"Oh, she has been meddling, has she?" George Forester said with a terrible imprecation; "I will have revenge on her, I swear I will. So it's she who has done the mischief, and made you false to all you promised. Curse you! with your smooth face, and your church-going ways, and your canting lies. You think, now they are hunting me away, you can take up with some one else; but you shan't, I swear, though I swing for it."
And he grasped her suddenly by the throat; but at this moment there was a sound of voices in the road behind them, and dashing Ruth to the ground with a force that stunned her, he sprang into the woods. A minute later the stablemen at The Hold came along the road and found Ruth still lying on the ground.
After a minute's consultation they determined to carry her down to her father's house, as they had no idea what was the best course to pursue to bring her round. Two of them, therefore, lifted and carried her down, while the other hurried on to prepare the miller for their arrival.
"Master Powlett," he said as he entered, "your girl has hurt herself; I expect she slipped on a stone somehow, going up the hill, and came down heavy; anyhow we found her lying there insensible, and my two mates are bringing her down. We saw her two or three hundred yards ahead of us as we came out of the churchyard, so she could not have laid there above a minute or so when we came up."
Ruth was brought in. Mrs. Powlett had not yet returned from Dareport, but a neighbour was soon fetched in by one of the men while another went for the doctor, and in a few minutes Ruth opened her eyes.
"Don't talk, dear," her father said, "lie quiet for a few minutes and you will soon be better; you slipped down in the road, you know, and gave yourself a shake, but it will be all right now."
Ruth closed her eyes again and lay quiet for a short time, then she looked up again and tried to sit up.
"I am better now, father."
"Thank God for that, Ruth. It gave me a turn when I saw you carried in here, I can tell you; but lie still a little time longer, the doctor will be here in a few minutes."
"I don't want him, father."
"Yes, you do, my dear, and anyhow as he has been sent for he must come and see you; you need not trouble about going up to The Hold, it was three of the men there that found you and brought you down; I will send a note by them to Miss Carne telling her you had a bad fall, and that we will keep you here until to-morrow morning. I am sure you will not be fit to walk up that hill again to-day. Anyhow we will wait until the doctor comes and hear what he says."
Ten minutes later the doctor arrived, and after hearing Hiram's account of what had happened, felt Ruth's pulse and then examined her head.
"Ah, here is where you fell," he said; "a good deal of swelling, and it has cut the skin. However, a little bathing with warm water is all that is wanted. There, now, stand up if you can and walk a step or two, and tell me if you feel any pain anywhere else.
"Ah, nowhere except in the shoulder.
Hiram did understand, and before Mrs. Powlett returned from chapel, Ruth, with the assistance of the woman who had come in, was in bed.
"I look upon it as a judgment," Mrs. Powlett said upon her return, when she heard the particulars. "If she had been with me at chapel this never would have happened. It's a message to her that no good can come of her sitting under that blind guide, the parson. I hope it will open her eyes, and that she will be led to join the fold."
"I don't think it is likely, Hesba," Hiram said, quietly, "and you will find it hard to persuade her that loose stone I suppose she trod on was dropped special into the road to trip her up in coming from church. Anyhow you can't talk about it to-day; the doctor's orders are that she is to be kept perfectly quiet, that she is not to talk herself, and that there's to be no talking in the room. He says she can have a cup of tea if she can take it, but I doubt at present whether she can take even that; the poor child looks as if she could scarce open her eyes for anything, and no wonder, for the doctor says she must have fallen tremendous heavy."
Mrs. Powlett made the tea and took it upstairs. Any ideas she may have had of improving the occasion, in spite of the doctor's injunctions, vanished when she saw Ruth's white face on the pillow. Noiselessly she placed the little table close to the bed and put the cup upon it. Ruth opened her eyes as she did so.
"Here is some tea, dearie," Hesba said, softly. "I will put it down here, and you can drink it when you feel inclined." Ruth murmured "Thank you," and Hesba stooped over her and kissed her cheek more softly than she had ever done before, and then went quietly out of the room again.
"She looks worse than I thought for, Hiram," she said, as she proceeded to help the little servant they kept to lay the cloth for dinner. "I doubt she's more hurt than the doctor thinks. I could see there were tears on her cheek, and Ruth was never one to cry, not when she was hurt ever so much. Of course, it may be because she is low and weak; still I tell you that I don't like it. Is the doctor coming again?"
