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Chapter 34

Molly's protest against the tyranny of home had long since passed into a mere withholding of assent. She went about her daily task more dutifully than ever. She had always been the household drudge: but now she not only took over all the clerical work upon the Dissertationes in Librum Jobi (for the Rector's right hand was shaken by palsy and the drawings occupied more and more of Johnny Whitelamb's time); she devised new schemes for eking out the family income. She bred poultry. With Johnny's help--he was famous with the spade--she added half an acre to the kitchen garden and planted it. The summer of 1727 proved one of the rainiest within men's memory, and floods covered the face of the country almost to the Parsonage door. "I hope," wrote the Rector to John on June 6th, "I may be able to serve both my cures this summer, or if not, die pleasantly in my last dike." On June 21st he could "make shift to get from Wroote to Epworth by boat." Five days later he was twisted with rheumatism as a result of his Sunday journey to Epworth and back, "being lamed with having my breeches too full of water, partly with a downpour from a thunder-shower, and partly from the wash over the boat. Yet I thank God I was able to preach here in the afternoon. I wish the rain had not reached us on this side Lincoln, but we have it so continual that we have scarce one bank left, and I can't possibly have one quarter of oats in all the levels; but thanks be to God the field-barley and rye are good. We can neither go afoot nor horseback to Epworth, but only by boat as far as Scawsit Bridge and then walk over the common, though I hope it will soon be better."

That week the floods subsided, and on July 4th he wrote again: "My hide is tough, and I think no carrion can kill me. I walked sixteen miles yesterday; and this morning, I thank God, I was not a penny worse. The occasion of this booted walk was to hire a room for myself at Epworth, which I think I have done. You will find your mother much altered. I believe what would kill a cat has almost killed her. I have observed of late little convulsions in her very frequently, which I don't like."

This report frightened John, who wrote back urgently for further particulars. Mrs. Wesley had indeed fallen into a low state of health, occasioned partly (as Kezzy declared in a letter) by "want of clothes or convenient meat," partly by the miasma from the floods. Ague was the commonest of maladies in the Isle of Axholme, and even the labourers fortified themselves against it with opium.

"Dear son John," replied the Rector sardonically, "we received last post your compliments of condolence and congratulation to your mother on the supposition of her near approaching demise, to which your sister Patty will by no means subscribe; for she says she is not so good a philosopher as you are, and that she can't spare her mother yet, if it please God, without great inconveniency. And indeed, though she has now and then some very sick fits, yet I hope the sight of you would revive her. However, when you come you will see a new face of things, my family being now pretty well colonised, and all perfect harmony--much happier, in no small straits, than perhaps we ever were in our greatest affluence."

Molly, while she helped to cook the miserable meals which could not tempt her mother's appetite, or looked abroad upon the desolate floods, saw with absolute clearness that this apparent peace was but the peace of exhaustion. Yet it was true that--thanks to her--the pinch of poverty had relaxed. The larger debts were paid: for some months she had not opened the door to a dunning tradesman. The floods, as by a miracle, had spared her crops and she had a scheme for getting her surplus vegetables conveyed to Epworth market. Already she had opened up a trade in fowls with a travelling dealer. "Molly," wrote her father, "miraculously gets money even in Wroote, and has given the first fruit of her earning to her mother, lending her money, and presenting her with a new cloak of her own buying and making, for which God will bless her."

Her secret dissent did not escape the Rector's eye, so alert for every sign of defiance: but in his expanding sense of success he let it pass. There was another, however, who divined it and watched it anxiously day after dreary day, for it answered a trouble in his own breast.

Johnny Whitelamb was now almost a man grown: but what really separated him from the Johnny Whitelamb of two years ago was no increase in stature or in knowledge. That which grew within him, and still grew, defying all efforts to kill it, was--a doubt. It had been born in him--no bigger then than a grain of mustard-seed--on the day when he sought Hetty to send her to the house where William Wright waited for her answer. Until then the Rector had been to him a divine man, in wisdom and goodness very little lower than the angels. And now--

He fought it hard, at first in terror, at length in cold desperation. But still the doubt grew. And the worst was that Molly guessed his secret. He feared to meet her eye. It seemed to him that he and she were bound in some monstrous conspiracy. He spent hours in wrestling with it. At times he would rise from table on some stammered excuse, rush off to the fields and there, in a hidden corner, fall on his knees and pray, or even lie at full length, his face hidden in the grasses, his body writhing, his ungainly legs twisting and untwisting. And still the doubt grew.

Everything confirmed it. He saw the suffering by which mother and daughters were yoked. He noted the insufficient food, the thin clothing, the wan cheeks, the languid tread. He no longer took these for granted, but looked into their causes. And the Rector's blindness to them, or indifference, became a terror to him--a thing inhuman.

