The frozen canal ran straight towards the sunset, into a flooded country where only a line of pollard willows, with here and there an alder, marked the course of its left bank. But where Hetty waited the banks were higher, and the red ball on the horizon sent a level shaft down the lane between them.
She was alone. Indeed, the only living creature within sight was a red-breast, hunched into a ball and watching her from a wintry willow bough; the only moving object a windmill half a mile away across the level, turning its sails against the steel-gray sky--so listlessly, they seemed to be numbed.
She had strapped on a pair of skates--clumsy homemade things, and a birthday present from Johnny Whitelamb, who had fashioned them with pains, the Epworth blacksmith helping. Hetty skated excellently well--in days, be it understood, before the cutting of figures had been advanced to an art with rules and text-books. But as the poise and balanced impetus came natural to her, so in idle moments and casually she had struck out figures of her own, and she practised them now with the red-breast for spectator. She was happy--her bosom's lord sitting lightly on his throne--and all because of two letters she pulled from her pocket and re-read in the pauses of her skating.
The first was from her mother at Wroote, and told her that to-day or to-morrow her father would be arriving at Kelstein with her sister Patty. Hetty had been expecting this for some weeks. At Christmas (it was now mid-January) the Granthams had written praising her, and this had given Mr. Wesley the notion of proffering yet another of his daughters. Two days after receiving the letter he had ridden over to Kelstein with the proposal. Patty was the one chosen (Hetty could guess why), and poor Patty knew nothing of it at the time: but Mrs. Grantham had accepted almost effusively, and she was to come. In what capacity? Hetty wondered. She herself taught the children, and she could think of no other post in the household not absolutely menial. Was it selfish of her to be so glad? For one thing Patty had fewer whimsies than the rest of her sisters and, likely enough, would accept her lot as a matter of course. She seldom wept or grumbled: indeed Hetty, before now, had found her patience irritating. But to have Patty's company now seemed the most delightful thing in the world; to fling her arms around somebody who came from home!
The most delightful? Hetty turned to the second letter--and with that looked up swiftly as her ear caught the ringing sound of skates, and a young man descended, as it were, out of the sun's disc and came flying down the long alley on its ray. She put out both hands. He swooped around her in a long curve and caught them and kissed her as he came to a standstill, panting, with a flush on each handsome cheek.
No answer to this but a sound like a coo of rapture. He is, as we should think, a personable young fellow, frank, and taking to the eye, though his easy air of mastery provokes another look at Hetty, who is worth ten of him. But to her he is a young god above whom the stars dance. Splendid creature though she be, she must comply with her sex which commands her to be passive, to be loved. With his arm about her she shuts her eyes and drinks delicious weakness; with a sense of sinking through space supported by that arm--not wholly relying on him as yet, but holding her own strength in reserve, if he should fail her.
"I have raced."
She laughed. "I bargained for that. We have so little time!"
"Mrs. Grantham expects me back in an hour at latest. Father and Patty will be arriving before supper, and there are the children to be put to bed."
"Let us go up the canal, then. I have a surprise for you."
They took hands--both her hands in his, their arms held crosswise to their bodies--and struck out, stroke for stroke. By the third stroke they were swinging forward in perfect rhythm, each onrush held long and level on the outside edge and curving only as it slackened. The air began to sing by Hetty's temples; her skates kept a humming tune with her lover's. The back of his hand rested warm against her bosom.
"You skate divinely."
She scarcely heard. The world slipped past and behind her with the racing trees: she was a bird mated and flying into the sunset. Ah, here was bliss! Awhile ago she had been faint with love, as though a cord were being tightened around her heart: it had been hard for her to speak, hard even to draw breath. Now her lungs opened, the cord snapped and broke with a sob; and, as the sun's rim dipped, she flew faster, urgent to overtake and hold it there, to stay its red glint between the reed-beds, its bloom of brown and purple on the withered grasses. The wind of her skirt caught up the dead leaves freshly scattered on the ice and swept them along with her, whirling, like a train of birds. But, race as she would, the sun sank and the shadow of the world crept higher behind her shoulder. The last gleam died; and, lifting her eyes, Hetty saw over its grave, poised in a clear space of sky, the sickle moon.
She tried to disengage her hand, to point to it: but as his eyes sought hers with a question, she let it lie and nodded upwards instead. He saw and understood, and with their faces raised to it they held on their flight in silence: for lovers may wish with the new moon, but the first to speak will have wished in vain.