"Yes; he said he would look in again this evening."
"I don't like it," Hesba repeated, "and after dinner I will put on my bonnet and go down to the doctor myself and hear what he has got to say about her. Perhaps he will tell me more than he would you; he knows what poor creatures men are. They just get frighted out of what wits they've got, if you let on any one's bad; but I will get it out of him. It frets me to think I wasn't here when she was brought in, instead of having strangers messing about her."
It came into Hiram's mind to retort that her being away at that moment was a special warning against her going to Dareport; but the low, troubled voice in which she spoke, and the furtive passing of her hand across her cheek to brush away a tear, effectually silenced him. It was all so unusual in the case of Hesba, whom, indeed, he had never seen so soft and womanly since the first day she had crossed the threshold of the house, that he was at once touched and alarmed.
"I hope you are wrong, wife; I hope you are wrong," he said, putting his hand on her shoulder. "I don't think the doctor thought badly of it, but he seemed puzzled like, I thought; but if there's trouble, Hesba, we will bear it together, you and I; it's sent for good, we both know that. We goes the same way, you know, wife, if we don't go by the same road."
The woman made no answer, for at that moment the girl appeared with the dinner. Hesba ate but a few mouthfuls, and then saying sharply that she had no appetite, rose from the table, put on her bonnet and shawl, and, without a word, walked out.
She was away longer than Hiram expected, and in the meantime he had to answer the questions of many of the neighbours, who, having heard from the woman who had been called in of Ruth's accident, came to learn the particulars. When Hesba returned she brought a bundle with her.
"The doctor's coming in an hour," she said. "I didn't get much out of him, except he said it had been a shock to her system, and he was afraid that there might be slight concussion of the brain. He said if that was so we should want some ice to put to her head, and I have been up to The Hold and seen Miss Carne. I had heard Ruth say they always have ice up there, and she has given me some. She was just coming down to inquire about Ruth, but of course I told her she couldn't talk to nobody. That was the doctor's orders. Has she moved since I have been away?"
Hiram shook his head. "I have been up twice, but she was just lying with her eyes closed."
"Well, I will go and sit up there," Hesba said. "Tell that girl if she makes any noise, out of the house she goes; and the best thing you can do is to take your pipe and sit in that arbour outside, or walk up and down if you can't keep yourself warm; and don't let any one come knocking at the door and worriting her. It will be worse for them if I has to come down."
Hiram Powlett obeyed his wife's parting injunction and kept on guard all the afternoon, being absent from his usual place in church for the first time for years. In the evening there was nothing for him to do in the house, and his wife being upstairs, he followed his usual custom of dropping for half an hour into the snuggery of the "Carne Arms."
"Yes, it's true," he said in answer to the questions of his cronies, "Ruth has had a bad fall, and the doctor this afternoon says as she has got a slight concussion of the brain. He said he hoped she would get over it, but he looked serious-like when he came downstairs. It's a bad affair, I expect. But she is in God's hands, and a better girl never stepped, though I says it." There was a murmur of regret and consolation among the three smokers, but they saw that Hiram was too upset for many words, and the conversation turned into other channels for a time, Hiram taking no share in it but smoking silently.
"It's a rum thing," he said, presently, during a pause in the conversation, "that a man don't know really about a woman's nature, not when he has lived with her for years and years. Now there's my wife Hesba, who has got a tongue as sharp as any one in this village." A momentary smile passed round the circle, for the sharpness of Hesba Powlett's tongue was notorious. "It scarce seemed to me, neighbours, as she had got a soft side to her or that she cared more for Ruth than she did for the house-dog. She always did her duty by her, I will say that for her; and a tidier woman and a better housewife there ain't in the country round. But duty is one thing and love is another. Now you would hardly believe it, but I do think that Hesba feels this business as much as I do. You wouldn't have knowed her; she goes about the house with her shoes off as quiet as a mouse, and she speaks that soft and gentle you wouldn't know it was her. Women's queer creatures anyway."
There was a chorus of assent to the proposition, and, in fact, the discovery that Hesba Powlett had a soft side to her nature was astonishing indeed.
