iss Ruby Ruggles, the granddaughter of old Daniel Ruggles, of Sheep's Acre, in the parish of Sheepstone, close to Bungay, received the following letter from the hands of the rural post letter-carrier on that Sunday morning;—"A friend will be somewhere near Sheepstone Birches between four and five o'clock on Sunday afternoon." There was not another word in the letter, but Miss Ruby Ruggles knew well from whom it came.
Daniel Ruggles was a farmer, who had the reputation of considerable wealth, but who was not very well looked on in the neighbourhood as being somewhat of a curmudgeon and a miser. His wife was dead;—he had quarrelled with his only son, whose wife was also dead, and had banished him from his home;—his daughters were married and away; and the only member of his family who lived with him was his granddaughter Ruby. And this granddaughter was a great trouble to the old man. She was twenty-three years old, and had been engaged to a prosperous young man at Bungay in the meal and pollard line, to whom old Ruggles had promised to give £500 on their marriage. But Ruby had taken it into her foolish young head that she did not like meal and pollard, and now she had received the above very dangerous letter. Though the writer had not dared to sign his name she knew well that it came from Sir Felix Carbury,—the most beautiful gentleman she had ever set her eyes upon. Poor Ruby Ruggles! Living down at Sheep's Acre, on the Waveney, she had heard both too much and too little of the great world beyond her ken. There were, she thought, many glorious things to be seen which she would never see were she in these her early years to become the wife of John Crumb, the dealer in meal and pollard at Bungay. Therefore she was full of a wild joy, half joy half fear, when she got her letter; and, therefore, punctually at four o'clock on that Sunday she was ensconced among the Sheepstone Birches, so that she might see without much danger of being seen. Poor Ruby Ruggles, who was left to be so much mistress of herself at the time of her life in which she most required the kindness of a controlling hand!
Mr. Ruggles held his land, or the greater part of it, on what is called a bishop's lease, Sheep's Acre Farm being a part of the property which did belong to the bishopric of Elmham, and which was still set apart for its sustentation;—but he also held a small extent of outlying meadow which belonged to the Carbury estate, so that he was one of the tenants of Roger Carbury. Those Sheepstone Birches, at which Felix made his appointment, belonged to Roger. On a former occasion, when the feeling between the two cousins was kinder than that which now existed, Felix had ridden over with the landlord to call on the old man, and had then first seen Ruby;—and had heard from Roger something of Ruby's history up to that date. It had then been just made known that she was to marry John Crumb. Since that time not a word had been spoken between the men respecting the girl. Mr. Carbury had heard, with sorrow, that the marriage was either postponed or abandoned,—but his growing dislike to the baronet had made it very improbable that there should be any conversation between them on the subject. Sir Felix, however, had probably heard more of Ruby Ruggles than her grandfather's landlord.
There is, perhaps, no condition of mind more difficult for the ordinarily well-instructed inhabitant of a city to realise than that of such a girl as Ruby Ruggles. The rural day labourer and his wife live on a level surface which is comparatively open to the eye. Their aspirations, whether for good or evil,—whether for food and drink to be honestly earned for themselves and children, or for drink first, to be come by either honestly or dishonestly,—are, if looked at at all, fairly visible. And with the men of the Ruggles class one can generally find out what they would be at, and in what direction their minds are at work. But the Ruggles woman,—especially the Ruggles young woman,—is better educated, has higher aspirations and a brighter imagination, and is infinitely more cunning than the man. If she be good-looking and relieved from the pressure of want, her thoughts soar into a world which is as unknown to her as heaven is to us, and in regard to which her longings are apt to be infinitely stronger than are ours for heaven. Her education has been much better than that of the man. She can read, whereas he can only spell words from a book. She can write a letter after her fashion, whereas he can barely spell words out on a paper. Her tongue is more glib, and her intellect sharper. But her ignorance as to the reality of things is much more gross than his. By such contact as he has with men in markets, in the streets of the towns he frequents, and even in the fields, he learns something unconsciously of the relative condition of his countrymen,—and, as to that which he does not learn, his imagination is obtuse. But the woman builds castles in the air, and wonders, and longs. To the young farmer the squire's daughter is a superior being very much out of his way. To the farmer's daughter the young squire is an Apollo, whom to look at is a pleasure,—by whom to be looked at is a delight. The danger for the most part is soon over. The girl marries after her kind, and then husband and children put the matter at rest for ever.
