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Chapter 23

At first Hetty walked swiftly across the fields, not daring to look back. "Is it he?" she kept asking herself, and as often cried out against the hope. She had no right to pray as she was praying: it was suing God to make Himself an accomplice in sin. She ought to hate the man, yet--God forgive her!--she loved him still. Was it possible to love and despise together? If he should come. . . . She caught herself picturing their meeting. He would follow across the fields in search of her. She would hear his footstep. Yet she would not turn at once--he should not see how her heart leapt. He would overtake her, call her by name. . . . She must not be proud: just proud enough to let him see how deep the wrong had been. But she would be humble too. . . .

She heard no footsteps. No voice called her. Unable to endure it longer, she came to a standstill and looked back. Between her and the parsonage buildings the wide fields were empty. She could see the corner of the woodstack. No one stood there. Away to the left two figures diminished by distance followed a footpath arm-in-arm-- John Lambert and Nancy.

A great blackness fell on her. She had no pride now; she turned and went slowly back, not to the parsonage, but aslant by the bank of a dyke leading to the highroad along which, a few hours ago, she had returned so wearily. She must watch and discover what man it was who had come with John Lambert.

Before she reached the low bridge by the road, she heard a tune whistled and a man's footfall approaching--not his. She supposed it to be one of the labourers, and in a sudden terror hid herself behind an ash-bole on the brink.

The man went by, still whistling cheerfully. She peered around the tree and watched him as he retreated--a broad-shouldered man, swinging a cudgel. A hundred yards or less beyond her tree he halted, with his back to her, in the middle of the road, and stayed his whistling while he made two or three ludicrous cuts with his cudgel at the empty air. This pantomime over, he resumed his way.

She recognised him by so much of his back as showed over the dwarf hedge. It was William Wright.

Was it he, then, who had come with John Lambert? Hetty sat down by the tree, and, with her eyes on the slow water in the dyke, began to think.

To be sure, this man might have come to Wroote merely for his money. Yet (as she firmly believed) it was he who had written the letter which in effect had led to her running away. He might have used the debt to-day as a pretext. His motive, she felt certain, was curiosity to learn what his letter had brought about.

She bore him no grudge. He had fired the train--oh, no doubt! But she was clear-sighted now, saw that the true fault after all was hers, and would waste no time in accusing others. Very soon she dismissed him from her mind. In all the blank hopelessness of her fall from hope she put aside self-pity, and tasked herself to face the worst. To Emilia and Nancy she had spoken lightly, as if scarcely alive to her dreadful position, still less alive to her sin. They had misunderstood her: but in truth she had spoken so on the instinct of self-defence. Real defence she had none.

She knew she had none. And let it be said here that she saw no comfortable hope in religion. She had listened to a plenty of doctrine from her early childhood: but somehow the mysteries of God had seldom occupied her thoughts, never as bearing directly on the questions of daily life. If asked, for example, "did she believe in the Trinity?" or "did she believe in justification by faith?" she would have answered "yes," without hesitating for a moment. But in fact these high teachings lay outside her private religion, which amounted to this--"God is all-seeing and omnipotent. To please Him I must be good; and being good gives me pleasure in turn, for I feel that His eye is upon me and He approves. He is terribly stern: but all-merciful too. If, having done wrong, I go to Him contritely, and repent, He will give me a chance to amend my ways, and if I honestly strive to amend them, He will forgive." In short--and perhaps because the word "Father" helped to mislead--she had made for herself an image of God by exalting and magnifying all that she saw best in her parents. And this view of Him her parents had confirmed insensibly, in a thousand trifles, by laying constant daily stress upon good conduct, and by dictating it and judging her lapses with an air of calm authority, which took for granted that what pleased them was exactly what would please God.

So now, having done that which her mother and father could not forgive, at first she hardly dared to hope that God could by any means forgive it. In the warm sunlight of loving she had seen for a while that her father and mother were not always wise; nay, long beforehand in her discontent she had been groping towards this discovery. But now that the sunshine had proved a cruel cheat, she ran back in dismay upon the old guide-posts, and they pointed to a hell indeed.