A tapping, as of someone hammering upon metal, sounded from a clump of willows ahead and upon their right. A woman's voice joined in scolding. This broke the spell; and with a laugh they disengaged hands, separated, and let their speed bear them on side by side till it slackened and they ran to a halt beside the trees.
A barge lay here, hopelessly frozen on its way up the canal. On its deck a woman, with arms akimbo, stood over a man seated and tinkering at a kettle. She nodded as they approached.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, sir--you and the lady."
Hetty looked at her lover.
"It's all right," he explained: "only a surprise of mine, which seems to have missed fire. I had planned a small picnic here and this good woman was to have had a dish of tea ready for you--"
"How was I to know that man of mine had been fool enough to fill the kettle before tramping off to the 'Ring of Bells'?" the good woman broke in. "Lord knows 'tisn' his way to be thoughtful, and when he tries it there's always a breakage. When I'd melted the ice, the thing began to leak like a sieve; and if this tinker fellow hadn't come along--by Providence, as you may call it--though I'd ha' been obliged to Providence for a quicker workman--"
Hetty was not listening. Her eyes had caught the tinker's, and the warm blood had run back from her face: for he was the man who had startled the sisters on the knoll, that harvest evening.
He nodded to her now with an impudent grin. "Good evening, missy! If I'd known the job was for Miss Wesley, I'd ha' put best speed into it: best work there is already."
"Hallo! Do you know this fellow?" her lover demanded.
"'Fellow'--and a moment back 'twas 'tinker'! Well, well, a man must look low and pick up what he can in these times, 'specially when his larger debtors be so backward--hey, miss? Why, to be sure I know Miss Wesley: a man don't forget a face like hers in a hurry. Glad to meet her, likewise, enjoyin' herself so free and easy. Shall I tell the old Rector, miss, next time I call, how well you was lookin', and in what company?"
Hetty saw her lover ruffling and laid a hand on his arm.
"Tuppence if you please, ma'am, and I'll be going. William Wright was never one to spoil sport: but some has luck in this world and some hasn't, and that's a fact." He grinned again as he pocketed the money.
"If you don't take your impudent face out of this, I'll smash it for you," spoke up the young man hotly.
The plumber's grin widened as, slinging his bag of tools over his shoulder, he stepped on to the frozen towpath. "Ah, you're a bruiser, I dare say: for I've seen you outside the booth at Lincoln Fair, hail-fellow with the boxing-men on the platform. And a buck you was too, with a girl on each arm; and might pass, that far from home, for one of the gentry, the way you stood treat. But you're not: and if missy ain't more particular in her bucks, she'd do better with a respectable tradesman like me. As for smashing of faces, two can play at that game, belike: but William Wright chooses his time."
He was lurching away with a guffaw; for the tow-path here ran within two furlongs of the high road, and a man upon skates cannot pursue across terra firma.
But he had reckoned without Hetty, who had seated herself on the edge of the barge and who now shook her feet free of Johnny Whitelamb's rough clamps, and, springing from the deck to the towpath, took him by the collar as he turned.
"Go!" she cried, and with her open palm dealt him a stinging slap across the cheek. "Go!"
The man put up his hand, fell back a moment with a dazed face, and then without a word ran for the highway, his bag of tools rattling behind him.
Never was route more ludicrously sudden. Even in her wrath Hetty looked at her lover and broke into a laugh.
"Let me skate up the canal and head him off," said he. "Half a mile will give me lead enough to slip out of these things and collar him on the highway."
"He is not worth it. Besides, he may not be going towards Kelstein: in this light we cannot see the road or what direction he takes. Let him be, dear," Hetty persuaded, as the old woman called out from her cabin that the kettle boiled. "Our time is too precious."
Then, while he yet fumed, she suddenly grew grave.
"Was it truth he was telling?"
"Truth?" he echoed.
"Yes: about Lincoln Fair?"
"Oh, the boxing-booth, you mean? Well, my dear, there was something in it, to be sure. You wouldn't have me be a milksop, would you?"
"No-o," she mused. "But I meant what he said about--about those women. Was that true?"
He was on the point of answering with a lie; but while he hesitated she helped him by adding, "I am not a child, dear. I am twenty-seven, and older than you. Please be honest with me, always."
He was young, but had an instinct for understanding women. He revised the first lie and rejected it for a more cunning one. "It was before I met you," he said humbly. "He made the worst of it, of course, but I had rather you knew the truth. You are angry?"
Hetty sighed. "I am sorry. It seems to make our--our love-- different somehow."
The bargewoman brought out their tea. She had heard nothing of the scrimmage on the bank, so swiftly had it happened and with so few words spoken.
