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Chapter 32

"I never knew you were such a needlewoman, Hetty. It has been nothing but stitch-stitch for these two hours--and the same yesterday, and the day before. See, the kettle's boiling. Lay down your sewing, that's a dear creature; make me a dish of tea; and while you're doing it, let me see your eyes and hear your voice."

Hetty dropped her hands on her lap and let them rest there for a moment, while she looked across at Charles with a smile.

"As for talking," she answered, "it seems to me you have been doing pretty well without my help."

Charles laughed. "Now you speak of it, I have been rattling on. But there has been so much to say and so little time to say it in. Has it occurred to you that we have seen more of each other in these seven days than in all our lives before?"

Seven days ago, while staying with his brother Sam at Westminster, he had heard of her arrival in London and had tramped through the slushy streets at once to seek her out at her address in Crown Court, Dean Street, Soho. She had welcomed him in this dark little second-floor room--dwelling-room and bedroom combined--in which she was sitting alone; for her husband spent most of the day abroad on the business which had brought them to London, either superintending the alterations in the unfurnished premises he had hired in Frith Street for his shop and the lead-works by which he proposed to make his fortune, or in long discussions at Johnson's Court with Uncle Matthew, who was helping with money and advice. The lodgings in Crown Court were narrow enough and shut in by high walls. But Hetty had not inhabited them two hours before they looked clean and comfortable and even dainty. Her own presence lent an air of distinction to the meanest room.

Her face, her voice, her regal manners, her exquisitely tender smile, came upon Charles with the shock of discovery. These two had not seen one another for years. The date of this first call was December 22nd: then and there--with a shade of regret that in a few days he must leave London to pay Wroote a visit before his vacation closed-- Charles resolved that she should not spend her Christmas uncheered. On Christmas Day he had carried her off with her husband to dine at Westminster with Mr. and Mrs. Sam Wesley. Mr. Wright had been on his best behaviour, Mrs. Sam unexpectedly gracious, and the meeting altogether a great success. Charles had walked home with the guests, and had called again the next afternoon. He could see that his visits gave Hetty the purest delight, and now that they must end, he, too, realised how pleasant they had been, and that he was going to miss them sorely.

"Only seven days?" he went on, musing. "I can hardly believe it; you have let me talk at such length--and I have been so happy."

Hetty clapped her hands together--an old girlish trick of hers. "It's I that have been happy! And not least in knowing that you will do us all credit." She knit her brows. "You are different from all the rest of us, Charles; I cannot explain how. But, sure, there's a Providence in it, that you, who are meant for different fortunes--"

"How different?"

"Why, you will take our kinsman's offer, of course. You will move in a society far above us--go into Parliament--become a great statesman--"

"My dear Hetty, what puts that into your head? I have refused."

"Refused!" She set down the kettle and gazed at him. "Is this John's doing?" she asked slowly.

"Why should it be John's doing?" He was nettled, and showed it. "I am old enough to make a choice for myself."

She paid no heed to this disclaimer. "They are perfectly ruthless," she went on.

"Who are ruthless?"

"Father and John. They would compass heaven and earth to make one proselyte; and the strange thing to me is that John at least does it in a cold mechanical way, almost as if his own mind stood outside of the process. Father is set on his inheriting Wroote and Epworth cures, John on saving his own soul; let them come to terms or fight it out between them. But how can it profit Epworth or John's soul that they should condemn you, as they have condemned mother and all of us, to hopeless poverty? What end have they in view? Or have they any? For what service, pray, are you held in reserve?" She paused. "Somehow I think they will not wholly succeed, even though they have done this thing between them. You will fall on your feet; your face is one the world will make friends with. You may serve their purpose, but something of you--your worldly happiness, belike--will slip and escape from the millstones which have ground the rest of us to powder."

She picked up the kettle again and turned her back upon him while she filled the tea-pot at the small table. For the first time in their talks she had spoken bitterly.

"Nevertheless, I assure you, I refused of my own free will."

"Is there such a thing as free will in our family? I never detected it. As babes we were yoked to the chariot to drag Jack's soul up to the doors of salvation. I only rebelled, and--Charles, I am sorry, but not all penitent."

He ignored these last words. "You are quoting from Molly, I think. She and Jack seldom agree."

"Because, dear soul, she reads that Jack despises while he uses her. He looks upon her as the weak one in the team; he doubts she may break down on the road, and she, too, looks forward to it, though not with any fear."

"For some reason, father allows her to talk to him as no one else does--not even mother. Do you know that one day last summer father and I were discussing Jack and the chance of his ever settling at Epworth; for this is in the old man's thoughts now, almost day and night. We were in the study by the window, and Molly at the table making a fair copy of the morning's work on Job; we did not think she heard us. All of a sudden she looked up and quoted 'Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom and stretch her wings toward the south?' I supposed she was repeating it aloud from her manuscript, but father knew better and swung round upon her. 'Do you presume, then, to know whither or how far Jack will fly?' he demanded. She turned a queer look upon him, not flinching as I expected, and 'I shall see him,' she answered, using Balaam's words; 'I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh.' And with that she dropped her head and went on quietly with her writing. As for father, if you'll believe me, it simply dumbfounded him; he hadn't a word!"

"And I will tell you why. Once on a time that weak darling stood up for me to his face. She would not tell me what happened. But I believe that ever since father has been as nearly afraid of her as of anyone in the world. . . . And now I want a promise. You say you have been happy in these talks of ours; and heaven knows I have been happier than for many a long day. Well, I want you to tell Molly about me--alone, remember--for of them all she only tried to help me, and believes in me still."

"Why, of course I shall."

"And," Hetty smiled, "they have no poet among them now. You might send me some of your verses for a keepsake."

Charles grew suddenly red in the face. "Why--who told you?" he stammered.

"Oh, my dear," she laughed merrily, "one divines it! the more easily for having known the temptation."

He had set down his tea-cup and was standing up now, in his young confusion fingering the sewing she had laid aside.

"What is this you are doing?" he asked, with his eyes on the baby-linen; and though he uttered the first question that came into his head, and merely to cover his blushes, as he asked it the truth came to him, and he blushed more redly than ever.

Hetty blushed too. She saw that he had guessed at length, but she saw him also clothed in a shining innocence. She felt suddenly that, though she might love him better, there were privacies she could not discuss with Charles as with John. And for the moment Charles seemed to her the more distant and mysterious of the two.

What she answered was--"We shall be following you back to Lincolnshire in a few days. I am to stay at Louth, in the house where William has found lodgings for his father--who was born at Louth, you know, and has now determined to end his days there. William will not be with me at first; he has to wind up the business at Lincoln and looks for some unpleasantness, as he has made himself responsible for all the old man's debts. I may even find my way to Wroote before facing Louth."

"To Wroote?"

"As a moth to the old cruel flame, dear. They will not take me in: but I know where to find a bedroom. Women have curious fancies at times; and I feel as if I may die very likely, and I want to see their faces first."

She stepped to him and kissed him hurriedly, hearing her husband's step on the stairs. "Remember to speak with Molly!"

Arthur Quiller-Couch