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Chapter 16

"To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against him: neither have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in his laws which he set before us. O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing."

The voice travelled down the great nave of Lincoln Cathedral, and, as it came, the few morning worshippers--it was a week-day--inclined their faces upwards: for it seemed to pause and float overhead and again be carried forward by its own impulse, a pure column of sound wavering awhile before it broke and spread and dissolved into whispers among the multitudinous arches. To a woman still kneeling by a pillar close within the western doorway it was as the voice of a seraph speaking with the dawn, fresh from his night-watch over earth. She had been kneeling for minutes, and still knelt, but she could not pray. She had no business to be there. To her the sentences carried no message; but the voice smiting, pure and cold, across the hot confusion in her brain, steadied her while it terrified.

Yet she knew the voice well enough. It was but John Romley's. The Dean and Chapter wanted a precentor, and among a score of candidates had selected Romley and two others for further trial. This was his chance and he was using it; making the most of it, too, to the mingled admiration and disgust of his rivals listening in the choir beside him.

And she had dressed early and climbed to the cathedral, not to pray, but to seek Romley because she had instant need of him; because, though she respected his character very little, he was the one man in the world who could help her. She had missed him at the door. Entering, she learned from a verger that he was already robing. Then the great organ sounded, and from habit she dropped on her knees.

John Romley, unseen in the choir, was something very different from John Romley in private life with his loose face and flabby handshake. Old Mr. Wesley had once dismissed him contemptuously as vox et praeterea nihil: but disembodied thus, almost a thing celestial, yet subtly recalling home to her and ties renounced, the voice shook Hetty's soul. For it came on her as the second shock of an ambush. She had climbed to the cathedral with but half of her senses awake, drowsed by love, by the long ride in the languorous night wind, by the exhaustion of a long struggle ended, by her wondering helplessness on arriving--the chill sunlight, the deserted street, the strange voice behind the lodging-house door, the unfamiliar passage and stairs. She had lived a lifetime in those hours, and for the while Wroote Parsonage lay remote as a painful daily round from the dream which follows it. Only the practical instinct, as it were a nerve in the centre of her brain, awake and refusing to be drugged, had kept sounding its alarm to rise and seek Romley; and though at length she obeyed in a panic, she went as one walking in sleep. The front of the cathedral, as she came beneath its shadow, overhung her as a phantom drawn upon the morning sky, its tall towers unsubstantial, trembling against the light, but harmless even should they fall upon her. She entered as one might pass through a paper screen.

The first shock came upon her then. She passed not out of sunlight into sunlight, but out of sunlight into a vast far-reaching, high-arching gloom, which was another world and another life; the solemn twilight which her upbringing had taught her to associate with God. Once before in her life, and once only, she had stood within the minster--on her confirmation day, when she had entered with her hand in her mother's. Her eyes sought and found the very place where she had sat then among the crowd of girl-candidates, and a ghost in a white frock sat there still with bowed head. She remembered the very texture and scent of that white frock: they came back with the awe, the fervour, the passionate desire to be good; and these memories cried all in her ears, "What have you to do with that child? Which of you is Hetty? You cannot both be real."

They sang in her ears while she questioned the verger about Romley. He had to repeat his answers before she thanked him and turned towards one of the lowest seats. She did not repent: she was not thinking of repentance. She loved, she had given all for love, and life was fuller of beautifying joy than ever it had been even on that day of confirmation: but beneath the joy awoke a small ache, and with the ache a certain knowledge that she might never sit beside the child in white, never so close as to touch her frock; that their places in this building, God's habitation, were eternally separate.

Then the organ ceased, and the voice began to speak. And the voice uttered promise of pardon, but Hetty heard nothing of the words--only the notes.

"And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and A dam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden."

Less terrible this voice was; a seraph's rather, at the lodge-gate, welcoming the morn. Yet Hetty crouched by her pillar, afraid. For the day he welcomed was not her day, the worship he offered was not her worship; for her a sword lay across the gate.