He began to think him mad. Worse, he began to hate him: he, Johnny Whitelamb, who had taken everything at his hands--food, clothing, knowledge, even his faith in God! He accused himself for a monster of ingratitude, whose sins invited the sky to fall and blot him out. And still he could not meet Molly's eyes; still, in spite of checks and set-backs, the doubt grew.

It was almost at its worst one morning in late August, when the Rector invited him to lay by his drawings and walk beside him as far as Froddingham, where he had business to transact. (It was to pay over 5 pounds, and meet a note given by him in the spring to keep Charles in pocket-money.) Had Johnny been in a more charitable mood, the accent in which the old man proffered the invitation would have struck him as pathetic. For the Rector it was indeed a rare confession of weakness. But three weeks before his purblind nag Mettle had stumbled, flung him, trailed him a few yards on the ground with one foot in the stirrup, and come to a standstill with one hoof planted blunderingly on his other foot. It had been a narrow escape, had caused him excruciating pain, and he limped still. To walk, even with a stick, was impossible. But the money must be paid at Froddingham and he would trust no messenger. So he mounted the mare, Bounce, and set forth at a foot-pace, with Johnny striding alongside and noting how the white palsied hand shook on the rein. Johnny noted it without pity: for the doubt was awake and clamorous. If ever he hated his benefactor, he hated him that morning.

The morning was gray, with a blusterous south-west wind of more than summer strength; and the floods had subsided, but the Trent, barely contained within its banks, was running down on a fierce ebb-tide. They reached Althorpe, and while waiting for the horse-boat to cross to Burringham, Johnny found time to wonder at the force of two or three gusts which broke on the lapping water and drove it like white smoke against the bows of a black keel, wind-bound and anchored in mid-channel about fifty yards down-stream.

It turned out that the ferryman, who worked the horse-boat with his eldest son, had himself walked over to Bottesford earlier in the morning: and Johnny felt some uneasiness at finding his place supplied by a boy scarcely fourteen. Mr. Wesley, however, seemed in no apprehension, but coaxed Bounce to embark and stood with her amidships, holding her bridle, as the boat was pushed off. Johnny took his seat, fronting the elder lad, who pulled the stern oar.

They started in a lull of the wind. Johnny's first thought of danger had never been definite, and he had forgotten it--was busy in fact with the doubt--when, half-way across, one of the white squalls swooped down on them and the youngster in the bows, instead of pulling for dear life, dropped his oar with a face of panic.

Johnny felt the jerk, heard the Rector's cry of warning, and in two seconds (he never knew how) had leapt over the stern oar, across the thwarts, past the kicking and terrified Bounce--with whom the Rector was struggling as she threatened to leap overboard--and reached the bows in time to snatch the oar as it slipped over the side. But it had snapped both the thole-pins short off in their sockets and was useless. The boat's nose fell off and they were swept down towards the anchored hulk below. Johnny could only wait for the crash, and he waited: and in those few instants--the doubt being still upon him--bethought him that likely enough the Rector could not swim, or would be disabled by his lameness. And . . . was he sorry? He had not answered this question when the crash came--the ferry-boat striking the very stem of the keel, her gunwale giving way to it with a slow grinding noise, then with a bursting crack as the splinters broke inwards. As it seemed to him, there were two distinct bumps, and between them the boat filled slowly and the mare slid away into the water. He heard voices shouting on board the keel. The water rose to his knees and he sank in it, almost on top of Mr. Wesley. At once he felt the whirl of the current, but not before he had gripped the Rector's collar. The other hand he flung up blindly. By Providence the keel was freighted with sea-coal and low in the water, and as the pair slid past, Johnny's fingers found and gripped the bulwark-coaming. So for a half-minute he hung--his body and the Rector's trailing out almost on the surface with the force of the water, his arm almost dislocated by the strain--until a couple of colliers came running to help and hauled them on board, the Rector first. They had gripped the small boy as the boat sank, and he stood in the bows scared and dripping, but otherwise nothing the worse. His brother, it appeared, could swim like a fish and was already a good hundred yards downstream, not fighting the current, but edging little by little for the home shore. And astern of him battled the mare.

The colliers had a light boat on deck, but with it even in calm water they could have done little to help the poor creature, and on such a stream it was quite useless. They stood watching and discussing her as she turned from time to time, either as the tide carried her or in vain, wild efforts to stem it: the latter, probably, for after some ten minutes (by which time her head had diminished to a black speck in the distance) she seemed to learn wisdom from the example of the swimmer ahead, resisted no longer, and was finally cast ashore and caught by him more than half a mile below.

Johnny, seated on the grimy deck, heard the colliers discussing her struggles, but took no concern in them. His eyes were all for the Rector, who, after the first fit of coughing, lay and panted against his knees, with gaze fastened on the steel-gray sky above.

