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Chapter 36

You who can read between the lines of these letters will have remarked a new accent in Hetty--a hard and bitter accent. She will suffer her punishment now; but, even though it be sent of God, she will appeal against it as too heavy for her sin.

Learn now the cause of it and condemn her if you can.

At first when her husband, at the close of his day's work, sidled off to the "Turk's Head," she pretended not to remark it. Indeed her fears were long in awaking. In all her life she had never tasted brandy, and knew nothing of its effects. That Dick Ellison fuddled himself upon it was notorious, and on her last visit to Wroote she had heard scandalous tales of John Romley, who had come to haunt the taverns in and about Epworth, singing songs and soaking with the riff-raff of the neighbourhood until turned out at midnight to roll homeward to his lonely lodgings. She connected drunkenness with uproarious mirth, boon companionship, set orgies. Of secret unsocial tippling she had as yet no apprehension.

Even before the birth of his second child the tavern had become necessary to Mr. Wright, not only at the close of work, but in the morning, between jobs. His workmen began to talk. He suspected them and slid into foolish, cunning tricks to outwit them, leaving the shop on false excuses, setting out ostentatiously in the wrong direction and doubling back on the "Turk's Head" by a side street. They knew where to find him, however, when a customer dropped in.

"Who sent you here?" he demanded furiously, one day, of the youngest apprentice, who had come for the second time that week to fetch him out of the "King's Oak." (He had enlarged his circle of taverns by this time, and it included one half of Soho.)

"Please you, I wasn't sent here at all," the boy stammered. "I tried the 'Turk's Head' first and then the 'Three Tuns.'"

"And what should make you suppose I was at either? Look here, young man, the workshop from Robinson down"--Robinson was the foreman--"is poking its nose too far into my business. If this goes on, one of these days Robinson will get his dismissal and you the strap."

"It wasn't Robinson sent me, sir. It was the mistress."

"Eh!" William Wright came to a halt on the pavement and his jaw dropped.

"Her uncle, Mr. Matthew, has called and wants to see you on particular business."

The business, as it turned out, was merely to give him quittance of a loan. The sum first advanced to them by Matthew Wesley had proved barely sufficient. To furnish the dwelling-rooms in Frith Street he had lent another 10 pounds and taken a separate bond for it, and this debt Hetty had discharged out of her household economies, secretly planning a happy little surprise for her husband; and now in the hurry of innocent delight she betrayed her sadder secret.

She had as yet no fear of him, though he was afraid of her. But at sight of him as he entered, all the joy went out of her announcement.

He listened sulkily, took the receipt, and muttered some ungracious thanks. Old Matthew eyed him queerly, and, catching a whiff of brandy, pulled out his gold watch. The action may have been involuntary. The hour was half-past ten in the morning.

"Well, well--I must be going. Excuse me, nephew Wright; with my experience I ought to have known better than to withdraw a busy man from his work."

He glanced at Hetty, with a look which as good as asked leave for a few words with her in private. But Mr. Wright, now thoroughly suspicious, did not choose to be dismissed in this fashion. So after a minute or two of uneasy talk the old man pulled out his watch again, excused himself, and took his departure.

"Look here," began Mr. Wright when he and Hetty were left alone: "You are taking too much on yourself."

He had never spoken to her quite so harshly.

"I am sorry, William," she answered, keeping her tears well under control. For months she had been planning her little surprise, and its failure hurt her cruelly. "I had no thought of displeasing you."

"Oh, I daresay you meant it for the best. But I choose to be master in my own house, that's all. Another time, if you have more money than you know what to do with, just come and consult me. I've no notion of being made to look small before your uncle, and I don't stomach it."

He turned away growling. He had spoken only of the repaid loan, but they both knew that this had nothing to do with his ill temper.

At the door he faced round again. "What were you talking about when I came in?" he asked suspiciously.

"Uncle was congratulating us. He is delighted to know that the business is doing so well and complains that he seldom gets sight of you nowadays, your hands are so full."

"And pray what the devil has it to do with him, how I spend my time?" He pulled himself up on the oath, and seeing her cheek flush, he too reddened, but went on, if anything, more violently. "You've a trick in your family of putting your fingers into other folks' pies: you're known for it. There's that Holy Club I hear about. Your clever brothers can't be content, any more than your father, to let honest folks alone, but are for setting right the whole University of Oxford. I warn you, that won't do with me. 'Live and let live' is my motto: let me alone and I'll let you alone. You Wesleys think mightily of yourselves; but you're neither king nor Parlyment, and that I'll have you learn."