Her terror passed, and she straightened herself. After all, she did not repent. Why should she repent? She was loved; she loved in return, utterly and without guile, with a love which, centred upon one, yet embraced all living creatures. Nay, it embraced Heaven, if Heaven would accept it. And why not?

"Wherefore let us beseech him," said the voice, "to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy . . ."

"Pure and holy"--but she desired no less, and out of her love. She wanted to be friends with all at home, to go to them fearlessly and make them understand her as she understood them, and to be good all the days of her life. "True repentance"? Why repent? . . . Ah, yes, of course: but God was no haggler over hours. In an hour or two . . . "That those things may please him which we do at this present--" She caught at her heart now as the terror--a practical terror this time--returned upon it. At all costs she must find John Romley after service, though indeed there was little danger of missing him, for he, no doubt, would be seeking her.

Her mind was clear now.

She lay in wait for him as he stepped out under the great porch, with a clean surplice on his arm. He paused there with a smile on his face, glanced up at the blue sky, clapped on his hat, and descended the steps gaily, whistling a phrase from the Venite exultemus; too far preoccupied to recognise Hetty, until she stepped forward and almost laid a hand on his arm.

"Miss Mehetabel!"

Plainly, then, he was not seeking her.

"You in Lincoln? This is a surprise--a pleasant surprise, indeed!"

"But I came in search of you. I have been waiting--" She nodded her head towards the porch.

"Eh? You heard? 'Twas not altogether a breakdown, I hope? You must allow for some nervousness--did you detect it? No? Well, I don't mind owning to you I was nervous as a cat: but there, if you didn't detect it I shall flatter myself I did passably." He laughed, evidently on the best terms with himself. His breath smelt of beer. "The Rector is with you, of course?"

"My father? But, Mr. Romley, I don't think you understand--"

"I shall do myself the pleasure of calling on him this morning. Nothing could have happened better, and I'm in luck's way to-day, for certain. It seems the Dean and Chapter require a certificate from him--a testimonial--just a line or two, to say that I'm a decent respectable fellow. We have not been friends of late--I hope Miss Patty keeps pretty well, by the way--but he won't deny me that small favour. You were not seeking me on her account?" he added, by an afterthought. "Patty?" She uttered her sister's name to gain time, for in truth she was bewildered, alarmed.

He nodded. "We are not allowed to correspond, as you know. But she must keep up her heart: your father will come round when he sees me precentor. 'Tis a good opening. We must allow for the Rector's crotchets (you'll excuse me, I feel sure): but give him time, I say-- give him time, and he'll come round right and tight."

"My father is not with me. Oh, Mr. Romley, you have heard, surely? I was told--but there, you have the licence."

"The licence! What licence?" He stared at her.

Her heart sank. Here was some horrible mistake. She bethought herself of his careless habits, which indeed were notorious enough in and about Wroote and Epworth. "It must be among your letters--have you neglected them lately? Ah, think--think, my friend: for to me this means all the world."

"Upon my word of honour, Miss Hetty, I don't understand one word you're saying. Come, let us have it clear. What brings you to Lincoln? The Rector is not with you. Who, then?"

"We came here last night--early this morning, rather--"

"'We'?"

"I have left home. You know what we intended? But my father locked me up. I had tried to be open with him, and he would listen to nothing. So--as everything was ready--and you here with the licence--"

John Romley stepped back a pace. It is doubtful if he heard the last words. His eyes were round in his head.

"You are here--with--him!" He gasped it in an incredulous whisper. For a moment in her earnestness she met his stare. Then her hands went up to her face. "You? You?" he repeated slowly. His eyes shrank from her face and wandered helplessly over the smoke, over the red roofs of the town below them.

"But we came to get married!" She plucked her hands away from her face and stepped close to him, forcing his reluctant eyes to meet hers. Her cheeks flamed: he groaned at the sight of her beauty. "But we came to get married! John, there is nothing--surely nothing?--that with your help cannot be set right? Ah, I forget--by marrying us you will offend father, and you find now that you want this favour of him. John, it cannot be that--you cannot be playing so cruel a trick for that--and after your promise? Forgive me if I am selfish: but think what I am fighting for!"