"Halloa--is the tinker gone? And I'd cut off a crust for him. Well, I can eat it myself, I suppose; and after all he was low company for the likes of you, though any company comes well to folks that can't pick and choose." In the act of setting herself on the cabin top she sat up stiffly and listened.
"There's a horse upon the high road," she announced.
"A highwayman, perhaps, if all company's welcome to you."
"He won't come this way," said the woman placidly. "I loves to lie close to the road like this and see the wagons and coaches rolling by all day: for 'tis a dull life, always on the water. Now you wouldn't believe what a pleasure it gives me, to have you two here a-lovering, nor how many questions I'd put if you'd let me. When is it to be, my dear?"--addressing Hetty--"But you won't answer me, I know. You're wishing me farther, and go I will as soon as you've drunk your tay. Well, sir, I hope you'll take care of her: for the pretty she is, I could kiss her myself. May I?" she asked suddenly, taking Hetty's empty cup; and Hetty blushed and let her. "God send you children, you beauty!"
She paused with a cup in either hand, and in the act of squeezing herself backwards through the small cabin-door. "La, the red you've gone! I can see it with no help more than the bit of moon. 'Tis a terrible thing to be childless, and for that you can take my word." Wagging her head she vanished.
Left to themselves the two sat silent. The sound of the horse's hoofs died away down the road towards Kelstein. Had Hetty known, her father was the horseman, with Patty riding pillion behind him. Over the frozen floods came the note of a church clock, borne on the almost windless air.
"Five o'clock?" Hetty sprang up. "Time to be going, and past."
"You have not forgiven me," he murmured.
"Indeed, yes." She was, after all, a girl of robust good sense, and could smile bravely as she put an illusion by. "To be loved is marvellous and seems to make all marvels possible: but I was wrong to expect--this one. And if, since knowing me--"
"You have taught me all better things." He knelt on the ice at her feet and began to fasten her skates. "Let me still be your pupil and look up to you, as I am looking now."
"Ah!" she pressed her palms together, "but that is just what I need-- to know that we are both better for loving. I want to be sure of that, for it makes me brave when I think of father. While he forbids us, I cannot help doubting at times: and then I look into myself and see that all the world is brighter, all the world is better since I knew you. O my love, if we trust our love, and help one another!--" Her rich voice thrilled and broke as she leaned forward and laid a hand on his forehead.
"See me at your feet," he whispered, looking up into eyes divinely dewy. "I am yours to teach: teach me, if you will, to be good."
They rose to their feet together--he but an inch or so the taller-- and for a moment, as he took her in his arms, she held back, her palms against his shoulders, her eyes passionately seeking the truth in his. Then with a sob she kissed him and was gone.
For a moment she skated nervelessly, with hanging arms. But, watching, he saw her summon up her strength and shoot down the glimmering ice-way like a swallow let loose from his hand. So swift was her flight that, all unknowing, she overtook and passed the travellers jogging parallel with her on the high road; and had reached Kelstein and was putting her two small charges to bed, when her father's knock sounded below stairs.
Mr. and Mrs. Grantham, though pompous, were a kindly pair: and Mrs. Grantham, entering the library where Mr. Wesley and his daughter awaited her, and observing that the girl seemed frightened or depressed (she could not determine which), rang the bell at once and sent a maid upstairs for Hetty.
Hetty entered with cheeks still glowing and eyes sparkling; went at once to her father and kissed him, and running, threw her arms around Patty, who responded listlessly.
"She needs Kelstein air," explained Mr. Wesley. "I protest it seems to agree with you, Mehetabel."
"But tell me all the news, father," Hetty demanded, with an arm about her sister's waist and a glance at Mrs. Grantham, which asked pardon for her freedom.
"Your sister shall tell it, my dear," answered that good woman, "while I am persuading your father to sup with us. I have given them a room together," she explained to Mr. Wesley. "I thought it would be pleasanter for them."
"You are kindness itself, madam."
Hetty led the way upstairs. "It is all strange at first, dear: I know the feeling. But see how cosy we shall be." She threw the door open, and showed a room far more comfortably furnished than any at Wroote or Epworth. The housemaid, who adored Hetty, had even lit a fire in the grate. Two beds with white coverlets, coarse but exquisitely clean, stood side by side--"Though we won't use them both. I must have you in my arms, and drink in every word you have to tell me till you drop off to sleep in spite of me, and hold you even then. Oh, Patty, it is good to have you here!"
But Patty, having untied the strings of her hat, tossed it on to the edge of her bed and collapsed beside it.
"I wish I was dead!" she announced.
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