Late that evening and a little after moonrise, Johnny Whitelamb, going out to the woodstack for a faggot, stood still for a moment at sight of a figure half-blotted in the shadow.
"Miss Hetty--oh, Miss Hetty!" he called softly.
Hetty did not run; but as he stepped to her, let him take her hands and lifted her face to the moonlight.
"What are they doing?" she whispered.
Johnny was never eloquent. "They are sitting by the fire, just as usual," he answered her, but his voice shook over the words.
"Just as usual?" she echoed dully. "Mother and the girls, you mean?"
"Yes: the Rector is in his study. I have not seen him to-day: only the mistress has seen him." He paused: Hetty shivered. She was weak and woefully tired: for, excepting a lift at Marton and a second in a wagon from Gainsborough to Haxey, she had walked from Lincoln and had been walking all day.
"I cannot tell what mistress thinks," Johnny went on: "the others talk to each other--a word now and then--but she sits looking at the fire and says nothing. I think she means to sit up late to-night. Else why did she send me out for another faggot?" he asked, in his simple, puzzled way. "But oh, Miss Hetty, she will be glad you've come back, and now we can all be happy again!"
She waved a hand feebly. "Fetch Molly to me."
By the pallor of her brow in the moonlight he made sure she was near to fainting: and, indeed she was not far from it. He ran and burst in at the kitchen-door impetuously; but meeting the eyes of the family, surprised--as well they might be--by the violence of his entry and his scared face, he became suddenly and absurdly diplomatic, crossed to Molly and whispered, as Mrs. Wesley turned her eyes from the fire.
"But where is the faggot?" she demanded.
"I--I forgot it," stammered Johnny and was for returning to fetch it. Molly rose.
"Hetty is outside," she announced.
For a second or two there was silence. Mrs. Wesley turned to her crippled daughter. "You had best bring her in. The rest of you, go to bed."
They obeyed at once and in silence. Johnny, too, stole off to his mattress in the glass-doored cupboard under the stairs.
When Molly returned, leading in her sister, Mrs. Wesley was seated by the fire alone. Mother and daughter looked into each other's eyes. In silence Hetty stepped forward and dropped into the chair a minute ago vacated by Kezzy. But for the ticking of the tall clock there was no sound in the kitchen.
Mrs. Wesley read Hetty's eyes; read the truth in them, and something else which tied her tongue. She made no offer to rise and kiss her.
"You are hungry?" she asked after a while, and Molly pushed forward a plate of biscuits. Hetty ate ravenously for a minute (for twenty-four hours not a morsel of food had passed her lips and she had walked close on thirty miles) and then pushed away the plate in disgust. Her eyes still sought her mother's; they neither pleaded nor reproached.
Yet Mrs. Wesley spoke, when next she spoke, as if choosing to answer a plea. "Your father does not know of your return. You may sleep with Molly to-night." She bent over the hearth and raked its embers together. Molly laid a hand lightly on Hetty's shoulder, then slipped it under the crook of her arm, and lifted and led her from the kitchen.
Hetty went unresisting. When they reached the bedroom she halted and stared around as one who had lost her bearings. She winced once and shook as Molly's gentle fingers began to unfasten her bodice, but afterwards stood quite passive and suffered herself to be undressed as a little child. Molly unlaced her shoes. Molly brought cool water in a basin, bathed her face and hands, braided her hair--the masses of red-brown hair she had been used to admire and caress, passing a hand over them as tenderly as of old; then knelt and washed the tired feet, and wiped them, feeling the arch of the instep with her bare hand and chafing them to make sure they were dry--so cold they were.
"Won't you say your prayers, dear?"
Hetty shook her head.
"Then at least you shall kneel by me, and I will pray for both."
Molly's arm was about her. She obeyed and with her waist so encircled knelt by the bed. And twice Molly, not interrupting her prayer, pressed the waist close to her side, and once lifted her lips and kissed the side of the brow.
They arose at length, the one confirmed now and made almost fearless by saintliness and love. But the other, creeping first into the narrow bed, shrank away towards the wall and lay with her eyes fixed on it and staring.
"No, darling," whispered Molly, "when you were strong and I was weak you used to comfort me. I am the strong one now, and you shall not escape me so!"
And so it was. Her feeble arms had suddenly become strong. They slid, the one beneath Hetty's shoulder, the other across and below her bosom, and straining, not to be denied, they forced her round. Wide-eyed still, Hetty gazed up into eyes dark in the moonlight, but conquering her, piercing through all secrets. Her own brimmed suddenly with tears and she lay quiet, her soul naked beneath Molly's soul.
"Ay, let them come--let them come while I hold you!"
While Hetty lay, neither winking nor moving, the big drops overbrimmed at the corners of each eye and trickled on the pillow. As one fell, another gathered. Silent, unchecked, they flowed, and Molly bent and watched them flowing.
"A little while--a little while!" moaned Hetty.
"I will hold you so for ever."
"No--yet a little while, though you know not what you are holding."
"Were it a thousand times worse than I think, I am holding my sister."
"We will bear it together." Molly smiled, but very faintly. "You forget that I shall never marry--that I shall always need you to care for. All my life till now you have protected me: now I shall pay back what I owe."
"Ah, you think I fear father? Molly, I do not fear father at all. I fear myself--what I am." And still staring up Hetty whispered a horrible word.
"Oh hush, hush!" Molly laid a swift hand over her lips, and for a while there was silence in the room.
"So make the most of me now," Hetty murmured, "while you have me to hold, dear; for what I am is not mine to give."
"Hetty!" Molly drew back. "You will not go--to him--again?"
"If he will marry me. I do not think he will, dear: I do not think he has the courage. But if he calls me, I will go humbly, thankfully."
"And if not--"
Hetty turned her face aside: but after a moment she looked up, staring, as before. There were no tears in her eyes now.
"I do not know." She was silent awhile, then went on slowly. "But if any honest man will have me, I vow before God to marry him. Yes, and I would take his hand and bless it for so much honour, were he the lowest hind in the fields."
Molly choked down a cry and held her breath. Her arms slipped from around the dear body she could have saved from fire, from drowning, from anything but this. This pair had loved and honoured each other from babyhood: the heart of each had been a shrine for the other, daily decked with pretty thoughts as a shrine with flowers in season. All that was best they had brought each other: how much at need they were ready to give God alone knew. And now, by the law which in Eden divided woman from man, the basest stranger among the millions of men held the power denied to Molly, the only salvation for Hetty's need. "What I am is not mine to give"--for a minute Molly bowed over her sister, helpless.
"But no," she cried suddenly, "that is wicked! It would be a thousand times worse than the other, however bad. You shall take no such oath! You did not know what it meant. Hetty, Hetty, take it back!"
She flung herself forward sobbing.
"I have said it," Hetty answered quietly. The two lay shuddering, breast to breast.
Downstairs a sad-eyed woman sat over the dead fire. She heard a chair pushed back in the next room, and trembled. By and by she heard her husband trying the bolts of the doors and window-shutters. He looked into the kitchen and, finding her there seated with the lamp beside her, withdrew without a word. She had not raised her head. His footsteps went up the stair slowly.
For another hour, almost, she sat on, staring at the gray ashes: then took the lamp and went shivering to her room.
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