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Chapter 4

In a corner of the Isle of Axholme, in Lincolnshire, and on the eastern slope of a knoll a few feet above the desolate fenland, six sisters were seated. The eldest, a woman of thirty-three, held a book open in her lap and was reading aloud from it; reading with admirable expression and a voice almost masculine, rich as a deep-mouthed bell. And, while she read, the glory of the verse seemed to pass into her handsome, peevish face.

Her listeners heard her contentedly--all but one, who rested a little lower on the slope, with one knee drawn up, her hands clasped about it, and her brows bent in a frown as she gazed from under her sun-bonnet across the level landscape to the roofs and church-tower of Epworth, five miles away, set on a rise and facing the evening sun. Across the field below, hemmed about and intersected with dykes of sluggish water, two wagons moved slowly, each with a group of labourers about it: for to-night was the end of the oat-harvest, and they were carrying the last sheaves of Wroote glebe. After the carrying would come supper, and the worn-out cart-horse which had brought it afield from the Parsonage stood at the foot of the knoll among the unladen kegs and baskets, patiently whisking his tail to keep off the flies, and serenely indifferent that a lean and lanky youth, seated a few yards away with a drawing-board on his knee, was attempting his portrait.

The girl frowned as she gazed over this group, over the harvesters, the fens, the dykes, and away toward Epworth: and even her frown became her mightily. Her favourite sister, Molly, seated beside her, and glancing now and again at her face, believed that the whole world contained nothing so beautiful. But this was a fixed belief of Molly's. She was a cripple, and in spite of features made almost angelic by the ineffable touch of goodness, the family as a rule despised her, teased her, sometimes went near to torment her; for the Wesleys, like many other people of iron constitution, had a healthy impatience of deformity and weakness. Hetty alone treated her always gently and made much of her, not as one who would soften a defect, but as seeing none; Hetty of the high spirits, the clear eye, the springing gait; Hetty, the wittiest, cleverest, mirthfullest of them all; Hetty, glorious to look upon.

All the six were handsome. Here they are in their order: Emilia, aged thirty-three (it was she who held the book); Molly, twenty-eight; Hetty, twenty-seven; Nancy, twenty-two, lusty, fresh-complexioned, and the least bit stupid; Patty, nearing eighteen, dark-skinned and serious, the one of the Wesleys who could never be persuaded to see a joke; and Kezzy, a lean child of fifteen, who had outgrown her strength. By baptism, Molly was Mary; Hetty, Mehetabel; Nancy, Anne; Patty, Martha; and Kezzy, Kezia. But the register recording most of these names had perished at Epworth in the Parsonage fire, so let us keep the familiar ones. Grown women and girls, all the six were handsome. They had an air of resting there aloof; with a little fancy you might have taken them, in their plain print frocks, for six goddesses reclining on the knoll and watching the harvesters at work on the plain below--poor drudging mortals and unmannerly:

     "High births and virtue equally they scorn,
      As asses dull, on dunghills born;
      Impervious as the stones their heads are found,
      Their rage and hatred steadfast as the ground."

(The lines were Hetty's.) When the Wesleys descended and walked among these churls, it was as beings of another race; imperious in pride and strength of will. They meant kindly. But the country-folk came of an obstinate stock, fierce to resent what they could not understand. Half a century before, a Dutchman, Cornelius Vermuyden by name, had arrived and drained their country for them; in return they had cursed him, fired his crops, and tried to drown out his settlers and workmen by smashing the dams and laying the land under water. Fierce as they were, these fenmen read in the Wesleys a will to match their own and beat it; a scorn, too, which cowed, but at the same time turned them sullen. Parson Wesley they frankly hated. Thrice they had flooded his crops and twice burnt the roof over his head.

