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Chapter 21

"And my business is important. William Wright is the name, and you'd better say that I come from Lincoln direct."

The answer came back that Mr. Wesley would see Mr. Wright in his study; and thither accordingly Mr. Wright lurched, after pulling out a red handkerchief and dusting his boots on the front doorstep. At his entrance Johnny Whitelamb rose, gathered up some papers and retired. The Rector looked up from his writing-table, at the same moment pushing back and shutting the drawer upon Hetty's manuscript, which he had again been studying.

"Good morning, Mr. Wright. You have come about your bill, I suspect: the amount of which, if I remember--"

"Twelve-seventeen-six."

The Rector sighed. "It is extremely awkward for me to pay you just now. Still, no doubt you find it no less awkward to wait: and since you have come all the way from Lincoln to collect it--"

"Steady a bit," Mr. Wright interrupted; "I never said that. I said I'd come direct from Lincoln."

Mr. Wesley looked puzzled. "Pardon me, is not that the same thing?"

"No, it ain't. I'd be glad enough of my little bit of money to be sure: but there's more things than money in this world, Mr. Wesley."

"So I have sometimes endeavoured to teach."

"There's more things than money," repeated Mr. Wright, not to be denied: for it struck him as a really fine utterance, with a touch of the epigrammatic too, of which he had not believed himself capable. In the stir of his feelings he was conscious of an unfamiliar loftiness, and conscious also that it did him credit. He paused and added, "There's darters, for instance."

"Daughters?" Mr. Wesley opened his eyes wide.

"Darters." Mr. Wright nodded his head slowly and took a step nearer to the table. "Has Missy come back?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.

"If you mean my daughter Mehetabel--yes, she has returned."

"I saw her in Lincoln only yesterday morning. She didn't see me; but having (as you might say) my suspicions, I follered her: and I saw enough to make a man feel sore--leastways when he takes an interest in a young lady as I do in Miss Hetty. For, saving your presence, sir, you've a good-looking bunch, but she's the pick. 'Tis a bad business--a very bad business, Mr. Wesley. What, may I ask, are you going to do about it?"

"You certainly may not ask, Mr. Wright." The danger-signal twinkled for a moment under the Rector's brows; but he repressed it and turned towards a cupboard in the wall, where in a drawer lay fifteen pounds, ten of which he had designed to send to Oxford. "Twelve pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence, I think you said?"

"Never mind the bill, sir, for a moment. And about Miss Hetty I'll ask ye no questions if you forbid it: but something I came to say, and it'll have to be said. First of all I want to be clear with you that I had no hand in this affair. On the contrary, I saw it coming and warned her against the fellow."

"I have not the least need of your assurance. I did not even know you were acquainted--"

"No, you don't need it; but I need to give it. Very well: now comes my point. Here's a young lady beautiful as roses, and that accomplished, and that thoroughbred she makes an honest tradesman feel like dirt to look upon her. Oh, you needn't to stare, sir! William Wright knows breeding when he sees it, in man or beast; and as for feeling like dirt, why there's a sort of pleasure in it, if you understand me."

"I do not."

"No: I don't suppose you do. You're not the sort of man to feel like dirt before anyone--not before King George on his throne. But you may take my word for it there's a kind of man that likes it: when he looks at a woman, I mean. 'Take care, my lady,' I said; 'you're delicate and proud now, and as dainty as a bit of china. But once you fall off the shelf--well, down you go, and 'tis all over but the broom and the dust-heap. There you'll lie, with no man to look at you; worse than the coarsest pint-pot a man will drink out of.' You understand me now, Mr. Wesley?"

"I do, sir, to my sorrow, but--"

"But that's just where you're wrong--you don't!" Mr. Wright cried triumphantly, and pursued with an earnestness which held Mr. Wesley still in his chair. "I'll swear to you, sir, that if I could have stopped this, I would: ay, though it killed my only chance. But I couldn't. The thing's done. And I tell you, sir"--his face was flushed now, and his voice shaking--"broken as she is, I do worship Miss Hetty beyond any woman in the world. I do worship her as if she had tumbled slap out of heaven. I--I--there you have it, any way: so if you'll leave talking about the little account between us--"

Mr. Wesley stood up, drew out his keys, opened the cupboard and began counting the sum out upon the table.

