Mr. Wesley slept that night at Lincoln, and rode back the next afternoon, reaching Wroote a little before nightfall. After stabling the filly he went straight to his study. Thither, a few minutes later, Mrs. Wesley carried his supper on a tray. He kissed her, but she saw at once from his manner that he would not talk, that he wished to be alone.
Hetty and Molly sat upstairs in the dusk of the garret, speaking little. Molly had exhausted her strength for the while and argued no more, but leaned back in her chair with a hand laid on Hetty's forehead, who--crouching on the floor against her knee--drew down the nerveless fingers, fondled them one by one against her cheek, and kissed them, thinking her own thoughts.
Downstairs a gloom, a breathless terror almost, brooded over the circle by the kitchen hearth. They knew of Hetty's probable fate-- the sentence to be pronounced to-morrow; they had whispered it one to another, and while they condemned her it awed them.
Soon after nine Johnny Whitelamb came in from the fields where for two hours he had been walking fiercely but quite aimlessly. Great drops of sweat stood out on his temples, over which his hair fell lank and clammy. His shoes and stockings were dusted over with fine earth. He did not speak, but lit his candle and went off to his bed-cupboard under the stairs.
Before ten o'clock the rest of the family crept away to bed. Mr. Wesley sat on in his study. This was the night of the week on which he composed his Sunday morning's sermon. He wrote at it steadily until midnight.
Next morning, about an hour after breakfast, Mrs. Wesley heard the hand-bell rung in the study--the sound for which (it seemed to her) she had been listening in affright for two long days. She went at once. In the passage she met Johnny Whitelamb coming out.
"I am to fetch Miss Hetty," he whispered with a world of dreadful meaning.
But for once Johnny was not strictly obedient. Instead of seeking Hetty he went first across the farmyard and through a small gate whence a path took him to a duck-pond at an angle of the kitchen garden, and just outside its hedge. A pace or two from the brink stood a grindstone in a wooden frame; and here, on the grindstone handle, sat Molly watching the ducks.
"He has sent for her," announced Johnny, and glanced towards the kitchen-garden. "Is she there?"
Molly rose with a set face. She did not answer his question.
"You must give me ten minutes," she said. "Ten minutes; on no account must you bring her sooner."
She limped off towards the house.
So it happened that as Mr. and Mrs. Wesley stood and faced each other across the writing-table they heard a gentle knock, and, turning with a start, saw the door open and Molly walk boldly into the room.
"We are busy," said the Rector sharply, recovering himself. "I did not send for you."
"I know it," Molly answered; "but I am come first to explain."
"If you are here to speak for your sister, I wish to hear no explanations."
"I know it," Molly answered again; "but I need to give them; and, please you, father, you will listen to me."
Mr. Wesley gasped. Of all his daughters this deformed one had rendered him the most absolute obedience; of her alone he could say that, apart from her bodily weakness, she had never given him a moment's distress. In a family where high courage was the rule her timidity was a by-word; she would turn pale at the least word of anger. But she was brave now, as a dove to defend her brood.
"You are using a secret"--her voice trembled, but almost at once grew steady again--"a secret between me and Hetty which I had no right to betray. If I told it to mother, it was because she seemed to doubt of Hetty's despair; because I believed, if only she knew, she would come to Hetty and help her--the more eagerly the worse the need. Mother will tell you that was my only reason. I was very foolish. Mother would not help: or perhaps she could not. She went straight to you with the tale--this poor pitiful tale of an oath taken in passion by the unhappiest girl on earth. Yes, and the dearest, and the noblest! . . . But why do I tell you this? You are her father and her mother, and it is nothing to you; you prefer to be her judges. Only I say that you have no right to my secret. Give it back to me! You shall not use it to do this wickedness!"
"Molly!" The last word fairly took Mrs. Wesley's breath away; she glanced at the Rector; but the explosion she expected hung fire, although he was breathing hard.
Molly, too, was panting, but she went on recklessly. "Yes; a wickedness! She swore it, but she did not mean it. Even had she meant it, she was not responsible. . . . No, mother, you need not look at me so. I have been thinking, and father shall hear the truth for once. Had he been kind--had he even been just--Hetty had never run away. Oh, sir, you are a good man! but you are seldom kind, and you are rarely just. You plan what seems best to you--best for Sam and Jacky and Charles--best for us too, maybe. But of us, apart from your wishes, you never think at all. Oh, yes again, you are good; but your temper makes life a torture--"
"Silence!" Mr. Wesley thundered out suddenly.
But the thunder did not affect Molly one whit.
