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Chapter 6

For six months of the year, sometimes for longer, the thatched parsonage at Wroote rose out of a world of waters, forlorn as a cornstack in a flood, and the Rector of Epworth journeyed between his two parishes by boat, often in soaked breeches, and sometimes with a napkin tied over his hat and wig. But in this harvest weather, while the sun shone and the meadow-breezes overcame the odours of damp walls and woodwork, of the pig-sty at the back and of rotting weed beyond, the Wesley household lived cheerfully enough, albeit pinched for room; more cheerfully than at Epworth, where the more spacious rectory, rebuilt by Mr. Wesley at a cost of 400 pounds, remained half-furnished after fourteen years--a perpetual reminder of debt.

Here at any rate, although Wroote tithe brought in a bare 50 pounds a year, they could manage to live and pay their way, and feel meanwhile that they were lessening the burden. For Dick Ellison, Sukey's husband, had undertaken to finance Epworth tithe, and was renting the rectory for a while with the purpose of bringing his father-in-law's affairs to order--a filial offer which Mr. Wesley perforce accepted while hating Dick from the bottom of his heart, and the deeper because of this necessity.

Dick was his "wen," "more unpleasant to him than all his physic"--a red-faced, uneducated squireen, with money in his pockets (as yet), a swaggering manner due to want of sense rather than deliberate offensiveness, and a loud patronising laugh which drove the Rector mad. Comedy presided over their encounters; but such comedy as only the ill-natured can enjoy. And the Rector, splenetic, exacting, jealous of authority, after writhing for a time under Dick's candid treatment of him as a child, usually cut short the scene by bouncing off to his library and slamming the door behind him.

Even Mrs. Wesley detested her son-in-law, and called him "a coarse, vulgar, immoral man "; but confessed (in his absence) that they were all the better off for his help. Ease from debt she had never known; but here at Wroote the clouds seemed to be breaking. Duns had been fewer of late. With her poultry-yard and small dairy she was earning a few pounds, and this gave her a sense of helpfulness she had not known at Epworth; a pound saved may be a pound gained, but a pound earned can be held in the hand, and the touch makes a wonderful difference. The girls had flung themselves heartily into the farm-work: they talked of it, at night, around the kitchen hearth (for of the two sitting-rooms one had been given up to their father for his library, and the other Hetty vowed to be "too grand for the likes of dairy-women." Also the marsh-vapours in the Isle of Axholme can be agueish after sunset, even in summer, and they found the fire a comfort). Hetty had described these rural economies in a long letter to Samuel at Westminster, and been answered by an "Heroick Poem," pleasantly facetious:

     "The spacious glebe around the house
      Affords full pasture to the cows,
      Whence largely milky nectar flows,
       O sweet and cleanly dairy!"

"Unless or Moll, or Anne, or you, Your duty should neglect to do, And then 'ware haunches black and blue By pinching of a fairy."

--With much in the same easy vein about "sows and pigs and porkets," and the sisters' housewifely duties:

     "Or lusty Anne, or feeble Moll,
        Sage Pat or sober Hetty."

And the sisters were amused by the lines and committed them to heart.

They had learnt of the pleasures of life mainly through books; and now their simple enjoyment was, as it were, more real to them because it could be translated into verse. In circumstances, then, they were happier than they had been for many years: nor was poverty the real reason for Hetty's going into service at Kelstein; since Emilia had been fetched home from Lincoln (where for five years she had been earning her livelihood as teacher in a boarding-school) expressly to enjoy the family's easier fortune, and with a promise of pleasant company to be met in Bawtry, Doncaster and the country around Wroote.

This promise had not been fulfilled, and Emilia's temper had soured in consequence. Nor had the Rector's debts melted at the rate expected. The weight of them still oppressed him and all the household: but Mrs. Wesley knew in her heart that, were poverty the only reason, Hetty need not go. Hetty knew it, too, and rebelled. She was happy at Wroote; happier at least than she would be at Kelstein. She did not wish to be selfish: she would go, if one of the sisters must. But why need any of them go?

