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Chapter 17

"'Brought him'! Who told you to bring him?"

Hetty's lover faced her across the round table in the lodging-house parlour. The table was spread for two, and Hetty's knife and plate stood ready for her with a covered dish before it. He had breakfasted, and their entrance surprised him with an empty pewter in his hand, his chair thrust back sideways from the table, his legs extended towards the empty fire-place, and his eyes bent on his handsome calves with a somewhat moody frown.

"Who told you to bring him?"

John Romley stood in the doorway behind Hetty's shoulder. She turned to him bravely and quietly, albeit with the scare in her face.

"I ought not to have brought you in like this. You will not mind waiting outside, will you?--a minute only--while I explain--"

Romley bent his head and walked out, closing the door.

"Dear"--Hetty turned--"you must forgive me, but I could not rest until I had brought him."

He had risen, and stood now with his face averted, gazing out of the window where a row of clouts and linen garments on a clothes-line blocked the view of an untidy back-yard. He had known that this moment must come, but not that it would take him so soon and at unawares. He let his anger rise while he considered what to answer; for a man in the wrong will miss no excuse for losing his temper.

Hetty waited for a moment, then went on--"And I thought you had given him the licence: that is what made me so anxious to find--"

A noise in the passage cut short her excuses: a woman's laugh. Hetty knew of two women only in the house--the landlady who had opened the door last night and a pert-looking slatternly servant she had passed at the foot of the stairs on her way to the cathedral. She could not tell to which of these the voice belonged: but the laugh and the jest it followed--though she had not caught it--were plainly at John Romley's expense, and the laugh was horrible.

It rang on her ears like a street-door bell. It seemed to tear down the mystery of the house and scream out its secret. The young man at the window turned against his will and met Hetty's eyes. They were strained and staring.

She put out her hand. "Where is the licence?" she asked. "Give it to me."

The change in her voice and manner confused him. "My dear child, don't be silly," he blundered.

"Give me the licence."

"Tut, tut--let us understand one another like sensible folks. You must not treat me like a boy, to be bounced in this fashion by John Romley." He began to whip up his temper again. "Nasty tippling parson! I've more than a mind to kick him into the street."

Her eyes widened on his with growing knowledge, growing pain: but faith lived in them yet.

"I thought you had given him the licence, to be ready for us. Yes, yes--you did say it!" Her hand went up to her bosom for his last letter, which she had worn there until last night. Then she remembered: she had left it upstairs. Having him, she had no more need to wear it.

He read the gesture. "You are right, dear, and I forgot. I did say so, because I believed by the time the words reached you--or thereabouts, at any rate--"

"Then you have it. Give it to me, please," she commanded.

He stepped to the fire-place, unable to meet her eye. "You hurried me," he muttered: "there was not time."

For a moment she spread out both hands as one groping in the dark: then the veil fell from her eyes and she saw. The truth spoke to her senses first--in the sordid disarray of breakfast, in the fusty smell of the room with its soiled curtains, its fly-blown mirror, its outlook on the blank court. A whiff of air crept in at the open window--flat, with a scullery odour which sickened her soul. In her ears rang the laugh of the woman in the passage.

"What have you done? What have you done to me?"

She crouched, shivering, like some beautiful wild creature entrapped. He faced her again. Her eyes were on his, but fastened there now by a shrinking terror.

"Hetty!"

She put up a hand and turned her face to the wall, as if to shut out him and the light. He stepped to her, caught her by the wrist and forced her round towards him. At the first touch he felt her wince. So will you see a young she-panther wince and cower from her tamer's whip.

Yet, although she shuddered, she could not drag her hand away. He was her tamer now: and as he spoke soothingly and she grew quieter, a new faith awoke in her, yet a faith as old as woman; the false imperishable faith that by giving all she binds a man as he has bound her.

With a cry she let her brow sink till it touched his breast. Then, straightening herself, she gripped him by both shoulders and stared close into his eyes--clinging to him as she had clung that evening on the frozen canal, but with a face how different!