"You may do what you will to me, sir; but you have heard the truth. You are a tyrant to those you love: and now in your tyranny you are going to do what even in your tyranny you have never done before--a downright wickedness. Thwarted abroad, you have drunk of power at home till you have come to persuade yourself that our souls are yours. They are not. You may condemn Hetty to misery as you have driven--yes, driven--her to sin: but her soul is not yours and this secret of hers is mine not yours!"
But here standing beside the table she began to sway, then to sob and laugh unnaturally. Mrs. Wesley, instantly composed at sight of a physical breakdown, stepped to her and caught her by both wrists, but not before she had pointed a finger point-blank at her father's gray face.
"But--but--he is ridiculous!" she gasped between her short outcries. "Look at him! A ridiculous little man!"
Her mother took her by both shoulders and forced her from the room, almost carried her upstairs, dashed cold water over her face and left her to sob out her hysterics on her bed. It had been a weak, undignified exit: but those last words, which she never remembered to have uttered, her father never forgot. In all the rest of her short life Molly never had a sign from him that he remembered her outbreak. Also he never again spoke a harsh word to her.
While her mother bent over her, waiting for the attack to subside, a knock sounded below stairs. Molly heard it, raised herself on the bed for a moment, staring wildly, then sank back helpless, and her moaning began afresh.
Mrs. Wesley turned her face away quickly; and with that her gaze, passing out through the garret window, fell on a figure crossing the yard towards the house.
It was Hetty, moving to the sacrifice. And below, on the other side of the house, the man was knocking to claim her.
For a moment Mrs. Wesley felt as one in a closing trap. It was she, not Hetty, upon whom these iron teeth of fate were meeting; and Hetty, the true victim, had become part of the machine of punishment. The illusion passed almost as quickly as it had come, and with a glance at the figure on the bed she hurried downstairs, in time to meet Hetty at the back door.
As she opened it she heard William Wright's footstep in the passage behind, and his shuffling halt outside the study door, while Jane, the servant, rapped for admittance.
Hetty, too, heard it, and bent her head.
"We had best go in at once," Mrs. Wesley suggested, desperately anxious now to come to the worst and get it over.
Hetty bent her head again and followed without a word. The two men were standing--the Rector by his writing-table, Mr. Wright a little inside the door. He drew aside to let the two ladies pass and waited, fumbling with his hat and stick and eyeing the pattern of the carpet. There was no boldness about him. It seemed he dared not look at Hetty.
"Ah!" Mr. Wesley cleared his throat. "There is no reason, Mr. Wright, why we should protract a business which (as you may guess) must needs be extremely painful to some of us here. I have made inquiries about you and find that, though not well-to-do, you bear the reputation of an honest man, even a kind one. It appears that at great cost to yourself you have made provision for an aged father, going (I am told) well beyond the strict limits of a son's duty. Filial obedience--" The Rector's eyes here fell upon Hetty and he checked himself. "But I will not enlarge upon that. You ask to marry my daughter. She is in no position to decline your offer, but must rather accept it and with thanks, in humility. As her father I commend her to your love and forbearance."
There was silence for a while. Mr. Wright lifted his head: and now his culprit's look had vanished and in its place was one of genuine earnestness.
"I thank ye, sir," he said; "but, if 'tis no liberty, I'd like to hear what Miss Hetty says." Hetty, too, lifted her eyes and for the first time since entering rested them on the man who was to be her husband. Mrs. Wesley saw how they blenched and how she compelled them to steadiness; and turned her own away.
"Sir," said Hetty, "you have heard my father. Although he has not chosen to tell you, I am bound; and must answer under my bond unless he release me."
"For your salvation, as I most firmly believe, I refuse to release you," said the Rector.
"Then, sir," she continued, still with her eyes on William Wright, "under my bond I will answer you. If, as I think, those who marry without love sin against God and themselves, my father is driving out sin by sin. I cannot love you: but what I do under force I will do with an honest wish to please. I thank you for stooping to one whom her parents cast out. I shall remember my unworthiness all the more because you have overlooked it. You are all strange to me. Just now I shrink from you. But you at least see something left in me to value. Noble or base your feeling may be: it is something which these two, my parents who begat me, have not. I will try to think it noble--to thank you for it all my days--to be a good wife."
She held out her hand. As Mr. Wright extended his, coarse and not too clean, she touched it with her finger-tips and faced her father, waiting his word of dismissal.
But the Rector was looking at his wife. For a moment he hesitated; then, stepping forward, drew her arm within his, and the pair left the room together.
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