E-text prepared by Lionel Sear
ARTHUR THOMAS QUILLER-COUCH.
TO ANDREW LANG. A GOOD CHAMPION OF HETTY.
"For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"
At Surat, by a window of his private office in the East India Company's factory, a middle-aged man stared out upon the broad river and the wharves below. Business in the factory had ceased for the day: clerks and porters had gone about their own affairs, and had left the great building strangely cool and empty and silent. The wharves, too, were deserted—all but one, where a Hindu sat in the shade of a pile of luggage, and the top of a boat's mast wavered like the index of a balance above the edge of the landing-stairs.
The luggage belonged to the middle-aged man at the window: the boat was to carry him down the river to the Albemarle, East Indiaman, anchored in the roads with her Surat cargo aboard. She would sail that night for Bombay and thence away for England.
He was ready; dressed for his journey in a loose white suit, which, though designed for the East, was almost aggressively British. A Cheapside tailor had cut it, and, had it been black or gray or snuff-coloured instead of white, its wearer might have passed all the way from the Docks to Temple Bar for a solid merchant on 'Change—a self-respecting man, too, careless of dress for appearance' sake, but careful of it for his own, and as part of a habit of neatness. He wore no wig (though the date was 1723), but his own gray hair, brushed smoothly back from a sufficiently handsome forehead and tied behind with a fresh black ribbon. In his right hand he held a straw hat, broad-brimmed like a Quaker's, and a white umbrella with a green lining. His left fingered his clean-shaven chin as he gazed on the river.
The ceremonies of leave-taking were done with and dismissed; so far as he could, he had avoided them. He had ever been a hard man and knew well enough that the clerks disliked him. He hated humbug. He had come to India, almost forty years ago, not to make friends, but to make a fortune. And now the fortune was made, and the room behind him stood ready, spick and span, for the Scotsman who would take his chair to-morrow. Drawers had been emptied and dusted, loose papers and memoranda sorted and either burnt or arranged and docketed, ledgers entered up to the last item in his firm handwriting, and finally closed. The history of his manhood lay shut between their covers, written in figures terser than a Roman classic: his grand coup in Nunsasee goods, Abdul Guffere's debt commuted for 500,000 rupees, the salvage of the Ramillies wreck, his commercial duel with Viltul Parrak . . . And the record had no loose ends. He owed no man a farthing.
The door behind him opened softly and a small gray-headed man peered into the room.
"Mr. Annesley, if I might take the liberty—"
"Ah, MacNab?" Samuel Annesley swung round promptly.
"I trust, sir, I do not intrude?"
"'Intrude,' man? Why?"
"Oh, nothing, sir," answered the little man vaguely, with a dubious glance at Mr. Annesley's eyes. "Only I thought perhaps—at such a moment—old scenes, old associations—and you leaving us for ever, sir!"
"Tut, nonsense! You have something to say to me. Anything forgotten?"
"Nothing in the way of business, sir. But it occurred to me—" Mr. MacNab lowered his voice, "—Your good lady, up at the burial-ground. You will excuse me—at such a time: but it may be years before I am spared to return home, and if I can do anything in the way of looking after the grave, I shall be proud. Oh no—" he went on hurriedly with a flushed face: "for love, sir; for love, of course: or, as I should rather say, for old sake's sake, if that's not too bold. It would be a privilege, Mr. Annesley."
Samuel Annesley stood considering his late confidential clerk with bent brows. "I am much obliged to you, MacNab; but in this matter you must do as you please. You are right in supposing that I was sincerely attached to my wife—"
"Indeed yes, sir."
"But I have none of the sentiment you give me credit for. 'Let the dead bury the dead'—that is a text to which I have given some attention of late, and I hope to profit by it in—in the future."
"Well, God bless you, Mr. Annesley!"
"I thank you. We are delaying the boat, I fear. No"—as Mr. MacNab made an offer to accompany him—"I prefer to go alone. We have shaken hands already. The room is ready for Mr. Menzies, when he comes to-morrow. Good-bye."
