“On the contrary,” answered Ruth, “his talk has rather hastened me than not.”
They entered the library. “Miss Quiney tells me,” he said, “that our studies are to suffer a brief interruption; that you are about to take a country holiday. You anticipate it with delight, I doubt not?”
“Have I been, then, so listless a scholar?” she asked, smiling.
“No,” he answered. “I have never looked on you as eager for praise, or I should have told you that your progress—in Greek particularly—has been exceptional; for a young lady, I might almost say, abnormal.”
“I am grateful to you at any rate for saying it now. It happens that just now I wanted something to give me back a little self-respect.”
“But I do not suppose you so abnormal as, at your age, to undervalue a holiday,” he continued. “It is only we elders who live haunted by the words ‘Work while ye have the light.’ If youth extract any moral from the brevity of life it is rather the pagan warning, Collige rosas.”
Her eyes rested on him, still smiling, but behind her smile she was wondering. Did he—this dry, sallow old man, with the knock-knees and ungainly frame, the soiled bands, the black suit, threadbare, hideous in cut, hideous in itself (Ruth had a child’s horror of black)—did he speak thus out of knowledge, or was he but using phrases of convention? Ruth feared and distrusted all religious folk—clergymen above all; yet instinct had told her at the first that Mr. Hichens was honest, even good in an unlovely fashion; and by many small daily tests she had proved this. Was it possible that Mr. Hichens had ever gathered roses in his youth? Was it possible that, expecting Heaven and professing a spiritual joy in redemption, a man could symbolise his soul’s state by wearing these dingy weeds? Had he no sense of congruity, or was all religion so false in grain that it perverted not only the believer’s judgment but his very senses, turning white into black for him, and making beauty and ugliness change places?
“For my part,” said Mr. Hichens wistfully, “I regret the interruption; for I had even played with the thought of teaching you some Hebrew.” He paused and sighed. “But doubtless the Almighty denies us these small pleasures for our good. . . . Shall we begin with our repetition? I forget the number of the Psalm?”
“The forty-fifth,” said Ruth, finding the place and handing him the book. “My heart is inditing of a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made unto the king.” . . . She recited the opening lines very quietly, but her voice lifted at the third verse. Beautiful words always affected her poignantly, but the language of the Bible more poignantly than any other, because her own unforgettable injury had been derived from it and sanctioned by it, and because at the base of things our enemies in this world are dearer to us than friends. They cling closer.