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Chapter 5

A broad-shouldered man looked down on them from the summit of the knoll, which he had climbed on its westward side; a tradesman to all appearance, clad in a dusty, ill-fitting suit. So far as they could judge--for he stood with the waning light at his back--he was not ill-featured; but, by his manner of mopping his brow, he was most ungracefully hot, and Molly declared ever afterwards that his thick worsted stockings, seen against the ball of the sun, gave his calves a hideous hairiness. She used to add that he was more than half drunk. His manner of accosting them--half uneasy, half familiar-- froze the Wesley sisters.

"Good evening, young ladies! And nice and cool you look, I will say. Can any of you tell me if Parson Wesley's at home?"

"He is not," Emilia answered. "He has gone towards Bawtry."

"Well now, that's what the maid told me at the parsonage: but I thought, maybe, 'twas a trick--a sort of slip-out-by-the-back and not-at-home to a creditor. I've heard of parsons playing that game, and no harm to their conscience, because no lie told."

"Sir!" Emilia rose and faced him.

"Oh, no offence, miss! I believe you; and for that matter the wench seemed fair-spoken enough, and gave me a drink of cider. 'Tis the matter of a debt, you see." He drew a scrap of dirty paper from his pocket. "Twelve-seventeen-six, for repairs done to Wroote Parsonage; new larder, fifteen; lead for window-casements, eight-six; new fireplace to parlour, one-four-six: ancettera. I'm a plumber by trade--plumber and glazier--and in business at Lincoln. William Wright's my name, and Right by nature." Here he grinned. "Your father would have everything of the best; Epworth tradesman not worth a damn, excuse me, and meaning no offence. So he said, or words to that effect. A very particular gentleman, and his nose at the time into everything. But a man likes to be paid, you understand? So, having a job down Owston way, I thought I'd walk over and jog his reverence's memory."

"The money will be paid, sir, in due course, I make no doubt," said Emilia bravely. Some of her sisters were white in the face. Hetty alone seemed to ignore the man's presence, and gazed over the fields towards Epworth.

"Ah, 'in due course!' Let me tell you, miss, that if all the money owing to me was paid, I'd--I'd--" He broke off. "I have ambitions, I have: and a head on my shoulders. London's the only place for a man like me. Gad, if these were only full"--he slapped his pockets--"there's no saying I wouldn't up and ask one of you to come along o' me! There's that beauty, yonder," he jerked his thumb at Hetty. "She's the pick. My word, and you are a beauty, bridling to yourself there, and thinking dirt of me. Go on, I like you for it: you can't show too much spirit for William Wright." Molly's hand closed over Hetty's two, clasped and lying in her lap: Hetty sat motionless as a statue. "If only your father would trade you off against an honest debt--But you're gentry: I knows the sort. Well, well, 'tis a long tramp back to Owston: so here's wishing you good night, missies all. If I take back no money, and no pay but a pint of sour cider, I've seen the prettiest picter in all Lincolnshire; so we'll count it a holiday."

He was gone. With the dropping of the sun a chilly shadow had fallen on the mound, and for some moments the sisters remained motionless, agonised, each in her own way distraught.

"The brute!" said Kezzy at length, drawing a long breath.

Hetty rose deliberately. "Child," she said, and her voice was hard, "don't be a goose! The poor creature came for his money. He had the right to insult us."

She smoothed the dew from her skirt and walked swiftly down the slope.

At the foot of it Johnny Whitelamb had risen and was holding his drawing aslant, in some hope, perhaps, that the angle might correct the perspective of old Mettle's portrait. Certainly it was a villainous portrait, as he acknowledged to himself with a sigh. Parts of it must be rubbed out, and his right hand rummaged in his pocket and found a crust. But Johnny, among other afflictions, suffered from an unconscionable appetite. While he doubted where to begin, his teeth met in the bread, and he started guiltily, for it was more than half eaten when Hetty swooped down on him.

"Quick, Johnny! run you to the woodstack while I unpack the baskets. Mother will be arriving in an hour, and we are to give her supper out here, with baked potatoes. Run, that's a good soul: and on your way get Jane to give you a tin of oatmeal--tell her I must have it if she has to scrape the bottom of the bin; and a gridiron, and a rolling-pin. We will have griddle-cakes. Run--and whatever you do, don't forget the rolling-pin!"