He had saved his life. But had he really desired to? The action had been instinctive merely: and a moment before he had been speculating on the Rector's death, assenting, almost hoping! Had he translated that assent into deed--had he been given time to obey the wicked whisper in his heart--he would now be the blackest criminal under heaven. God had interposed to save him from this: but was he any the less a sinner in intent?

How had he come to harbour the thought? For now again it was to him unthinkable as of old--yet in his madness he had thought it. There abode the memory, never to be escaped. He looked down on the venerable face, the water-drops yet trickling from the brow, usually tinted with exposure to sun and wind but now pale as old ivory. The old adoration, the old devotion surged back into Johnny's heart, the tide rose to his eyes and overflowed. "My master!" he groaned, "my master!" and a tear fell upon Mr. Wesley's hand.

Whether or not this aroused him, the old man sat up at once and looked about him. He showed no emotion at all.

"Where is the mare?" he asked.

One of the keelmen pointed down-stream, and the little party stared after her in silence until she staggered up the bank.

"All saved?" asked Mr. Wesley again. "My friends, before you put me ashore, I will ask you to kneel with me and give thanks for God's mercy to me a sinner." The men stared at him and at one another, not a little embarrassed. But seeing the Rector and Johnny already on their knees in the grime, they pulled off their caps sheepishly and knelt: and after a moment the frightened youngster in the bows followed suit.

"Almighty God, who aforetime didst uphold Thy great apostle in shipwreck and bring him safe to land, and hast now again interposed an arm to succour two of this company and me, the unworthiest of Paul's successors; though our merits be as nothing in comparison with his, and as nothing the usefulness whereto Thou hast preserved us, we bless Thee that Thy mercy is high and absolute, respecting not persons; we thank Thee for giving back the imperfect lives Thou mightest in justice have brought to an end; and we entreat Thee for grace so to improve the gift as through it to receive more fitly the greater one of everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our soul's Saviour. Amen.".

He knelt for a minute, praying silently; then arose, dusted his knees and professed himself ready to be rowed ashore. The keelmen slid their deck-boat overside, and presently all embarked and were tided back to shore, the boat taking ground about fifty yards above the bend where Bounce stood shivering, caked in mud to her withers.

The Rector thanked the keelmen in few words while Johnny ran to fetch the mare. They were pulling back when he returned with her. The elder lad invited Mr. Wesley to the ferryman's cottage, to sit and dry his clothes: but he declined.

Johnny helped him to remount. Scarcely a word passed on their homeward way beyond a comment or two on poor Bounce, who had strained her near shoulder in her plunging battle for life and was all but exhausted. At the Parsonage door they parted, still in silence, and Johnny led the mare off to stable. He did not know if Mr. Wesley had observed his emotion, and his own heart was too full of love and remorse for any words.

But an hour later word came to him by Kezzy that her father wished to speak with him in the study. He went at once, wondering, and found the Rector seated as usual before his manuscripts, but alone.

"My lad," he began kindly, "you saved my life to-day."

Johnny attempted to speak, but could not.

"I know what you would say. We owe one another something, eh? But this is a debt which I choose to acknowledge at once. None the less I wish you to understand that although your conduct to-day hastens my proposal, it has been in my head for some time. Whitelamb, would you like to go to Oxford?"

Johnny gasped. "Sir--sir!" he stammered.

Mr. Wesley smiled. "I will speak to Jack. I think it can be managed if he will take you for his pupil, as no doubt he will. You cannot well be poorer than I was on the day when I entered my name at Exeter College. There, go away and think it over! There's no hurry, you understand: if you are to go, I must first of all hammer some Greek into you--eh? What is it?"

For Johnny had cast himself on his knees, and was sobbing aloud.

At supper Molly, to whom her mother had whispered the news, announced it to her sisters, who knew only of the accident and Johnny's hand in the rescue.

"Yes," said she, "we are all proud of him, and shall be prouder before long, when he goes to Oxford!"

"Why to Oxford?" asked Patty, not comprehending, and sought her mother's eyes for the interpretation. Mrs. Wesley smiled.

"Why, to be a great man," Molly went on; "perhaps in time as great as Jack or Charles." Johnny, in his usual seat by the chimney-corner, detected the challenge in her tone, but did not look up.

"Is it true?" persisted Patty. He stared into the fire, blushing furiously.

"It is true." Mrs. Wesley rose, and stepping to him laid a hand on his straggling dark hair. "What is more, he has deserved it, not to-day only but by his goodness over many years. The Lord shall be his illumination," she said gravely, quoting the motto of the University which (amazing thought!) was to be his University. "May the light of His countenance rest upon you, dear son."

She had never called him by that title before. He caught her hand and for the moment, in the boldness of a great love, clasped it between his own. Now he could look across at Molly: and she nodded back at him, her eyes brimful--but behind her tears they gave him absolution and released him from the doubt.

Arthur Quiller-Couch