It was not a dignified exit and he knew it: by brooding over it through the afternoon his temper grew more savage. That evening he spent at the "Turk's Head" and slouched home at midnight divided between contrition and bravado.

Hetty was in bed, pretending sleep. Had she known it, a word from her might have mended matters. Even had he found her in tears there was enough good nature in the man to have made him relent.

At sight of her beautiful face he felt half-inclined to awake her and have the quarrel cleared up. But, to begin with, he was not wholly certain of his sobriety. And she, too, distrusted it. He had wounded her family pride, to be sure: but what really kept her silent was the dread of discovering him to be drunk and letting him see that she had discovered it.

Yet she had great need of tears: for on more than one account she respected her husband, even liked him, and did most desperately long to be loved by him. After all, she had borne him children: and since they had died he was her only stay in the world, her only hope of redemption. Years after there was found among her papers a tear-blotted sheet of verses dating from this sorrowful time: and though the sorrow opens and shows ahead, as in a flash, the contempt towards which the current is sweeping her, you see her travel down to it with hands bravely battling, clutching at the weak roots of love and hope along the shore:

     "O thou whom sacred rites design'd
      My guide and husband ever kind,
      My sovereign master, best of friends,
      On whom my earthly bliss depends:
      If e'er thou didst in Hetty see
      Aught fair or good or dear to thee,
      If gentle speech can ever move
      The cold remains of former love,
      Turn thou at last-my bosom ease,
      Or tell me why I fail to please.

"Is it because revolving years, Heart-breaking sighs, and fruitless tears Have quite deprived this form of mine Of all that once thou fancied'st fine? Ah no! what once allured thy sight Is still in its meridian height. Old age and wrinkles in this face As yet could never find a place; A youthful grace informs these lines Where still the purple current shines, Unless by thy ungentle art It flies to aid my wretched heart: Nor does this slighted bosom show The many hours it spends in woe.

"Or is it that, oppress'd with care, I stun with loud complaints thine ear, And make thy home, for quiet meant, The seat of noise and discontent? Ah no! Thine absence I lament When half the weary night is spent, Yet when the watch, or early morn, Has brought me hopes of thy return, I oft have wiped these watchful eyes, Conceal'd my cares and curb'd my sighs In spite of grief, to let thee see I wore an endless smile for thee.

"Had I not practised every art, To oblige, divert and cheer thy heart, To make me pleasing in thine eyes, And turn thy house to paradise, I had not ask'd 'Why dost thou shun These faithful arms, and eager run To some obscure, unclean retreat, With vile companions glad to meet, Who, when inspired by beer, can grin At witless oaths and jests obscene, Till the most learned of the throng Begins a tale of ten hours long To stretch with yawning other jaws, But thine in rapture of applause?'

"Deprived of freedom, health and ease, And rivall'd by such things as these, Soft as I am, I'll make thee see I will not brook contempt from thee! I'll give all thoughts of patience o'er (A gift I never lost before); Indulge at once my rage and grief Mourn obstinate, disdain relief, Till life, on terms severe as these, Shall ebbing leave my heart at ease; To thee thy liberty restore To laugh, when Hetty is no more."

One morning William Wright awoke out of stertorous sleep with a heavy sense of something amiss, and opened his eyes to find Hetty standing beside the bed in nightgown and light wrapper, with a tray and pot of tea which she had stolen downstairs to prepare for him. After a second or two he remembered, and turned his face to the wall.

"No," said she, "you had better sit up and drink this, and we can talk honestly. See, I have brought a cup for myself, too."

She drew a small table close to the bed, and a chair, poured out the tea and seated herself--all with the least possible fuss.

"I suppose you know," she began, "that you struck me last night?"

His hand trembled as he took the cup, and again he turned away his eyes.

"You were drunk," she went on. "You called me by an evil name, too-- a name I once called myself: but a name you would not have called me in your sober senses. At least, I think not. Tell me--and remember that you promised always to answer honestly: you would not have called me so in your sober senses? You do not think of me so?"

He set down the cup and stretched out a hand.

"My lass"--the words seemed to choke him.

"For I am not that. You married me knowing the worst; and ever since I have been a true wife to you. Well, I see that you are sorry. And you struck me, on the breast. I have a bruise there; but," she went on in a level lifeless tone, "there is no child to see his father's mark. You are sorry for that, too. But I understand, of course, that you were drunk. Many times now you have come home drunk, and next morning I pretended not to know it. I must not pretend now, since now to be clear about it is my only chance of comfort and your only chance of self-respect."

He groaned.

