John Romley was the cause of her exile. This young man had been a pupil of the Rector's, and studied divinity with him for a while before matriculating at Lincoln College, Oxford; where in due course he took his degree, and whence he returned, in deacon's orders, to take charge of the endowed school at Epworth and to help in the spiritual work of the parish. Mr. Wesley's experience of curates had been far from happy, but Romley promised to be the bright exception in a long list of failures. (It was he who discovered and introduced Johnny Whitelamb to the household.) He was sociable; had pleasant manners, a rotund figure not yet inclining to coarseness, a pink and white complexion, and a mellifluous tenor voice. To his voice, alas! he owed most of his misfortunes in life.
The Rector had no high opinion of his brains: but tolerated him, and at first looked on leniently enough when he began to pay his addresses to Patty. Indeed the courtship proceeded to the gentle envy of her sisters until one fatal night when Romley, in the rectory parlour at Wroote, attuned his voice to sing the Vicar of Bray. In his study Mr. Wesley heard it. He, of all men, was no Vicar of Bray, albeit he had abjured Dissent: but he felt his cloth insulted, and by this fribble of his own order. It was treason in short, and he bounced into the parlour as Mr. Romley carolled:
"When gracious Anne became our Queen, The Church of England's glory, Another face of things was seen, And I became a Tory; Occasional Conformists base--"
There was a scene, and it ended in Romley being shown the door and Patty forbidden to have speech with him. Actually she had not set eyes on him since that night: but the Rector unaccountably omitted to forbid their corresponding. Now Patty, the most literally minded of her sex, had a niggling obstinacy in pursuit of her ends. She would obey to a hair's breadth: but, nothing having been said about letters, letters passed. Piecing the truth together from her incoherent railings, Hetty learned that the Rector had happened upon a scrap of Romley's handwriting, had lost his temper furiously and given sentence of banishment.
Patty in love showed none of her sister's glorious fervour: but stared obtusely, even sulkily, when Hetty hinted at her own secret and, pressing her waist, spoke of love with fearless elation, yet as of a sacred thing.
"Oh, you're too poetical for me!" she interrupted.
This was depressing.
"And I wish I was in my grave," added Patty, looking like a martyr in a wet blanket.
Thinking to put spirit into her, Hetty became more explicit and proved that love might find out a way between Epworth and Kelstein-- nay, even spoke of her own clandestine meeting that very afternoon. Her cheeks glowed. Nor for a minute did she observe that Patty, listless at the beginning of the tale, was staring at her with round eyes.
"You mean to tell me that you meet him!"
"Why, of course I do."
"But father forbade it!"
"To be sure he did."
"Then all I can say is"--Patty rose to her feet in the strength of her disapproval--"that I call it disgraceful, and I'm perfectly ashamed of you!"
"But, good Heavens! he forbade you to see Romley."
"But not to write."
"O-o!" Hetty mused with her pretty mouth shaped to the letter. "And now, I suppose, he has forbidden that too?"
"Of course he has."
"And are you going to obey?"
"Of course I am."
It was Hetty's turn to stare wide-eyed. "You are going to give Romley up?" she asked very slowly.
"Yes, yes, yes--and I wish I was in my grave!" Patty collapsed again dismally, but sat upright after a moment. "As for your behaviour, 'tis positively wicked, and I think father ought to be told of it!"
Hetty put out both hands; but instead of shaking her sister (as she was minded to do) she let the open palms fall gently upon her shoulders and looked her in the face.
"Then I advise you not to tell him, dear. For in the first place it would do no good."
"Do no good?"
"Well, then, it would make no difference."
"You mean to--run away--with him?" gasped Patty, her eyes involuntarily turning towards the window.
The glance set Hetty's laughter rippling. "Pat--Pat! don't be a goose. I shall not run away with him from this house. I promised mother."
"You--promised--mother!" Patty was reduced to stammering echoes.
"Dear me, yes. You must not suppose yourself the only one of her children she understands." Hetty, being human, could not forgo this little slap. "Now wash your face, like a good girl, and come down to supper: and afterwards you shall tell me all the news of home. There's one thing"--and she eyed Patty drolly--"I can trust you to be accurate."
