Because of the Word
By Hazel M. Thomson
Synopsis: Ruth Ann Barker, who lives, in the early 1830s, with her widowed father, a farmer in the Naumkeg Valley of New England, dislikes farm life and cannot decide to marry Victor Hall, a neighboring farmer. Ruth Ann goes to Boston to visit her cousin Claire Mayhew, and meets Quinton Palmer, a suitor of Claire’s, whose declares that he has fallen in love with Ruth at their first meeting.
The air was strained between the two girls as Ruth Ann prepared to leave the next morning. On the long ride home in the coach, she had time to think of many things she could have done.
She could have refused to dance all those dances, but he was such a wonderful dancer. She realized she could hardly have protested enough to have him pay any attention to it. His way of presuming to get what he desired was a little disquieting.
She could have insisted on staying near Claire, or perhaps she could and should have stayed at home in the first place.
She arrived home late in the afternoon, to find the work both inside and out had piled up during her absence. Coming up the walk, she noticed the gardens, both flowers and vegetables, were already touched by frost. Inside, her father had done little, except make his bed and keep the dishes washed up.
Ruth Ann worked quickly and straightened and scrubbed. It was growing dark and her father still hadn’t appeared. He often worked late if he thought he could finish a job that night. She still wasn’t too concerned when she heard a step on the porch. She opened the door hurriedly to find, not her father, but Vic standing there. Instinctively, she put a hand to her hair, knowing it was disarranged, but the look on his face made her forget her own appearance.
“Ruth Ann! I didn’t know you were back until I saw the lamp was lighted. May I come in?”
“Yes, of course,” said Ruth Ann. “Vic, something’s wrong. What is it?”
“It’s your father, Ruth,” said Vic gently. “The colt threw him and his head struck a stone. I found him and carried him into my cabin. He’s dead, Ruth Ann.”
The room reeled before her eyes, and Vic caught her arm and led her to a chair. Her father, dead! It was impossible, yet Vic said so, Vic who would never tell an untruth. Vic said her father wasn’t coming home. She stared woodenly at him.
“Ruth Ann! do you know what I said? Did you hear me?” Vic took her by the shoulders, shaking her lightly.
All her pent-up distaste for farm life surged over her. What had it ever been except hard and disagreeable, and now it had taken not only one but both her parents. Then the tears came and she sobbed out her heartbreak in Vic’s arms.
Claire came for the funeral, but nothing was said about Quinton. Ruth refused Claire’s invitation to return to Boston with her, feeling it best that she get used to being alone in familiar surroundings. Vic got Mrs. Walker, a widow from the village, who went from place to place where her services were needed, to come and stay with Ruth. It proved to be a good arrangement. Mrs. Walker was cheerful and refused to let Ruth brood over her sadness. Vic came almost revery night to cut wood for her fires, do other chores, talk, if Ruth felt like it, or just sit with her before the fireplace.
His looks and actions told her that he had not forgotten his proposal, but she was grateful that for the time being he did not refer to it. His only concern now was for her, and she had never known a person so thoughtful of another. He seemed to sense her mood almost before she realized it herself.
A heavy snowstorm came just a few days before Christmas, and Ruth Ann was surprised to have a morning visitor from Boston. It was Quinton, arriving by sleigh, and looking more handsome than she remembered.
“Ruth Ann! It took longer than I had planned, but I warned you I would come.”
“What a nice surprise!” said Ruth Ann, “but how did you get here this time of day? You must have been driving most of the night.”
Quinton laughed. “No, not really. I had work to do nearby and arrived in the village too late to find you last evening. How are you, Ruth? Claire told me about your father. I had planned to come earlier, but thought perhaps I had better wait for a while after your trouble.”
Ruth Ann mentally compared his words with Vic’s attitude. Vic simply assumed there were things that needed doing and did them.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” apologized Ruth. “Come in by the fire. You must be cold after your drive.”
“Not at all. It’s a delightful day for driving. That’s one reason I dare ask you this. Come back to Boston with me for the holidays, will you, Ruth Ann? I told Claire I was going to ask you. I’ve told her lots of things since the night I met you. She understands and asked me to bring you.”
To Ruth Ann, Christmas was a time to be dreaded this year, a thing that must be endured somehow. Parties and dancing still seemed out of keeping with her feelings about her father.
“Not now, Quinton. Perhaps later I will come.”
“Ruth Ann,” he pleaded earnestly, “you’ve been stuck out here so long alone the city would be good for you.”
“I’m not alone,” she answered. “There are many friends who have been very kind.”
Ruth Ann felt again a compelling force about this man and was glad when Mrs. Walker insisted on bringing in a lunch and serving them before the fire. Ruth enjoyed his conversation and found herself laughing for the first time in many days.
“There. You see. I am good for you. I think that is the first you’ve laughed in weeks. Will you come with me, Ruth Ann? He put his hand over hers on the table and held it tight.
“Please, Ruth Ann. I am not in the habit of begging, but I can’t get you out of my mind. Even in court you crowd my thoughts and mix up my arguments. Ruth Ann …”
He stopped as he followed her startled eyes to the doorway. Mrs. Walker had brought Vic into the room. Ruth Ann, seeing him, pulled her hand away quickly.