"Lass, I could cut my hand off for it! When a man gets overtaken--"

"No, no," her voice suddenly grew animated; "for God's sake, William, don't cry over it! You are not a David." She shivered, as a trick of memory brought back to her the night in the harvest field when she had broken out in wrath against her least admired of Biblical heroes--the same night on which she had first set eyes on this man, whose ring and whose bruise she wore.

"Do not use cheating words, either," she went on. "You were not overtaken by liquor; you went out to meet it, as you have gone night after night. Call it by the straight name. Listen: I like you well enough, William, to help you, if I can--indeed, I have tried. But there seems to be something in drink which puts aside help: the only fighting of any worth must come from the man himself--is it not so?"

"I have fought, lass."

"Drink up your tea, my man, and fight it again! Come home to me earlier, and with a firmer step, and each night will be a victory, better worth than all the cries and sobbings in the world."

He gazed at her stupidly as she put out a hand and laid it gently on his wrist. He covered his eyes.

"I--struck--you!" he muttered.

She winced. Startled by the sudden withdrawal of her touch, he lowered his hand and looked at her. Her eyes, though brimming, met his steadily.

"Tears are for women," she said. "I must cry a little: but see, I am not afraid."

For some months after this he fought the drink; fought it steadily. With Christmas came a relapse, through which she nursed him. To her dismay she found the fit, during the few days that it lasted, more violent than before, and thought of the house swept and garnished and the devil returning with others worse than himself. Her consolation was that at his worst now he seemed to turn to her, and depend on her--almost to supplicate--for help. The struggle left them both exhausted: but he had not attempted to beat her this time. She tried to persuade herself that this meant amendment, and that the outbreaks would grow rarer and at length cease altogether.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1731 his health improved, and with it his kindness to her. Indeed, she had not been so near happiness (or so she told herself) since her wedding day. Another child was coming. Hope, so often cut down, grew again in her heart. And then--

One forenoon in the second week of June--a torrid, airless day--he came home reeling. For the moment a black fear fell on her that she would be too weak to wrestle with this attack; but she braced herself to meet it.

The next day her uncle called. He was about to start on a long-planned journey to Epworth, taking his man with him; and having lately parted with his housekeeper, he had a proposal to make; that Hetty should sleep at Johnson's Court and look after the house in his absence.

She shook her head. Luckily her husband was out, drinking fiercely at some tavern, as she very well knew; but anything was better than his encountering Uncle Matthew just now.

"Why not?" the old man urged. "It would save my hiring a carekeeper, and tide me over until I bring back Patty with me, as I hope to do. Besides, after travelling in those wilds I shall want to return and find the house cheerful: and I know I can depend on you for that."

"And I promise that you shall have it. Send me but word of your coming, and all shall be ready for you that you require."

"But you will not take up your abode there?"

She shook her head again, still smiling: but the smile had lost connection with her thoughts. She was listening for her husband's unsteady step and praying God to detain it.

"But why not?" Uncle Matthew persisted. "It is not for lack of good will, I know. Your husband can spare you for a few days: or for that matter he might come with you and leave the house at night to young Ritson." This was Mr. Wright's apprentice, the same that had fetched him out of the "King's Oak "; an exemplary youth, who slept as a rule in a garret at the top of the house.

"Tom Ritson is not lodging with us just now: we have found a room for him two doors away." She had, indeed, packed off the youth at the first sign of his master's returning madness: but, lest Uncle Matthew should guess the true reason, she added, "Women in my state take queer fancies--likes and dislikes."

The old man eyed her for a while, then asked abruptly, "Is your husband drinking again?"

"How--what makes you--I don't understand," she stammered. Do what she might she could not prevent the come-and-go of colour in her face.

"Oh, yes you do. Tut, tut, my dear! I've known it every whit as long as you. Look here; would you like me to put off my journey for a few days?"

"On no account. There's not the least reason, I assure you, uncle."

He seemed content with this and talked for a little while of the journey and his plans. He had warned nobody at Epworth. "I intend it for a surprise," he explained; "to learn with my own eyes how they are faring." Emilia and Kezzy were at home now upon a holiday: for some months they had been earning their livelihood at Lincoln as teachers in a boarding-school kept by a Mrs. Taylor. He might even make a trip to Scarborough, to drink the waters there. He was gravely kind, and promised to deliver all Hetty's messages to her sisters.

"Well, well," he said as he rose to go, "so you won't come to me?"

"I cannot."

"Nevertheless I shall leave word that the house is to be open to you--in case of need." He looked at her meaningly, kissed her on the forehead, and so took his leave.

At the street door he paused. "And that poor soul is childless," he muttered. "She that should have been a noble mother of soldiers!"

Arthur Quiller-Couch