A mind more absolutely uninstructed than that of Ruby Ruggles as to the world beyond Suffolk and Norfolk it would be impossible to find. But her thoughts were as wide as they were vague, and as active as they were erroneous. Why should she with all her prettiness, and all her cleverness,—with all her fortune to boot,—marry that dustiest of all men, John Crumb, before she had seen something of the beauties of the things of which she had read in the books which came in her way? John Crumb was not bad-looking. He was a sturdy, honest fellow, too,—slow of speech but sure of his points when he had got them within his grip,—fond of his beer but not often drunk, and the very soul of industry at his work. But though she had known him all her life she had never known him otherwise than dusty. The meal had so gotten within his hair, and skin, and raiment, that it never came out altogether even on Sundays. His normal complexion was a healthy pallor, through which indeed some records of hidden ruddiness would make themselves visible, but which was so judiciously assimilated to his hat and coat and waistcoat, that he was more like a stout ghost than a healthy young man. Nevertheless it was said of him that he could thrash any man in Bungay, and carry two hundred weight of flour upon his back. And Ruby also knew this of him,—that he worshipped the very ground on which she trod.
But, alas, she thought there might be something better than such worship; and, therefore, when Felix Carbury came in her way, with his beautiful oval face, and his rich brown colour, and his bright hair and lovely moustache, she was lost in a feeling which she mistook for love; and when he sneaked over to her a second and a third time, she thought more of his listless praise than ever she had thought of John Crumb's honest promises. But, though she was an utter fool, she was not a fool without a principle. She was miserably ignorant; but she did understand that there was a degradation which it behoved her to avoid. She thought, as the moths seem to think, that she might fly into the flame and not burn her wings. After her fashion she was pretty, with long glossy ringlets, which those about the farm on week days would see confined in curl-papers, and large round dark eyes, and a clear dark complexion, in which the blood showed itself plainly beneath the soft brown skin. She was strong, and healthy, and tall,—and had a will of her own which gave infinite trouble to old Daniel Ruggles, her grandfather.
Felix Carbury took himself two miles out of his way in order that he might return by Sheepstone Birches, which was a little copse distant not above half a mile from Sheep's Acre farmhouse. A narrow angle of the little wood came up to the road, by which there was a gate leading into a grass meadow, which Sir Felix had remembered when he made his appointment. The road was no more than a country lane, unfrequented at all times, and almost sure to be deserted on Sundays. He approached the gate in a walk, and then stood awhile looking into the wood. He had not stood long before he saw the girl's bonnet beneath a tree standing just outside the wood, in the meadow, but on the bank of the ditch. Thinking for a moment what he would do about his horse, he rode him into the field, and then, dismounting, fastened him to a rail which ran down the side of the copse. Then he sauntered on till he stood looking down upon Ruby Ruggles as she sat beneath the tree. "I like your impudence," she said, "in calling yourself a friend."
"Ain't I a friend, Ruby?"
"A pretty sort of friend, you! When you was going away, you was to be back at Carbury in a fortnight; and that is,—oh, ever so long ago now."
"But I wrote to you, Ruby."
"What's letters? And the postman to know all as in 'em for anything anybody knows, and grandfather to be almost sure to see 'em. I don't call letters no good at all, and I beg you won't write 'em any more."
"Did he see them?"
"No thanks to you if he didn't. I don't know why you are come here, Sir Felix,—nor yet I don't know why I should come and meet you. It's all just folly like."
"Because I love you;—that's why I come; eh, Ruby? And you have come because you love me; eh, Ruby? Is not that about it?" Then he threw himself on the ground beside her, and got his arm round her waist.
It would boot little to tell here all that they said to each other. The happiness of Ruby Ruggles for that half hour was no doubt complete. She had her London lover beside her; and though in every word he spoke there was a tone of contempt, still he talked of love, and made her promises, and told her that she was pretty. He probably did not enjoy it much; he cared very little about her, and carried on the liaison simply because it was the proper sort of thing for a young man to do. He had begun to think that the odour of patchouli was unpleasant, and that the flies were troublesome, and the ground hard, before the half hour was over. She felt that she could be content to sit there for ever and to listen to him. This was a realisation of those delights of life of which she had read in the thrice-thumbed old novels which she had gotten from the little circulating library at Bungay.
But what was to come next? She had not dared to ask him to marry her,—had not dared to say those very words; and he had not dared to ask her to be his mistress. There was an animal courage about her, and an amount of strength also, and a fire in her eye, of which he had learned to be aware. Before the half hour was over I think that he wished himself away;—but when he did go, he made a promise to see her again on the Tuesday morning. Her grandfather would be at Harlestone market, and she would meet him at about noon at the bottom of the kitchen garden belonging to the farm. As he made the promise he resolved that he would not keep it. He would write to her again, and bid her come to him in London, and would send her money for the journey.
"I suppose I am to be his wedded wife," said Ruby to herself, as she crept away down from the road, away also from her own home;—so that on her return her presence should not be associated with that of the young man, should any one chance to see the young man on the road. "I'll never be nothing unless I'm that," she said to herself. Then she allowed her mind to lose itself in expatiating on the difference between John Crumb and Sir Felix Carbury.
Last modified 22 September 2014