She asked her mother this, and Mrs. Wesley fenced with the question while hardening her heart. In truth she feared what might happen if Hetty stayed. They had made some new acquaintances at Wroote and at Bawtry there was a lover, a young lawyer . . . a personable young man, reputed to be clever in his profession. . . . Mrs. Wesley knew nothing to his discredit . . . and sure, Hetty's face might attract any lover. So her thoughts ran, without blaming the girl, whose heart she believed to be engaged, though she could not tell how deeply. But the Rector must be considered, and he had taken an instant and almost frantic dislike for the youth. There was nothing unusual in this: for, like many another uxorious man (with all his faults of temper he was uxorious), Mr. Wesley hated that anyone should offer love to his daughters. This antipathy of his had been a nuisance for ten years past; since the girls were, when all was said, honest healthy girls with an instinct for mating, and not to be blamed for making their best of the suitors which Epworth and its neighbourhood provided. But since Sukey's marriage it had deepened into something like a mania, and now, in Hetty's case, flared up with a passion incomprehensible if not quite insane. He declared his hatred of lawyers--and certainly he had suffered at their hands: he forbade the young man to visit the house, to correspond with Hetty, even to see her.

Mrs. Wesley watched her daughter and was troubled. The Rector's veto had been effective enough once or twice with Hetty's sisters. Emilia, on a visit with her uncle Matthew in London, had fallen passionately in love with a young Oxonian named Leybourne. But Sam's wife had discovered something to his discredit and had spoken to Sam, and Sam to the Rector. The match was broken off, and Emilia renounced her love, though she never forgave the mischief-maker. Patty again had formed an attachment for John Romley, who had been a pupil of Sam's, had afterwards graduated at Lincoln College, Oxford, and was now the ambitious young master of the Free School at Epworth. Again the Rector interfered, and Patty sighed and renounced her romance. Would Hetty, too, renounce and acquiesce? Mrs. Wesley doubted: nay, was even afraid. Hetty alone had never been overawed by her father, had never acknowledged the patria potestas with all its exorbitant claims. She had never actually revolted, but she defied, somehow, the spell he had cast upon the others: and somehow-- here was the marvel--Mrs. Wesley, who more than any other of the family had yielded to the illusion and fostered it, understood Hetty the better for her independence. The others, under various kinds of pressure, had submitted: but here was the very woman she might have been, but for her own submission! And she feared for that woman. Hetty must leave Wroote, or there was no knowing how it might end.

"Mother, I believe you are afraid of what I may do."

Mrs. Wesley, incapable of a lie or anything resembling it, bent her head. "I have been afraid, once or twice," she said.

"So you send me away? That seems to me neither very brave nor very wise. Will there be less danger at Kelstein?"

Her mother started. "Does he know of your going? You don't tell me he means to visit you there?"

"Forgive me, dearest mother, but your first question is a little foolish--eh?" Hetty laughed and quoted:

     "But if she whom Love doth honour
      Be conceal'd from the day--
      Set a thousand guards upon her,
      Love will find out the way."

She put up her chin defiantly.

"I wish, child, you would tell me if--if this is much to you," said Mrs. Wesley wistfully, with a sudden craving to put her arms around her daughter and have her confidence.

Hetty hesitated for a fatal moment, then laughed again. "I am not a child precisely; and we read one another, dear, much better than we allow. Your second question you have no right to ask. You are sending me away--"

"No right, Hetty?"

"You are sending me away," Hetty repeated, and seemed to be considering. After a pause she added slowly: "You others are all under papa's thumb, and you make me a coward. But I will promise you this"--here her words began to drag--"and to strengthen me no less than to ease your fears, I promise it, mother. If the worst come to the worst, it shall not be at Kelstein that I choose it, but here among you all. I think you will gain little by sending me to Kelstein, mother: but you need not be afraid for me there."

"You speak in enigmas."

"And my tone, you would say, is something too theatrical for your taste? Well, well, dear mother, 'tis the privilege of a house with a doom upon it to talk tragedy: for, you know, Molly declares we have a doom upon us, though we cannot agree what 'tis. I uphold it to be debt, or papa's tantrums, or perhaps Old Jeffrey [apparently the Wesley family ghost] but she will have it to be something deeper, and that one day we shall awake and see that it includes all three."

"It appears to be my doom," said Mrs. Wesley, her face relaxing, "to listen to a deal of nonsense from my daughters."

"And who's to blame, dear? You chose to marry at twenty, and here you have a daughter unmarried at seven and twenty. Now I respect and love you, as you well know: but every now and then reason steps in and proves to me that I am seven years your senior--which is absurd, and the absurder for the grave wise face you put upon it. So come along, sweet-and-twenty, and help me pack my buskins." Hetty led the way upstairs humming an air which (though her mother did not recognise it) was Purcell's setting of a song in Twelfth Night:

     "Journeys end in lovers meeting,
      Every wise man's son doth know."

Arthur Quiller-Couch