possible.