If the six sisters were handsome, Hetty was glorious. Her hair, something browner than auburn, put Emilia's in the shade; her brows, darker even than dark Patty's, were broader and more nobly arched; her transparent skin, her colour--she defied the sunrays carelessly, and her cheeks drank them in as potable gold clarifying their blood-- made Nancy's seem but a dairymaid's complexion. Add that this colouring kept an April freshness; add, too, her mother's height and more than her mother's grace of movement, an outline virginally severe yet flexuous as a palm-willow in April winds; and you have Hetty Wesley at twenty-seven--a queen in a country frock and cobbled shoes; a scholar, a lady, amongst hinds; above all, a woman made for love and growing towards love surely, though repressed and thwarted.

Emilia read:

     "So spake our general mother, and, with eyes
      Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
      And meek surrender, half-embracing leaned
      On our first father; half her swelling breast
      Naked met his, under the flowing gold
      Of her loose tresses hid; he, in delight
      Both of her beauty and submissive charms,
      Smiled with superior love (as Jupiter
      On Juno smiles, when he impregns the clouds
      That shed May flowers), and pressed her matron lip
      With kisses pure.  Aside the Devil turned
      For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
      Eyed them askance; and to himself thus plained:--
     'Sight hateful, sight tormenting!' . . ."

Molly interrupted with a cry; so fiercely Hetty had gripped her wrist of a sudden. Emily broke off:

"What on earth's the matter, child?"

"Is it an adder?" asked Patty, whose mind was ever practical. "Johnny Whitelamb warned us--"

"An adder?" Hetty answered her, cool in a moment and deliberate. "Nothing like it, my dear; 'tis the old genuine Serpent."

"What do you mean, Hetty? Where is it?"

"Sit down, child, and don't distress yourself. Having rendered everybody profoundly uncomfortable within a circuit of two miles and almost worried itself to a sun-stroke, it has now gone into the house to write at a commentary on the Book of Job, to be illustrated with cuts, for one of which--to wit, the War-horse which saith, 'Ha, ha,' among the trumpets--you observe Johnny Whitelamb making a study at this moment."

"I think you must mean papa," said Patty; "and I call it very disrespectful to compare him with Satan; for 'twas Satan sister Emmy was reading about."

"So she was: but if you had read Plutarch every morning with papa, as I have, you would know that the best authors (whom I imitate) sometimes use comparisons for the sake of contrast. Satan, you heard, eyed our first parents askance: papa would have stepped in earlier and forbidden Adam the house. Proceed, Emilia! How goes Milton on?--

     "Adam and Eve and Pinch-me
      Went to the river to bathe:
      Adam and Eve were drown'd,
      And who do you think was saved? . . ."

Molly drew her wrist away hurriedly. "Hetty!" she cried, as Emilia withdrew into her book in dudgeon. "Hetty, dear! I cannot bear you to be flippant. It hurts me, it is so unworthy of you."

"Hurts you, my mouse?"--this was one of Hetty's tender, fantastic names for her. "Why then, I ask your pardon and must try to amend. You are right. I was flippant; you might even have said vulgar. Proceed, Emilia,--do you hear? I beg your pardon. Tell us more of the Arch-Rebel--

     "And courage never to submit or yield
      And what is else not to be overcome . . ."

Say it over in your great voice, Emmy, and purge us poor rebels of vulgarity."

"Pardon me," Emilia answered icily, "I am not conscious of being a rebel--nor of any temptation to be vulgar."

Molly shot an imploring glance at Hetty: but it was too late, and she knew it.

"Hoity-toity! So we are not rebellious--not even Emilia when she thinks of her Leybourne!" Emilia bit her lip. "Nor Patty when she thinks of Johnny Romley? And we are never vulgar? Ah, but forgive your poor sister, who goes into service next week! You must allow her to practise the accomplishments which will endear her to the servants' hall, and which Mr. Grantham will pay for and expect. Indeed--since Milton is denied us--I have some lines here; a petition to be handed to mother to-night when she returns. She may not grant it, but she must at least commend her daughter's attempt to catch the tone." And drawing a folded paper from her waistband, she drawled the following, in the broadest Lincolnshire accent:

      "Hetty the Serving-maid's Petition to her Mother."
       "Dear mother, you were once in the ew'n [oven],
        As by us cakes is plainly shewn,
        Who else had ne'er come arter:
        Pray speak a word in time of need,
        And with my sour-looked father plead
        For your distressed darter!"