Johnny ran with long ungainly strides, his coat-tails flapping like a scarecrow's. The coat, in fact, was a cast-off one of Mr. Wesley's, narrow in the chest, short in the sleeves, but inordinately full in the skirts. The Rector had found and taken Johnny from the Charity School at Wroote to help him with the maps and drawings for his great work, the Dissertationes in Librum Jobi, and in return the lad found board and lodging and picked up what scraps he could of Greek and Latin. He wrote a neat hand and transcribed carefully; his drawings were atrocious, and he never attempted a woodcut without gashing himself. But he kept a humble heart, and for all the family a devotion almost canine. To him the Rector, with his shovel-hat and stores of scholarship, was a god-like man; with his air, too, of apostolical authority--for Johnny, whom all Epworth set down as good for nothing, reflected the Wesley notions of the Church's majesty. In his dreams--but only in his dreams--he saw himself such a man, an Oxford scholar, treading that beatific city of which the Rector disclosed a glimpse at times; his brows bathed by her ineffable aura, and he--he, Johnny Whitelamb--baptized into her mysteries, a participant with the Rector's second son John, now at Christ Church-- of whom (he noted) the family spoke but seldom and with a constraint which hinted at hopes too dear to be other than fearful. Meanwhile he did his poor tasks, stayed his stomach when he could, and rewarded his employers with love.

He loved them all: but Hetty he worshipped.

He knew his place. For an hour past he had been sitting, as became a servant, beyond earshot of the sisters' talk, yet within call, should they summon him. Now the goddess had descended from her mountain with a command, and he ran toward the woodstack as he would have run and plunged into the water-dyke, had she bidden him.

He returned to find her waiting with her sleeves tucked above her elbows.

"Oh, Johnny--I forgot the tinder-box!" she cried.

He dropped his burdens and produced it triumphantly from his tail pocket.

"I thought of that!"

"But you must not!"--as he dropped on his knees and began to unbind and break up the sticks. "This is my business. I am going into service, in ten days--at Kelstein: and you must watch and tell me what I do amiss."

She pulled the faggot towards her, broke up the sticks, and built the fragments daintily into a heap, with a handful of dry leaves as basis. The twilight deepened around them as she built. Next she struck flint on steel, caught the spark on tinder, and blew. Johnny watched the glow on her cheeks wakening and fading, and, watching, fell into a brown study.

"There!" she exclaimed, straightening herself upon her knees as the blaze caught. "Is that a good omen for Kelstein?"

Her eyes were on the sticks, and in their crackling she did not listen for his answer, but commanded him to take a pitcher of water and pour, while she mixed and kneaded the meal. To the making of bread, cakes, pastry, Hetty brought a born gift; a hand so light, quick, and cool, that Johnny could have groaned for his own fumbling fingers. A dozen cakes were finished and banked in the wood-ashes as the fire died down to a steadily glowing mass. By this time the landscape about them lay flat to the eye and gray, touched with the faint gold of moonrise, and just then Emilia called down from the mound that the travellers were in sight on the Bawtry road.

The others ran to meet them: but Hetty remained by her task, silent, and Johnny silent beside her. Together they spread the two meals, one beside the fire for the family, the other some fifty yards off for the harvesters, now moving towards the rick-yard with the last load.

Hetty was not her mother's favourite. Emilia and Patty divided that honour by consent, though the balance appeared now and then to incline towards Patty. But between Mrs. Wesley and her fairest daughter there rested always a shadow of restraint, curious enough in its origin, which was that they knew each other better than the rest. Often and quite casually Hetty would guess some thought in her mother's mind hidden from her sisters. She made no parade of this insight, set up no claim upon it; merely gave proof of it in passing, and fell back on her attitude of guarded affection. And Mrs. Wesley seemed to draw back uneasily from these reflections of herself, and take refuge in Patty, who, of all her children, understood her the least.

So now when the others brought their mother to the feast in triumph, Hetty swept her a curtsey with skirt held wide, then went straight and kissed her on both cheeks.

"Ah, what a dear truant 'tis! and how good 'tis to have her home again!"

She did not ask (as Nancy or Patty would assuredly have asked) what had become of her father. She noted, even in the half-light, a flush on her mother's temples, and guessed at once that there had been a duel of tempers on the road, and that, likely enough, papa had bounced into the house in a huff. The others had, in fact, witnessed this exit. Hetty, who divined it, went the swiftest way to efface the memory. She alone, on occasion, could treat her mother playfully, as an equal in years; and she did so now, taking her by the hand, and conducting her with mock solemnity to the seat of honour.

