"Oh, Hetty!" was all Molly could find to say, rushing into the back garret where Hetty stood alone, and clinging to her with a long kiss.
Hetty held the dear deformed body against her bosom for a while, then relaxing her arms, turned towards the small window in the eaves. "My dear," she answered with a wry smile, "it had to come, you see, and now we must go through with it."
"But who could have written that wicked letter? Mother will not tell us--even if she knows, which I doubt."
"I fancy I know. And you must not exaggerate, even in your love for me. I don't suppose the letter was wicked, though it may have been spiteful."
"It accused you of the most dreadful things."
"If it be dreadful to meet the man you love, and in secret, then I have been behaving dreadfully."
"And that is just what I came home to confess." She paused at the sight of Molly's face. "What! are you against me too? Then I must fight this out alone, it seems."
"Darling Hetty, you must not--ah, don't look so at me!"
But Hetty turned her back. "Please leave me."
"If you had only written--"
"That would take long to explain. I am tired, and it is not worth while; please leave me."
"But you do not understand. I had to come, although for the time father has forbidden us to speak with you--"
Hetty stepped to the door and held it open. "Then one of his daughters at any rate shall be dutiful," she said.
Molly flung her an imploring look and walked out, sobbing.
"Is Hetty not coming down to supper?" Emilia asked in the kitchen that evening. Mrs. Wesley with her daughters and Johnny Whitelamb supped there as a rule when not entertaining visitors. The Rector took his meals alone, in the parlour.
"Your father has locked her in. Until to-morrow he forbids her to have anything but bread and water," answered Mrs. Wesley.
"And she is twenty-seven years old," added Molly.
All looked at her; even Johnny Whitelamb looked, with a face as long as a fiddle. The comment was quiet, but the note of scorn in it could not be mistaken. Molly in revolt! Molly, of all persons! Molly sat trembling. She knew that among them all Johnny was her one ally--and a hopelessly distressed and ineffective one. He had turned his head quickly and leaned forward, blinking and spreading his hands--though the season was high summer--to the cold embers of the kitchen fire; his heart torn between adoration of Hetty and the old dog-like worship of his master.
"Molly dear, she has deceived him and us all," was Mrs. Wesley's reproof, unexpectedly gentle.
"For my part," put in Nancy comfortably, "I don't suppose she would care to come down. And 'tis cosy to be back in the kitchen again, after ten days of the parlour and Mrs. Sam. Emmy agrees, I know."
But Emmy with fine composure put aside this allusion to her pet foe. "Molly and Johnny should make a match of it," she sneered. "They might set up house on their belief in Hetty, and even take her to lodge with them."
John Whitelamb sprang up as if stung; stood for a moment, still with his face averted upon the fire; then, while all stared at him, let drop the arm he had half-lifted towards the mantel-shelf and relapsed into his chair. He had not uttered a sound.
Mrs. Wesley had a reproof upon her tongue, and this time a sharp one. She was prevented, however, by Molly, who rose to her feet, tottered to the door as if wounded, and escaped from the kitchen.
Molly mounted the stairs with bowed head, dragging herself at each step by the handrail. Reaching the garrets, she paused by Hetty's door to listen. No light pierced the chinks; within was silence. She crept away to her room, undressed, and lay down, sobbing quietly.
Her sobs ceased, but she could not sleep. A full moon strained its rays through the tattered curtain, and as it climbed, she watched the panel of light on the wall opposite steal down past a text above the washstand, past the washstand itself, to the bare flooring. "God is love" said the text, and Molly had paid a pedlar twopence for it, years before, at Epworth fair--quite unaware that she was purchasing the Wesley family motto. She heard her mother and sisters below bid one another good night and mount to their rooms. An hour later her father went his round, locking up. Then came silence.
Suddenly she sat up in her bed. She had heard--yes, surely--Hetty's voice. It seemed to come from outside, close below her window-- Hetty's ordinary voice, with no distress in it, speaking some words she could not catch. She listened. Actual sound or illusion, it was not repeated. She climbed out of bed and drew the curtain aside. Bright moonlight lay spread all about the house and, beyond, the fenland faded away to an unseen horizon as through veils of gold and silver, asleep, no creature stirring on the face of it.
She let drop the corner of the curtain and on the instant caught it back again. A dark form, quick and noiseless, slipped past the shadow by the yard-gate. It was Rag the mastiff, left unchained at night: and as he padded across the yard in the full moonlight, Molly saw that he was wagging his tail.
She watched him to his kennel; stepped to her door, lifted the latch cautiously and stole once more along the passage to Hetty's room.
"Hetty!" she whispered. "Hetty dear! Were you calling? Is anything wrong?" She shook the door gently. No answer came. Mr. Wesley had left the key in the lock after turning it on the outside: and still whispering to her sister, Molly wrenched it round, little by little. No one stirred below-stairs: no one answered within. She pushed the door open an inch or two, then wider, pausing as it creaked. A draught of the warm night wind met her as she slipped into the room, and--her fingers trembling and missing their hold--the door fell to behind her, almost with a slam.
She stood still, her heart in her mouth. In her ears the noise was loud enough to awake the house. But as the seconds dragged by and still no sound came from her father's room, "Hetty!" she whispered again.
Her eyes were on the bed as she whispered it, and in the pale light the bed was patently empty. Still she did not comprehend. Her eyes wandered from it to the open window.
When she spoke again it was with the same low whisper, but a whisper which broke as she breathed it to follow where it might not reach.
"What have they done to you? My darling, God watch over you now!"
She crept back to her room and lay shivering, waiting for the dawn.
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