"Do you mean to tell me that you can look father in the face--" But here Patty broke off, at the sound of hoofs on the gravel below.
"There will be no need," said Hetty quietly, "if, as I think, he is mounting Bounce to ride home."
"Bounce? How did you know that Bounce brought us?"--for Bounce was Mrs. Wesley's nag, and the Rector usually rode an old gray named Mettle, but had taken of late to a filly of his own breeding.
"I ought to remember Bounce's shuffle," answered Hetty. "Nay, I should have recognised it on the road two miles back if--if I hadn't been--"
She came to a full stop, in some confusion. Nevertheless she was right; and the girls arrived downstairs to learn from Mrs. Grantham that their father had ridden off, declining her offer of supper and scoffing at her fears of highwaymen.
And the days went by. Hetty could not help telling herself that Patty was a disappointment. But she was saved from reflecting on it overmuch: for Mrs. Grantham (after forty years of comfort without one) had conceived a desire to be waited on and have her hair dressed by a maid, and between Mrs. Grantham's inability to discover precisely what she wanted done by Patty, and Patty's unhandiness in doing it, and Mrs. Grantham's anxiety to fill up Patty's time, and Patty's lack of inventiveness, the pair kept Hetty pretty constantly near her wit's end.
Concerning her lover she attempted no more confidences. But, alone, she pondered much on Patty's reproof, which set her arguing out the whole case afresh. For, absurd though its logic was, it had touched her conscience. Was it conscience (she asked herself) or but the old habit of trembling at her father's word, which kept her so uneasy in disobeying him?
She came to no new conclusion; for a sense of injustice gave a twist to her thinking from the start. All his daughters held Mr. Wesley in awe: they never dreamed, for instance, of comparing their lovers with him in respect of dignity or greatness. They assumed that their brothers inherited some portion of that greatness, but they required none in the men to whom they were ready to give their hands; nay, perhaps unconsciously rejoiced in the lack of it, having lived with it at home and found it uncomfortable.
They were proud of it, of course, and knew that they themselves had some touch of it, if but a lunar glow. They read the assurance in their mother's speech, in her looks; and, moving among the Epworth folk as neighbours, yet apart, they had acquired a high pride of family which derived nothing from vulgar chatter about titled, rich and far-off relatives; but, taking ancestry for granted, found sustenance enough in the daily life at the parsonage and the letters from Westminster and Oxford. Aware of some worth in themselves, they saw themselves pinched of food, exiled from many companions, shut out from social gatherings for want of pocket-money and decent attire, while amid all the muddle of his affairs their father could tramp for miles and pledge the last ounce of his credit to scrape a few pounds for John or Charles. They divined his purpose: but they felt the present injustice.
They never regarded him as just. And this was mainly his own fault, or at least the fault of his theory that women, especially daughters, were not to be reasoned with but commanded. Hetty, for example, had an infinite capacity for self-sacrifice. At an appeal from him she would have surrendered, not small vanities only, but desires more than trivial, for the brothers whom in her heart she loved to fondness. But the sacrifice was ever exacted, not left to her good-nature; the right word never spoken.
And now, under the same numbing deference, her mother had failed her at a moment when all her heart cried out in its need. Hetty loved her lover. Perhaps, if allowed to fare abroad, consort with other girls, and learn, with responsibility, to choose better, she had never chosen this man. She had chosen him now. Poor Hetty!
But that she did wrong to meet him secretly her conscience accused her. She had been trained religiously. Had she no religion, then, upon which to stay her sense of duty?
Where a mother has failed, even the Bible may fail. Hetty read her Bible: but just because its austerer teaching had been bound too harshly upon her at home, she turned by instinct to the gentler side which reveals Christ's loving-kindness, His pity, His indulgence. All generous natures lean towards this side, and to their honour, but at times also to their very great danger. For the austerity is meant for them who most need it. Also the austere rules are more definite, which makes them a surer guide for the soul desiring goodness, but passionately astray. It spurns them, demanding loving-kindness; and discovers too late that loving-kindness dictated them.
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