"You misunderstand me, sir: indeed you do!" Mr. Wright protested.

"Maybe," answered the Rector grimly. "But I happen to be consulting my own choice. Twelve pounds seventeen and sixpence, I think you said? You had best sit down and write out a receipt."

"But why interrupt a man, sir, when he's thinking of higher things, and with his hand 'most too shaky to hold a pen?"

The Rector walked to the window and stood waiting while the receipt was made out: then took the paper, went to the cupboard and filed it, locked the door and resumed his seat.

"Now, sir, let me understand your further business. You desire, I gather, to marry my daughter Mehetabel?"

Mr. Wright gasped and swallowed something in his throat. Put into words, his audacity frightened him. "That's so, sir," he managed to answer.

"Knowing her late conduct?"

"If I didn't," Mr. Wright answered frankly, "I shouldn't ha' been fool enough to come."

"You are a convinced Christian?"

"I go to church off and on, if that's what you mean, sir."

"'Tis not in the least what I mean, Mr. Wright."

"There's no reason why I shouldn't go oftener."

"There is every reason why you should. You are able to maintain my daughter?"

"I pay my way, sir; though hard enough it is for an honest tradesman in these times." Insensibly he dropped into the tone of one pressing for payment. The Rector regarded him with brows drawn down and the angry light half-veiled, but awake in his eyes now and growing. Mr. Wright, looking up, read danger and misread it as threatening him. "Indeed, sir," he broke out, courageously enough, "I feel for you: I do, indeed. It seems strange enough to me to be standing here and asking you for such a thing. But when a man feels as I do t'ards Miss Hetty he don't know himself: he'll go and do that for which he'd call another man a fool. Kick me to doors if you want to: I can't help it. All I tell you is, I worship her from the top of her pretty head to her shoe-strings; and if she were wife of mine she should neither wash nor scrub, cook nor mend; but a room I would make for her, and chairs and cushions she should have to sit on, and books to read, and pens and paper to write down her pretty thoughts; and not a word of the past, but me looking up to her and proud all the days of my life, and studying to make her comfortable, like the lady she is!"

During this remarkable speech Mr. Wesley sat without a smile. At the end of it, he lifted a small handbell from the writing-table and rang it twice.

Mr. Wright made sure that this was a signal for his dismissal. He mopped his face. "Well, it can't be helped. I've been a fool, no doubt: but you've had it straight from me, as between man and man."

He picked up his hat and was turning to go, when the door opened and Mrs. Wesley appeared.

"My dear," said the Rector, "the name of this honest man is Wright-- Mr. William Wright, a plumber, of Lincoln. To my surprise he has just done me the honour of offering to marry Mehetabel."

Mrs. Wesley turned from the bowing Mr. Wright and fastened on her husband a look incredulous but scared.

"I need scarcely say he is aware of--of the event which makes his offer an extremely generous one."

The signal in the Rector's eyes was blazing now. His wife rested her hand on a chair-back to gain strength against she knew not what. Mr. Wright smiled, vaguely apologetic; and the smile made him look exceedingly foolish; but she saw that the man was in earnest.

"I think," pursued Mr. Wesley, aware of her terror, aware of the pain he took from his own words, but now for the moment fiercely enjoying both--"I think," he pursued slowly, "there can be no question of our answer. I must, of course, make inquiry into your circumstances, and assure myself that I am not bestowing Mehetabel on an evil-liver. Worthless as she is, I owe her this precaution, which you must pardon. I will be prompt, sir. In two days, if you return, you shall have my decision; and if my inquiries have satisfied me--as I make no doubt they will--my wife and I can only accept your offer and express our high sense of your condescension."

Mr. Wright gazed, open-mouthed, from husband to wife. He saw that Mrs. Wesley was trembling, but her eyes held no answer for him. He was trembling too.

"You mean that I'm to come along?" he managed to stammer.

"I do, sir. On the day after to-morrow you may come for my answer. Meanwhile--"

Mr. Wright never knew what words the Rector choked down. They would have surprised him considerably. As it was, reading his dismissal in a slight motion of Mrs. Wesley's hand, he made his escape; but had to pull himself up on the front doorstep to take his bearings and assure himself that he stood on his feet.


Arthur Quiller-Couch