"But you mean no harm? You told me a falsehood"--here he blinked, but she went on, her eyes devouring his--"but you told it in kindness? Say you mean no harm to me--you will get this licence soon. How soon? Do not be angry--ah, see how I humble myself to you! You mean honestly: yes, yes, but say it! how soon?"

"Hetty, I'll be honest with you. One cannot get a licence in a day."

"And I will be patient--so patient! Only we must leave this horrible house: you must find me a lodging where I can be alone."

"Why, what's the matter with this house?" He tried a laugh, and the result betrayed him.

Her body stiffened again. "When did you apply for the licence?" she demanded. "How long since?"

He tried to shuffle. "But answer me!" she insisted, thrusting him away. And then, after a pause and very slowly, "You have not applied at all," she said. "You are lying again. . . . God forgive you." She drew herself up and for an instant he thought she was going to strike him; but she only shivered. "I must go home."

"Home!" he echoed.

"And whither but home?"--with a loathing look around her.

"You will not dare."

In all this pitiful scene was nothing so pitiful as the pride in which she drew herself up and towered over the man who had abased her. Yet her voice was quiet. "That you cannot understand is worst of all. I feared sin too little: but I can face the consequences. I fear them less than--than--"

A look around her completed the sentence eloquently enough. As she stood with her hand on the door-latch that look travelled around the sordid room and rested finally on him as a piece of it. Then the latch clicked, and she was gone.

She stood in the passage by the foot of the staircase. Half-way up the servant girl was stooping over a stair-rod, pretending to clean it. Hetty's wits were clear. She reflected a moment, and mounted steadily to her room, crammed her poor trifles into her satchel, and came down again with a face of ice.

The girl drew aside, watching her intently. But--on a sudden impulse--"Miss--" she said.

"I beg your pardon!" Hetty paused.

"I wouldn't be in a hurry, miss. You can master him, if you try--you and the parson: and the worst of 'em's better than none. And you that pretty, too!"

"I don't understand you," answered Hetty coldly, and passed on.

John Romley was patrolling the pavement outside. She forced up a smile to meet him. "There has been some difficulty with the licence," said she, and marvelled at her own calmness. "I am sorry, John, to have brought you here for nothing. He hid it from me--in kindness: but meanwhile I am going back." With this brave falsehood she turned to leave him, knowing that he believed it as little as she.

He too marvelled. "Is it necessary to go back?"

"It is necessary."

"Then let me find you some conveyance." But he saw that she wished only to be rid of him, and so shook hands and watched her down the street.

"The infernal hound!" he said to himself; and as she passed out of sight he turned to the lodging-house door and entered without knocking.

He emerged, twenty minutes later, with his white bands twisted, his hat awry, and a smear of blood on the surplice he carried--altogether a very unclerical-looking figure. On the way back to his inn he kept looking at his cut knuckles, and, arriving, called for a noggin of brandy. By midday he was drunk, and at one o'clock he was due to appear at the Chapter House. The hour struck: but John Romley sat on in the coffee-room staring stupidly at his knuckles.

And all this while in the lodging-house parlour sat or paced the man who has no name in this book. He also was drinking: but the brandy-and-water, though he gulped it fiercely, neither unsteadied his legs nor confused his brain. Only it deadened by degrees the ruddy colour in his face to a gray shining pallor, showing up one angry spot on the cheek-bone. Though he frowned as he paced and muttered now and again to himself, he was not thinking of John Romley.

Some men are born to be the curse of women and, through women, of the world. Despicable in themselves they inherit a dreadful secret before which, as in a fortress betrayed to a false password, the proudest virtue hauls down its flag, and kneeling, proffers its keys. Doubtless they move under fate to an end appointed, though to us they appear but as sightseers, obscure and irresponsible, who passing through a temple defile its holies and go their casual ways. We wonder that this should be. But so it is, and such was this man. Let his name perish.


Arthur Quiller-Couch