The afternoon sun cast the shadow of the mountain far across this plain, almost to the confines of Sweetwater homestead. A breeze descended from the heights and played with Ruth’s curls as she rested in saddle for a moment, scanning the prospect; a gentle breeze, easily out-galloped. Time, place, and the horse—all promised a perfect gallop; her own spirits, too. For she had spent the day’s hot hours in clambering among the slopes, battling with certain craggy doubts in her own mind; and with the afternoon shadow had come peace at heart; and out of peace a certain careless exultation. She would test the mare’s speed and enjoy this hour before returning to Tatty’s chit-chat, the evening lamp, and the office of family prayer with which Farmer Cordery duly dismissed his household for the night.
She pricked Madcap down the slope, and at the foot of it launched her on the gallop. Surely, unless it be that of sailing on a reach and in a boat that fairly heels to the breeze, there is no such motion to catch the soul on high. The breeze met the wind of her flight and was beaten by it, but still she carried the moment of encounter with her as a wave on the crest of which she rode. It swept, lifted, rapt her out of herself—yet in no bodiless ecstasy; for her blood pulsed in the beat of the mare’s hoofs. To surrender to it was luxury, yet her hand on the rein held her own will ready at call; and twice, where Sweetwater brook meandered, she braced herself for the water-jump, judging the pace and the stride; and twice, with many feet to spare, Madcap sailed over the silver-grey riband.
All the while, ahead of her, the mountain lengthened its shadow. She overtook and passed it a couple of furlongs short of the homestead; passed it—so clearly defined it lay across the pasture—with a firmer hold on the rein, as though clearing an actual obstacle. . . . She was in sunlight now. Before her a wooden fence protected the elms and their enclosure. At the gate of it by rule she should have drawn rein.
She had never leapt a gate; had attempted a bank now and then, but nothing serious. Her success at the water-jumps tempted her; and the mare, galloping with her second wind, seemed to feel the temptation every whit as strongly.
In the instant of rising to it Ruth wondered what Farmer Cordery would say if she broke his top bar. . . . The mare’s feet touched it lightly— rap, rap. She was over.
A wood pile stood within the gate to the left, hiding the house. She had passed the corner of it before she could bring Madcap to a standstill, and was laughing to herself in triumph as she glanced around.
The house was of timber, with a deep timbered verandah; and in the verandah, not twenty paces away, beside a table laid for coffee, stood Tatty with three ladies about her—three ladies all elegantly dressed and staring.
Ruth’s hand went up quickly, involuntarily, to her dishevelled hair; and at the same moment the little lady, as though making a bolt from captivity, stepped down from the verandah and came shuffling across the yard towards her, almost at a run.