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Chapter 25

William Wright stared at the door as it closed upon them. Hetty did not stir. To reach it she must pass him. She stood by the writing-table, her profile turned to him, her body bent with a great shame; suffering anguish, yet with an indignant pride holding it down and driving it inward as she repressed her bosom's rise and fall. Even a callous man must have pitied her; and William Wright, though a vulgar man, was by no means a callous one.

"Miss Hetty--" he managed to say, and was not ashamed that his voice shook.

She did not seem to hear.

"Miss Hetty--" His voice was louder and he saw that she heard. "There's a deal I'd like to say, but the things that come uppermost are all foolish. F'r instance, what I most want to say is that I'm desperate sorry for you. And--and here's another thing, though 'tis even foolisher. When I came to speak to your father, day before yestiddy, the first thing he did was to pay me down every penny he owed me--not that I was thinking of it for one moment--"

She had turned her head away at first, yet not as if refusing to listen: but now from a sudden stiffening of her shoulders, he saw that he was offending.

"Nay, now," he persisted, "but you must hear me finish. I want you to know what I did with it. I went home with it jingling in my pocket, and called out my father and spread it on the counter before him. 'Look at it,' I said, and his eyes fairly glistened. 'And now,' I said, 'hear me tell you that neither you nor I touches a penny of it.' I took him up the hill to the cathedral and crammed it into a box there. For the touch of it burned my fingers till I got rid of it, same as it burned your father's. The old man fairly capered to see me and cried out that I must be mad. 'Think so?' said I, 'then there's worse to come.' I led him home again, went to my drawerful of savings, and counted out the like sum to a penny. 'That's towards a chair for her,' said I; 'and that's towards a sofy; and there's for this, and there's for that. If she will condescend to the likes of me, like a queen she shall be treated while I have fingers to work.' That's what I said, Miss Hetty: and that's what I want to tell you, foolish as you'll think it, and rough belike."

She turned suddenly upon him with swimming eyes.

"'Condescend'?" she echoed.

He nodded. "That's so: and like dirt you may treat me. You did once, you know. I'd like it to go on."

She spread her hands vaguely. "Why will you be kind to me? When-- when--"

"When you'd far liefer have every excuse to hate the sight of me. Oh, I understand! Well, I'd even give you that, if it pleased you, and I could."

She looked at him now, long and earnestly. Her next question was a strange one and had little connection with her thoughts.

"Did you sign that letter?"

"What letter?"

"The one you sent to father."

He fingered his jaw in a puzzled way. "I never sent any letter to your father. Writing's none so easy to me, though sorry I am to say it."

"Then it must have been--" Light broke on her, but she paused and suppressed Patty's name.

"I like you," she went on, "because you speak honestly with me."

"Come, that's better."

"No: I want you to understand. It's because your honesty makes me able to be honest with you." She drew herself up to the height of her superb beauty and touched her breast. "You see me?" she asked in a low, hurried voice. "I am yours. My father has said it, and I repeat it, adding this: I make no bargain, except that you will be honest. I am to be your wife: use me as you will. All that life with you calls to be undergone, I will undergo: as his drudge to the hind in the fields I offer myself. Nothing less than that shall satisfy me, since through it--can you not see?--I must save myself. But oh, sir! since something in me makes you prize me above other women, even as I am, let that compel you to be open with me always! When, as it will, a thought makes you turn from me--though but for a moment--do not hide it. I would drink all the cup. I must atone-- let me atone!"

She walked straight up to him in her urgency, but suddenly dropped her arms. He stared at her, bewildered.

"I shall have no such thoughts, Miss Hetty."

Arthur Quiller-Couch