Whilst this friendly strife was proceeding between the elders, Sir Gervas Jerome and Mistress Ruth had fallen into conversation at the other side of the table. I have seldom seen, my dear children, so beautiful a face as that of this Puritan damsel; and it was beautiful with that sort of modest and maidenly comeliness where the features derive their sweetness from the sweet soul which shines through them. The perfectly-moulded body appeared to be but the outer expression of the perfect spirit within. Her dark-brown hair swept back from a broad and white forehead, which surmounted a pair of well-marked eyebrows and large blue thoughtful eyes. The whole cast of her features was gentle and dove-like, yet there was a firmness in the mouth and delicate prominence of the chin which might indicate that in times of trouble and danger the little maid would prove to be no unworthy descendant of the Roundhead soldier and Puritan magistrate. I doubt not that where more loud-tongued and assertive dames might be cowed, the Mayor's soft-voiced daughter would begin to cast off her gentler disposition, and to show the stronger nature which underlay it. It amused me much to listen to the efforts which Sir Gervas made to converse with her, for the damsel and he lived so entirely in two different worlds, that it took all his gallantry and ready wit to keep on ground which would be intelligible to her.
'No doubt you spend much of your time in reading, Mistress Ruth,' he remarked. 'It puzzles me to think what else you can do so far from town?'
'Town!' said she in surprise. 'What is Taunton but a town?'
'Heaven forbid that I should deny it,' replied Sir Gervas, 'more especially in the presence of so many worthy burghers, who have the name of being somewhat jealous of the honour of their native city. Yet the fact remains, fair mistress, that the town of London so far transcends all other towns that it is called, even as I called it just now, _the_ town.'
'Is it so very large, then?' she cried, with pretty wonder. 'But new louses are building in Taunton, outside the old walls, and beyond Shuttern, and some even at the other side of the river. Perhaps in time it may be as large.'
'If all the folks in Taunton were to be added to London,' said Sir Gervas, 'no one there would observe that there had been any increase.'
'Nay, there you are laughing at me. That is against all reason,' cried the country maiden.
'Your grandfather will bear out my words,' said Sir Gervas. 'But to return to your reading, I'll warrant that there is not a page of Scudery and her "Grand Cyrus" which you have not read. You are familiar, doubtless, with every sentiment in Cowley, or Waller, or Dryden?'
'Who are these?' she asked. 'At what church do they preach?'
'Faith!' cried the baronet, with a laugh, 'honest John preaches at the church of Will Unwin, commonly known as Will's, where many a time it is two in the morning before he comes to the end of his sermon. But why this question? Do you think that no one may put pen to paper unless they have also a right to wear a gown and climb up to a pulpit? I had thought that all of your sex had read Dryden. Pray, what are your own favourite books?'
'There is Alleine's "Alarm to the Unconverted,"' said she. 'It is a stirring work, and one which hath wrought much good. Hast thou not found it to fructify within thee?'
'I have not read the book you name,' Sir Gervas confessed.
'Not read it?' she cried, with raised eyebrows. 'Truly I had thought that every one had read the "Alarm." What dost thou think, then, of "Faithful Contendings"?'
'I have not read it.'
'Or of Baxter's Sermons?' she asked.
'I have not read them.'
'Of Bull's "Spirit Cordial," then?'
'I have not read it.'
Mistress Ruth Timewell stared at him in undisguised wonder. 'You may think me ill-bred to say it, sir,' she remarked, 'but I cannot but marvel where you have been, or what you have done all your life. Why, the very children in the street have read these books.'
'In truth, such works come little in our way in London,' Sir Gervas answered.