“So—I am afraid—did I.”
“Yes?”—and again they laughed together.
“My poor parent! . . . She assured me that her duty to the Family was her armour of proof. Hark! She’s calling again.”
They found Lady Caroline impatient in the verandah. Ruth, to avoid speech with her, walked away to the waggon. Farmer Cordery stood at the horse’s head, and Mrs. Harry beside the step, ready to mount and take the reins.
But for some reason Mrs. Harry delayed to mount. “Is it you?” she said vaguely and put out a hand, swaying slightly. Ruth caught it.
“Are you ill?”
They were alone together for a moment and hidden from the farmer, who stood on the far side of the horse.
“Nothing—a sudden giddiness. It’s quite absurd, too; when I’ve been as strong as a donkey all my life.”
Ruth asked her a question. . . . Some word of woman’s lore, dropped years ago by her own silly mother, crossed her memory. (They had been outspoken, in the cottage above the beach.) It surprised Mrs. Harry, who answered it before she was well aware, and so stood staring, trembling with surmise.
“God bless you!” Ruth put out an arm on an impulse to clasp her waist, but checked it and beckoned instead to Diana.
“You take the reins and drive,” she commanded.
Diana questioned her with a glance, but obeyed and climbed on board. Ruth was helping Mrs. Harry to mount after her when Lady Caroline thrust herself forward, by the step.
Now since Diana had hold of the reins, and Mrs. Harry was for the moment in no condition to lend a hand, and since Lady Caroline would as lief have touched leprosy as have accepted help from Ruth Josselin, her ascent into the van fell something short of dignity. The rearward of her person was ample; she hitched her skirt in the step, thus exposing an inordinate amount of not over-clean white stocking; and, to make matters worse, Farmer Cordery cast off at the wrong moment and stood back from the horse’s head.
“Losh! but I’m sorry,” said he, gazing after the catastrophic result. “Look at her, there, kickin’ like a cast ewe. . . .” He turned a serious face on Ruth and added, “Vigorous, too, for her years.”
Ruth, returning to the verandah, bent over little Miss Quiney, who sat unsmiling, with rigid eyes. “Dear Tatty,”—she kissed her—“were they so very dreadful?”
Miss Quiney started as if awaking from a nightmare.
“That woman—darling, whatever her rank, I cannot term her a lady!—”
“Go on, dear.”
“I cannot. Sit beside me, here, for a while, and let me feel my arm about you. . . .”
They sat thus for a long while silent, while twilight crept over the plain and wrapped itself about the homestead.
Ruth was thinking. “If I forfeit this, it will be hardest of all.”