She had been wicked. She craved to be good. She remembered Mary Magdalene, whom Christ had forgiven, and caught at a hope for herself. But why had Christ forgiven Mary? Because she had been sorry, and turned and walked the rest of her life in goodness? Because He had foreseen her long atonement? So Hetty believed. For her, too, then the way back to forgiveness lay through conduct-- always through conduct; and for her the road stretched long, for not until death could she reach assurance. Of a way to forgiveness through faith (though she must have heard of it a hundred times) she scarcely thought; still less of a way through faith to instant assurance. To those who have not travelled by that road its end-- though promised on the honour of God and proclaimed incessantly by those who have travelled and found it--seems merely incredible. Hardly can man or woman, taught from infancy to suspect false guides, trust these reports of a country where to believe and to have are one.

Hetty sat by the tree and saw the road beyond her, that it was steep and full of suffering. But for this she did not refuse it: she desired it rather. She saw also, that along it was no well of forgiveness to refresh her; the thirst must endure till she reached the end and went down in darkness to the river. This, too, she must endure, God in mercy helping her. What daunted her was conscience whispering that she had as yet no right to that mercy, no right even to tread the road. For though her sin was abhorrent, in her heart she loved her fellow-sinner yet. A sound of hoofs aroused her. Still screened by her tree, she saw her father trot by on the filly. In spite of the warm settled weather he carried his cloak before him strapped across the holsters. His ride, therefore, would be a long one; to Gainsborough at least--or to Lincoln?

She lifted her head and sat erect in a sharp terror. Was her father going to seek him? She had not thought of this as possible. And if so--

Leaping up she ran into the open and gazed after him, as though the sight of his bobbing figure could resolve her crowding surmises. For a minute and more she stood, gazing so; and then, turning, was aware of her mother coming slowly towards her across the wide field.

A number of shallow ditches, dry at this season, crossed the fields in parallels; and at each of these Mrs. Wesley picked up her skirts. "How young she is!" was Hetty's thought as she came nearer, and it rose--purely from habit--above her own misery. Hetty was one of those women who admire other women ungrudgingly. She knew herself to be beautiful, yet in her eyes her mother had always the mien of a goddess.

For her mother's character, too, she had the deepest, tenderest respect. But it was the respect of a critic rather than of a child, and touched with humorous wonder. She knew her firmness of judgment, her self-control, her courage in poverty, the secret ardent piety illuminating her commonest daily actions; she knew how perfectly designed that character was for masculine needs, how strong for guidance the will even in yielding--but alas! how feeble to help a daughter!

"Your father is riding to Lincoln," said Mrs. Wesley as she drew near. Hetty scanned her closely, but read no encouragement in her face. She fell back on the tone she had used with Emilia and Nancy; knowing, however, that this time it would not be misunderstood. "I saw that he had taken his cloak with him," she answered. "Be frank with me, mother. You would be frank, you know, with Jacky or Charles, if they were in trouble; whereas now you are not looking me in the face, and your own is white."

Mrs. Wesley did not answer, but walked with Hetty back to the tree and, at a sign, seated herself on the bank beside her, with her eyes on the road.

"I have been sitting here for quite a long time," began Hetty, after a pause, and went on lightly. "Before father passed a tradesman went by--a man called Wright." She paused again as Mrs. Wesley's hands made an involuntary movement in her lap. "He has a bill against father; he called with it on the evening you came back from London. Is father riding after him to pay it?"

"What do you know of that man?" Mrs. Wesley muttered, with her head turned aside and her hands working.

"Very little; yet enough to suspect more than you guess," said Hetty calmly.

But her mother showed her now a face she had not looked to see.

"You know, then?--but no, you cannot!"

It was Hetty's turn to show a face of alarm. "What is it, dear? I thought--indeed I know--he had a notion about me--how I was behaving--and wrote a letter to father. But that cannot matter now. Is there anything worse? I understood he had merely an account against father; an ordinary bill. It is something worse--oh, tell me! Father is riding after him! I see it in your face. What is this trouble which I have added to?"

"The debt is paid, I believe," answered Mrs. Wesley; but she shook as she said it.

"Yet father is riding after him. What is the matter? Let me see your eyes!"

But her mother would not. In the long silence, looking at her, slowly--very slowly--Hetty understood. After understanding there followed another long silence, until Hetty drew herself up against the bole of the tree and shivered.

"Come back to the house, mother. You had best take my arm."

Arthur Quiller-Couch