“I’m sorry,” said Vic. “Mrs. Walker, you didn’t tell me Ruth had a caller.”
“You didn’t ask. You said, ‘Is she home?’ and I said ‘Yes,’ and here she is,” answered Mrs. Walker, returning to the kitchen.
Ruth felt at a disadvantage in front of Vic and felt angered at him as the cause of it, but her voice was steady.
“Mr. Palmer, Mr. Hall.” She refused to meet Vic’s eyes, knowing he was truly apologetic for placing her in this position of embarrassment. The two men nodded, their eyes intent on each other for a long moment, as though taking the other’s measure and intentions in one searching glance.
“I met Mr. Palmer at Claire’s last fall,” explained Ruth, wondering at herself for thinking it necessary that she explain to Vic, her anger seething within her. “He has come to take me to Boston for the holidays. I’m not certain just when I will be back. Help Mrs. Walker look after the place while I’m away, will you, Vic?”
Her own words puzzled Ruth Ann. Why was she treating Vic in this manner? As for looking after things, hadn’t Vic being doing just that ever since the day of the funeral?
Ruth caught a glimpse of the hurt in Vic’s eyes as he answered evenly, “Of course. Have a good holiday, Ruth Ann. I brought your Christmas gift.” He placed a small package in her hand. “Good-bye.” He nodded to Quinton and was gone. Suddenly the room seemed bare and chilly. Ruth Ann stared after him. Quinton’s words aroused her.
“I will not try to figure out why you changed your mind, Ruth Ann. That you did is plenty good enough for me. Get packed and let’s be on our way before you change it again.”
The trip to Boston by sleigh was enjoyable for Ruth Ann. Behind Quinton’s fast, high-stepping pair of grays, with bells jingling merrily, the miles fell away. They had almost reached the city before Ruth Ann remembered the present she had for Vic, still in her bureau drawer.
The present was a new book that had been passed among several families in the village. Mrs. Walker, knowing Vic’s love for reading, had brought it to the house, and Ruth Ann had persuaded her to wait until Christmas before giving it to him.
“I’m not giving it to Vic,” Mrs. Walker had said. “You are.”
“But it is your book.”
“He will appreciate it a lot more from you than he will from me. I haven’t read it myself, but I’ve heard a lot of talk about it in different places where I’ve been working. They do say it is a most interesting story. Something about the Indians. I just figured Vic would like a good Indian story.”
“Vic would like any good story,” Ruth Ann had answered.
Funny how little it took to keep Vic happy. No need for gay parties and fancy-dress balls for him. A little lamplight and a good book, that was all that was necessary. Oh, well, thought Ruth Ann, determined to put Vic out of her mind, she could still give him the book when she returned.
The holidays in Boston were a continual round of parties and dances, sweet music, and pretty clothes. Quinton was in constant attendance. Claire seemed not to mind. She never lacked for partners and was her usual gay self. Ruth Ann decided that if Claire were suffering any pangs about Quinton, she was keeping them extremely well covered.
Ruth Ann saved the blue dress for Christmas Eve, just as she did the opening of Vic’s present. Alone in her bedroom, she opened the tiny package, to find a single blue stone hanging from a tiny gold chain. It finished the dress perfectly, and seemed to give her a feeling of security and comfort, such as she found only in Vic’s presence. In some strange, unexplainable way she seemed to feel a lessening of the loneliness she felt this season in the absence of her father.
She went downstairs and met Quinton in the great library of Claire’s spacious home to await the dancing that was to begin in the ballroom.
“How beautiful you are tonight,” he said, leading her to the divan before the blazing fire. “I have something for you, Ruth Ann. I want you to wear it to the dance tonight.”
“You shouldn’t have bothered, Quinton. I have nothing to …”
“You have nothing to give me? Is that what you were going to say? You have yourself. Ruth Ann, I do want you to marry me. I think you have known it since the first moment we met.”
He opened the box he took form his pocket and held it toward her. Inside Ruth saw the most beautiful string of pearls she had ever seen.
“Quinton! They are priceless!”
“So are you, my dear,” he said, taking them from the box and fastening them around her neck.
He took her in his arms and kissed her once. She drew back, shaken at his touch.
“Here,” he said, removing the little chain and handing the blue pendant to her. “You won’t need this little bauble tonight. You’ll be wearing something worthy of your beauty.”
In the mirror Ruth Ann looked at the pearls, emblematic of all that Quinton offered her. Then her eyes fell to the small pendant in her hand. Vic’s face rose before her as she had last seen it, hurt, yet kind in his own disappointment. For the first time in her life she felt a longing for the farm.
Slowly she unclasped the pearls and handed them back to Quinton, feeling their beauty and richness as she did so. He pleaded, thinking it might help to give him some hold on her, the beginning of a promise, but Ruth Ann was firm in her refusal as she refastened the golden chain about her throat.
“Keep them, Quinton, until I have time to think, a month, two months, away from you. When I have decided, only then would it be right for me to wear the pearls.”
(To be continued)