For three days Ruth Powlett lay unconscious, and then quiet and good nursing, and the ice on her head, had their effect; and one evening the doctor, on visiting her, said that he thought a change had taken place, and that she was now sleeping naturally. The next morning there was consciousness in her eyes when she opened them, and she looked in surprise at the room darkened by a curtain pinned across the window, and at Hesba, sitting by her bedside, with a huge nightcap on her head.
"What is it, mother, what has happened?"
"You have been ill, Ruth, but thank God you are better now. Don't talk, dear, and don't worry. I have got some beef-tea warming by the fire; the doctor said you were to try and drink a cup when you woke, and then to go off to sleep again."
Ruth looked with a feeble surprise after Hesba as she left the room, missing the sharp, decisive foot-tread. In a minute she returned as noiselessly as she had gone.
"Can you hold the cup yourself, Ruth, or shall I feed you?"
Ruth put out her hand, but it was too weak to hold the cup. She was able, however, slightly to raise her head, and Hesba held the cup to her lips.
"What have you done to your feet, mother?" she asked, as she finished the broth.
"I have left my shoes downstairs, Ruth; the doctor said you were to be kept quiet. Now try to go to sleep, that's a dear."
She stooped and kissed the girl affectionately, and Ruth, to her surprise, felt a tear drop on her cheek. She was wondering over this strange circumstance when she again fell asleep.
In a few days she was about the house again, but she was silent and grave, and did not gain strength as fast as the doctor had hoped for. However, in three weeks' time she was well enough to return to The Hold. Hiram had strongly remonstrated against her doing so, but she seemed to set her mind upon it, urging that she would be better for having something to think about and do than in remaining idle at home; and as the doctor was also of opinion that the change would be rather likely to benefit than to do her harm, Hiram gave way.
The day before she left she said to her father:
"Do you know whether George Forester has been caught, or whether he has got away?"
"He has not been caught, Ruth, but I don't think he has gone away; there is a talk in the village that he has been hiding down at Dareport, and the constable has gone over there several times, but he can't find signs of him. I think he must be mad to stay so near when he knows he is wanted. I can't think what is keeping him."
"I have made up my mind, father, to give him up. You have been right, and I know now he would not make me a good husband; but please don't say anything against him, it is hard enough as it is."
Hiram kissed his daughter.
"Thank God for that news, Ruth. I hoped after that poaching business you would see it in that light, and that he wasn't fit for a mate for one like you. Your mother will be glad, child. She ain't like the same woman as she was, is she?"
"No, indeed, father, I do not seem to know her."
"I don't know as I was ever so knocked over in my life as I was yesterday, Ruth, when your mother came downstairs in her bonnet and shawl, and said, 'I am going to church with you, Hiram.' I didn't open my lips until we were half-way, and then she said as how it had been borne in on her as how her not being here when you was brought in was a judgment on her for being away at Dareport instead of being at church with us; and she said more than that, as how, now she thought over it, she saw as she hadn't done right by me and you all these years, and hoped to make a better wife what time she was left to us. I wasn't sure at church time as it wasn't a dream to see her sitting there beside me, and joining in the hymns, listening attentive to the parson as she has always been running down. She said on the way home she felt just as she did when she was a girl, five-and-twenty years ago, and used to come over here to church, afore she took up with the Methodies."
Ruth kissed her father.
"Then my fall has done good after all," she said. "It makes me happy to know it."
"I shall be happy when I see you quite yourself again, Ruth. Come back to us soon, dear."
"I will, father; in the spring I will come home again for good, I promise you," and so Ruth returned for a time to The Hold.
"I am glad you are back again, Ruth," Miss Carne, who had been down several times to see her, said. "I told you not to hurry yourself, and I would have done without you for another month, but you know I am really very glad to have you back again. Mary managed my hair very well, but I could not talk to her as I do to you."
Ruth had not been many hours in the house before she learnt from her fellow-servants that Mr. Gulston had been over two or three times since the shooting party, and that the servants in general had an opinion that he came over to see Miss Carne.
"It's easy to see that with half an eye," one of the girls said, "and I think Miss Margaret likes him too, and no wonder, for a properer-looking man is not to be seen; but I always thought she would have married her cousin. Every one has thought so for years."
"It's much better she should take the sailor gentleman," one of the elder women said. "I am not saying anything against Mr. Ronald, who is as nice a young gentleman as one would want to see, but he is her cousin, and I don't hold to marriages among cousins anyhow, and especially in a family like ours."
