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Chapter 38

"And my brothers visit her?"

Twilight with invisible veils closed around Epworth, its parsonage, and the high-walled garden where Molly, staff in hand, limped to and fro beside Johnny Whitelamb--promoted now to be the Reverend John Whitelamb, B.A. He had arrived that afternoon, having walked all the way from Oxford.

--"Whenever they visit London," he answered.

"Charles, you know, upheld her from the first; and John has come to admit that her sufferings have lifted her above man's judgment. They talk with her as with their equal in wit--"

"Why, and so she is!"

"No doubt: but it does not follow that John would acknowledge it. They report their Oxford doings to her, and their plans: and she listens eagerly and advises. To me the strange thing is, as she manages it, that her interest does not tie her down to sharing their opinions. She speaks always as a looker-on, and they recognise this. She keeps her own mind, just as she has always held to her own view of her marriage. I have never heard her complain, and to her husband she is an angel: yet I am sure (without being able to tell you why) that her heart condemns your father and will always condemn him."

"She knows what her punishment has been: we can only guess. Does the man drink still?"

"Yes; he drinks: but she is no longer anxious about him. Your Uncle Matthew told me that in his first attacks he used to be no better than a madman. Something happened: nobody seems to know precisely what it was, except that he fell and injured his head. Now the craving for drink remains, but he soaks harmlessly. No doubt he will kill himself in time; meanwhile even at his worst he is tractable, and obeys Hetty like a child. To do the man justice, he was always fond of her."

"Poor Hetty!"

"John has spoken to her once or twice about her soul, I believe: but he does not persist."

"H'm," said Molly, "you had better say that he is biding his time. John always persists."

"That's true," he owned with a laugh: "but I have never known him so baffled to all appearance. The fact is, she cannot be roused to any interest in herself. Of others she never ceases to think. It was she, for instance--when I could not afford to buy myself a gown for ordination--who started the notion of a subscription in the family." He was wearing the gown now, and drew it about him with another laugh. "Hence the majestic figure I cut before you at this moment."

"But we all subscribed, sir. You shall not slight my poor offering-- all made up as it was of dairy-pence."

"Miss Molly, all my life is a patchwork made up of kind deeds and kind thoughts from one or other of you. You do not believe--"

"Nay, you love us all, John. I know that well enough."

For some reason a silence fell between them. Molly broke it with a laugh, which nevertheless trembled a little. "Then your gown should be a patchwork, too?"

"Why to be sure it is," he answered gravely; "and I wish the world could see it so, quartered out upon me like a herald's coat, and each quartering assigned--that is Mr. Wesley's, and that your mother's, and that, again, your brother John's--"

"And the sleeve Miss Molly's: I will be content with a sleeve. Only it must have the armorial bearings proper to a fourth daughter, with my simple motto--'Butter and New-laid Eggs.'"

The sound of their merriment reached Mrs. Wesley through an open window, and in the dim kitchen Mrs. Wesley smiled to herself.

"But," objected he, "the sleeve will not do. I do not wear my heart upon my sleeve, Molly." She turned her head abruptly. For the first time in his life he had dared to call her Molly, and was trembling at his boldness. At first he took the movement for a prompt rebuke: then, deciding that she had not heard, he was at once relieved and disappointed.

But be sure she had heard. And she was not angry: only--this was not the old Johnny Whitelamb, but another man in speech and accent, and she felt more than a little afraid of him.

"Tell me more of Hetty," she commanded, and resting one hand on her staff pointed to the south-west, where, over the coping of the wall, out of a pure green chasm infinitely deep between reddened clouds of sunset, the evening star looked down.

He knew the meaning of the sudden gesture. Had not Hetty ever been her Star?

"She is beautiful as ever. You never saw so sad a face: the sadder because it is never morose."

"I believe, John, you loved her best of us all."

"I worshipped her. To be her servant, or her dog, would have been enough for me. I never dared to think of her as--as--"

--"As you thought, for example, of her crippled sister, whom you protected."

"Molly!" He drew back. "Ah, if I dared--if I dared!" she heard him stammer, and faced him swiftly, with a movement he might have misread for anger, but for the soul shining in her eyes.

"Dare, then!"

"But I am penniless," said he, a few moments later. For him the heavens still spun and the earth reeled: but out of their turmoil this hard truth emerged as a rock from the withdrawing flood.

"God will provide for us. He knows that I cannot wait--and you--you must forget that I was unmaidenly and wooed you: for I did, and it's useless to deny it. But I have known--known--oh, for ever so long! And I have a short while to be happy!"

Either he did not hear or he let slip her meaning. His eyes were on the star, now almost level with the wall's coping.

"And this has come to me: to me--that was once Johnny Whitelamb of the Charity School!"

"And to me," she murmured; "to me--poor Grizzle, whom even her parents despised. The stars shine upon all."

"I remember," he said, musing, "at Oxford, one night, walking back to college with your brother John. We had been visiting the prisoners in Bocardo. As we turned into the Turl between Exeter and Jesus colleges there, at the end of the street--it is little more than a lane--beyond the spire of All Saints' this planet was shining. John told me its name, and with a sudden accord we stood still for a moment, watching it. 'Do you believe it inhabited?' I asked. 'Why not?' he said. 'Then why not, as this world, by sinners: and if by sinners, by souls crying for redemption in Christ?' 'Ay,' said he,' for aught we know the son of God may pass along the heavens adding martyrdom to martyrdom, may even at this moment be bound on a cross in some unseen planet swinging around one in this multitude of stars. But,' he broke off, 'what have we to do with this folly of speculation? This world is surely parish enough for a man, and in it he may be puzzled all his days to save his own soul out of the many millions.'"

"And father," murmured Molly, "designs him to take Epworth cure! But why are you telling me this?"

"Because I see now that if God's love reaches up to every star and down to every poor soul on earth, it must be something vastly simple, so simple that all dwellers on earth may be assured of it, as all who have eyes may be assured of the planet yonder; and so vast that all bargaining is below it, and they may inherit it without considering their deserts. Is not God's love greater than human? Yet, see, this earthly love has come to me--Johnny Whitelamb--as to a king. It has taken no account of my worth, my weakness: in its bounty I am swallowed up and do not weigh. To dream of it as holding tally with me is to belittle and drag it down in thought to something scarcely larger than myself. I share it with kings, as I share this star. Can I think God's love less magnificent?"

But Molly shrank close to him. "Dear, do not talk of these great things: they frighten me. I am so small--and we have so short a while to be happy!"

Arthur Quiller-Couch