"It is good to be home," Mrs. Wesley admitted as they seated her, dusted her worn shoes, and plied her with milk and hot griddle-cakes, potatoes slit and sprinkled with salt upon appetising lumps of butter. She forgot her vexation. Even the Wroote labourers seemed less surly than usual. One or two, as they gathered, stepped forward to welcome her and wish her health before ranging themselves at their separate meal: and soon a pleasant murmur of voices went up from either group at supper in the broad meadow under the moon.

"But where have you left uncle Annesley?" asked Kezzy. "And are we all to be rich and live in comfort at last?"

Mrs. Wesley shook her head. "He was not on board the Albemarle." She told of her visit to the ship and the captain's story; adding that their uncle's boxes, when handed over and examined, contained no papers at all, no will, no bonds, not so much as a scrap to throw light on the mystery. And as they sat silent in dismay, she went on to tell of Garrett Wesley and the fortune unexpectedly laid at Charles's feet.

Emilia was the first to find speech. "So," she commented bitterly "yet another of our brothers is in luck's way. Always our brothers! Westminster and Oxford for them, and afterwards, it seems, a fortune: while we sit at home in rags, or drudge and eat the bread of service. Oh, why, mother? You and we suffer together--do you believe it can be God's will?"

Hetty drew a long breath. "Perhaps," she said drearily, "Charles will clothe us when he gets this money. Perhaps he will even find us wooers in place of those to whom papa has shown the door."

"I am not sure your father will allow Charles to accept," said Mrs. Wesley gently; "though I may persuade him to let the lad decide for himself when he comes of age. Until then the offer stands open."

"I sometimes wonder," Emilia mused, "if our father be not staring mad."

"Hush, child! That is neither for you to say nor for me to hear. You know it has been almost a vow with him to dedicate your three brothers to God's service."

"Charles might inherit Dangan Castle and serve God too. There is no law that an Irish squire must spend all his time cock-fighting."

"These vows!" murmured Hetty, flinging herself back in her favourite attitude and nursing her knee. "If folks will not obey Christ's command and swear not at all, they might at least choose a vow which only hurts themselves. Now, papa"--Hetty shot a glance at her mother, who felt it, even in the dusk, and bent her eyes on the smouldering fire. The girl had heard (for it was kitchen gossip) that Mr. Wesley had once quarrelled with his wife over politics, and left Epworth rectory vowing never to return to her until she acknowledged William III. for her rightful king; nor indeed had returned until William's death made the vow idle and released him. "Now, papa"--after a pause--"has an unfortunate habit, like Jephthah, of swearing to another's hurt. For instance, since Sukey married Dick Ellison, he seems to have vowed that none of us shall have a lover; and, so, dear mother, you might have found us just now, like six daughters of Jephthah, bewailing our fates upon a hill."

"He has no fault to find with my John Lambert," put in Nancy.

Hetty did not heed. "I have no patience with these swearers. A man, or a woman for that matter, should have the courage to outbrave an oath when it hurts the innocent. Did God require the blood of Jephthah's daughter? or of the sons of Rizpah? Think, mother, if this fire were lit in the fields here, and you sitting by it to scare the beasts from your three sons! I cannot like that David. Saul, now, was a man and a king, every inch of him, even in his dark hours. David had no breeding--a pretty, florid man, with his curls and pink cheeks; one moment dancing and singing, and the next weeping on his bed. Some women like that kind of man: but his complexion wears off. In the end he grows nasty, and from the first he is disgustingly underbred."

"Hetty!"

"I cannot help it, mother. Had I been Michal, and Saul's daughter, and had seen that man capering before the ark, I should have scorned him as she did."

And Hetty stood up and strode away into the darkness.

In the darkness, almost an hour later, Molly found her by the edge of a dyke. She had a handkerchief twisted between her fingers, and kept wringing it as she paced to and fro. Why had she given way to passion? Why, on this night of all nights, had she saddened her mother? And why by an outburst against David, of all people in the world?

She could not tell. When the temper is overcharged it overflows, nine times out of ten, into a channel absurdly irrelevant.

What on earth had David to do with it? She halted and laughed while Molly entreated her. In the dyke the black water crawled at her feet, and upon it a star shone.

"Star Mary--stella maris, if only you will shine steadily and guide me! Kiss me now, and hear that I am sorry."

But it was Molly who, later that night, put out both arms in the bed where they slept together: and with a wail which lasted until Hetty enfolded her and held her close.

"I was dreaming," she muttered. "I dreamt--of that man."


Arthur Quiller-Couch