"It will cost me the precentorship," answered he slowly, "but I hadn't given a thought to that."

"It shall cost you nothing of the kind. After all, father is juster to others than to me. I will write--we will both write: I will tell him what you risked to save his daughter. Or, stay: any clergyman will do, will he not? We need only the licence. You shall risk nothing: give me only the licence and I will run and find one."

"Dear Miss Hetty, I made no promise. I have no licence. None has reached me, nor word of one."

"Then he must have it! He told me--that is, I understood--" She broke off with a laugh most pitiful in John's ears, though it seemed to reassure her. "But how foolish of me! Of course he must have it. And you will come with me, at once? At the least you are willing to come?"

"Surely I will come." John's face was gloomy. "Where are the lodgings?"

"I cannot tell you the name of the street, but I can find them. John, you are an angel! And afterwards I will sit and tell you about Patty to your heart's content. We can be married in the parlour, I suppose? Or must it be in church? I had rather--far rather--it were in church if you could manage that for us: but not to lose time. Perhaps we can find a church later in the day and get permission to go through the service again. I daresay, though, he has it all arranged--he said I might leave it to him. You won't tell him, John, what a fright I have given myself?"

So her tongue ran on as they descended the hill together. John Romley walked beside her stupidly, wondering if she were in truth reassured or chattering thus to keep up her hopes. They might, after all, be justified: but his forebodings weighed on his tongue. Also the shock had stunned him and all his wits seemed to be buzzing loose in his head.

They did not notice, although they passed it close, a certain signboard over a low-browed shop half-way down the street. Afterwards Hetty remembered passing the shop, and that its one window was caked with mud and grimed with dust on top of the mud. She did not see a broad-shouldered man in a dirty baize apron seated at his work-bench behind the pane. Nor after passing the shop did she turn her head: but walked on unaware of an ill-shaven face thrust out of its doorway and staring after her.

William Wright sat at his bench that morning, fitting a leather washer in a leaky brass tap. In the darkest corner at the back of the shop his father--a peevish old man, well past seventy--stooped over a desk, engaged as usual in calculating his book-debts, an occupation which brought him no comfort but merely ingrained his bad opinion of mankind. Having drunk his trade into a decline, and being now superannuated, he nagged over his ledgers from morning to night and snatched a fearful joy in goading William to the last limit of forbearance. William, who had made himself responsible for the old man's debts, endured him on the whole very creditably. "Here's a bad 'un," "Here's a bad 'un," piped the voice from time to time.

William trimmed away at his washer.

"Hello! Who's been putting this in the ledger?" The old man held up a thin strip of leather. "Oh, Willum, here's a very bad 'un!"

"What name?" asked William indifferently, without turning his head.

"Wesley, Reverend Samuel--Wroote and Epworth Rectory-- twelve-seventeen-six. Two years owing, and not a stiver on account. Oh, a poisonous bad 'un!"

"That's all right!"

"Not a stiver on account!"

"All right, I tell you. There won't be any paying on account with that bill: it'll be all or nothing. All, perhaps; and, if so, something more than all"--he laid down his clasp-knife and almost involuntarily put a hand up to his cheek--"but nothing, most like. I put that slip of leather there to remind me, but I don't need it. 'Twelve-seventeen-six'--better scratch it off."

"'Scratch it off'? Scratch off twelve-seventeen-six!" Old Wright spun round on his stool. But William sat gazing out of the window. He had picked up his knife again, but did not at once resume work.

The next thing old Wright heard was the clatter of a knife on the bench. William sprang up as it dropped, crept swiftly to the shop door, and stood there craning his head into the street and fumbling with his apron.

"What's the matter? Cut yourself? It don't want a doctor, do it?"

William did not answer: suddenly he plucked off his apron, flung it backwards into the shop, and disappeared into the street. The old man tottered forward, picked it off the floor and stood examining it, his mouth opening and shutting like a fish's.


Arthur Quiller-Couch