Nancy and Kezzy laughed; the younger at the absurd drawl, which hit off the Wroote dialect to a hair; Nancy indulgently--she was safely betrothed to one John Lambert, an honest land-surveyor, and Mr. Wesley's tyranny towards suitors troubled her no longer. But the others were silent, and a tear dropped on the back of poor Molly's hand.

As Hetty took it penitently, Patty spoke again. "You are wrong, at all events," she persisted, "about papa's being in the house, for I saw him leave it, more than half an hour ago, and walk off on the Bawtry road."

"He has gone to meet mother, then," said Kezzy, "and poor Sander will have to trudge the last two miles."

"Pray Heaven, then, they do not quarrel!" sighed Emilia, shutting the book.

"My dear!" Hetty assured her, "that is past praying for. She will be weary to death; and he, as you know, is in a mood to-day! Though you thought it unfeeling, I rejoiced when he announced he was not riding to Bawtry to meet her but would send Sander instead: for whatever news she brought he would have picked holes in it and wrangled all the way home. But this is his masterpiece. It contrives to get the most annoyance out of both plans. I often wonder"--here Hetty clasped her knee again, and, leaning back against the turf, let her eyes wander over the darkening landscape--"if our father and mother love each other the better for living together in one perpetual rasp of temper?"

"What is the hour?" asked Emilia.

Hetty glanced at the sun.

"Six, or a few minutes past."

"She cannot be here before half-past seven, and by then the moon will be rising. We will give her a regal harvest-supper, and enthrone her on the last sheaf. I have sent word to have it saved. And there shall be a fire, and baked potatoes."

Kitty clapped her hands.

"And," Hetty took up the tale, "she shall sit by the embers and tell us all her wanderings, like Aeneas, till the break of morning. But before we bid Johnny Whitelamb desist from drawing and build a fire, let us be six princesses here and choose the gifts our mother shall bring home from town."

"You know well enough she has no money to buy gifts," objected Patty.

"Be frugal, then, in wishing, dear Pat. For my part, I demand only a rich Indian uncle: but he must be of solid gold. He should come to us along the Bawtry road in a palanquin with bells jingling at the fringes. Ann, sister Ann, run you to the top of the mound and say if you see such an uncle coming. Moll, dear, 'tis your turn to wish."

"I wish," said Molly, "for a magic mirror." Hetty gave a start, thinking she spoke of a glass which should hide her deformity. But Molly went on gravely. "I should call it my Why Mirror, for it would show us why we live as we do, and why mother goes ill-clothed and sometimes hungry. No, I am not grumbling; but sometimes I wish to know--only to know! I think my mirror would tell me something about my brothers, and what they are to do in the world. And I am sure it would tell me that God is ordering this for some great end. But I am weak and impatient, and, if I knew, I could be so much braver!" She ended abruptly, and for a moment or two all the sisters were silent.

"Come, Nancy," said Hetty at length. "Patty will wish for a harp, for certain"--Patty's burning desire to possess one was as notorious in the family as her absolute lack of ear for music--"and Emmy will ask for a new pair of shoes, if she is wise." Emilia tucked a foot out of sight under her skirt.

"But I don't understand this game," put in Kezzy. "A moment ago it was Blue Beard, and now it seems to be Beauty and the Beast. Which is it?"

"We may need Molly's mirror to tell us," Hetty answered lightly: and with that she glanced up as a shadow darkened the golden sky above the mound, and a voice addressed the sisters all. "Good evening, young ladies!"


Arthur Quiller-Couch