"I think it is better for us not to talk about it at all," Ruth said, quietly; "I don't think it right and proper, and it will be quite time enough to talk about Miss Margaret's affairs when we know she is engaged."
The others were silent for a minute after Ruth's remark, and then the under-housemaid, who had been an old playmate of Ruth's, said:
"You never have ideas like other people, Ruth Powlett. It is a funny thing that we can't say a word about people in the house without being snapped up."
"Ruth is right," the other said, "and your tongue runs too fast, Jane. As Ruth says, it will be quite time enough to talk when Miss Margaret is engaged; till then the least said the better."
In truth, Lieutenant Gulston had been several times at The Hold, and his friend the doctor, seeing his admonition had been altogether thrown away, avoided the subject, but from his gravity of manner showed that he had not forgotten it; and he shook his head sadly when one afternoon the lieutenant had obtained leave until the following day. "I wish I had never spoken. Had I not been an old fool I should have known well enough that he was fairly taken by her. We have sailed together for twelve years, and now there is an end to our friendship. I hope that will be all, and that he will not have reason to be sorry he did not take my advice and drop it in time. Of course she may have escaped and I think that she has done so; but it's a terrible risk – terrible. I would give a year's pay that it shouldn't have happened."
An hour before Lieutenant Gulston left his ship, Ronald Mervyn had started for The Hold. A word that had been said by a young officer of the flagship who was dining at mess had caught his ears. It was concerning his first-lieutenant.
"He's got quite a fishing mania at present, and twice a week he goes off for the day to some place twenty miles away – Carnesford, I think it is. He does not seem to have much luck; anyhow, he never brings any fish home. He is an awfully good fellow, Gulston; the best first-lieutenant I ever sailed with by a long way."
What Ronald Mervyn heard was not pleasant to him. He had noticed the attentions Gulston had paid to Margaret Carne at the ball, and had been by no means pleased at meeting him, installed at The Hold with the shooting party, and the thought that he had been twice a week over in that neighbourhood caused an angry surprise. The next morning, therefore, he telegraphed home for a horse to meet him at the station, and started as soon as lunch was over. He stayed half an hour at home, for his house lay on the road between the station and Carne's Hold. The answer he received from his sister to a question he put did not add to his good temper.
Oh, yes. Mr. Gulston had called a day or two after he had been to the shooting party, and they had heard he had been at The Hold several times since.
When he arrived there, Ronald found that Margaret and her brother were both in the drawing-room, and he stood chatting with them there for some time, or rather chatting with Margaret, for Reginald was dull and moody. At last the latter sauntered away.
"What's the matter with you, sir?" Margaret said to her cousin. "You don't seem to be quite yourself; is it the weather? Reginald is duller and more silent than usual, he has hardly spoken a word to-day."
"No, it's not the weather," he replied, sharply. "I want to ask you a question, Margaret."
"Well, if you ask it civilly," the girl replied, "I will answer it, but certainly not otherwise."
"I hear that that sailor fellow has been coming here several times. What does it mean?"
Margaret Carne threw back her head haughtily. "What do you mean, Ronald, by speaking in that tone; are you out of your mind?"
"Not more than the family in general," he replied, grimly; "but you have not answered my question."
"I have not asked Lieutenant Gulston what he comes here for," she said, coldly; "and, besides, I do not recognise your right to ask me such a question."
"Not recognise my right?" he repeated, passionately. "I should have thought that a man had every right to ask such a question of the woman he is going to marry."
"Going to marry?" she repeated, scornfully. "At any rate this is the first I have heard of it."
"It has always been a settled thing," he said, "and you know it as well as I do. You promised me ten years ago that you would be my wife some day."
"Ten years ago I was a child. Ronald, how can you talk like this! You know we have always been as brother and sister together. I have never thought of anything else of late. You have been home four or five months, anyhow, and you have had plenty of time to speak if you wanted to. You never said a word to lead me to believe that you thought of me in any other way than as a cousin."
"I thought we understood each other, Margaret."
"I thought so too," the girl replied, "but not in the same way. Oh, Ronald, don't say this; we have always been such friends, and perhaps years ago I might have thought it would be something more; but since then I have grown up and grown wiser, and even if I had loved you in the way you speak of, I would not have married you, because I am sure it would be bad for us both. We have both that terrible curse in our blood, and if there was not another man in the world I would not marry you."