A minute later Mr. MacNab, lingering by the window, saw him cross the road to the landing-stage and stand for a moment in talk with the Hindu, Bhagwan Dass. Then his straw hat disappeared down the steps. The boat was pushed off; and Bhagwan Dass, after watching it for a while, turned without emotion and came strolling across to the factory.
On board the Albemarle Mr. Annesley found the best cabin prepared for him, as became his importance. He went below at once and was only seen at meal-times during the short voyage to Bombay, a town that of late years had almost eclipsed Surat in trade and importance. Here Captain Bewes was to take in the bulk of his passengers and cargo, and brought his vessel close alongside the Bund. During the three days occupied in lading and stowing little order was maintained, and the decks lay open to a promiscuous crowd of coolies and porters, waterside loafers, beggars and thieves. The officers kept an eye open for these last: the rest they tolerated until the moment came for warping out, when the custom was to pipe all hands and clear the ship of intruders by a general rush.
The first two days Mr. Annesley spent upon the poop, watching the mob with a certain scornful interest. On the third he did not appear, but was served with tiffin in his cabin. At about six o'clock, the second mate—a Mr. Orchard—sought the captain to report that all was ready and waiting the word to cast off. His way led past Mr. Annesley's cabin, and there he came upon an old mendicant stooping over the door handle and making as if to enter and beg; whom he clouted across the shoulders and cuffed up the companion-ladder. Mr. Orchard afterwards remembered to have seen this same beggar man, or the image of him, off and on during the two previous days, seated asquat against a post on the Bund, and watching the Albemarle, with his crutch and bowl beside him.
When the rush came, this old man, bent and blear-eyed, was swept along the gangway like a chip on the tide. In pure lightness of heart a sailor, posted at the head of the plank, expedited him with a kick. "That'll do for good-bye to India," said he, grinning.
The old man showed no resentment, but was borne along bewildered, gripping his bowl to his breast. On the quay's edge he seemed to find his feet, and shuffled off towards the town, without once looking back at the ship.
"MILL—mill! A mill!"
At the entrance of Dean's Yard, Westminster, a small King's Scholar, waving his gown and yelling, collided with an old gentleman hobbling round the corner, and sat down suddenly in the gutter with a squeal, as a bagpipe collapses. The old gentleman rotated on one leg like a dervish, made an ineffectual stoop to clutch his gouty toe and wound up by bringing his rattan cane smartly down on the boy's shoulders.
"Owgh! Owgh! Stand up, you young villain! My temper's hasty, and here's a shilling-piece to cry quits. Stand up and tell me now—is it Fire, Robbery, or Murder?"
The youngster pounced at the shilling, shook off the hand on his collar, and darted down Little College Street to Hutton's Boarding House, under the windows of which he pulled up and executed a derisive war-dance.
"Hutton's, Hutton's, Put up your buttons, Hutton's are rottenly Whigs—"
"Mill—mill! Come out and carry home your Butcher Randall! You'll be wanted when Wesley has done with him."
He was speeding back by this time, and flung this last taunt from a safe distance. The old gentleman collared him again by the entry.
"Stop, my friend—here, hold hard for a moment! A fight, you said: and Wesley—was it Wesley?"
The boy nodded.
"Well, it wouldn't be Samuel—at his age: now would it?" The boy grinned. The Reverend Samuel Wesley was the respected Head Usher of Westminster School.
"And what will Charles Wesley be fighting about?"
"How should I know? Because he wants to, belike. But I was told it began up school, with Randall's flinging a book at young Murray for a lousy Scotch Jacobite."
"H'm: and where will it be?"
The boy dropped his voice to a drawl. "In Fighting-green, I believe, sir: they told me Poets' Corner was already bespoke for a turn-up between the Dean and Sall the charwoman, with the Head Verger for bottle-holder—"
"Now, look here, young jackanapes—" But young jackanapes, catching sight of half a dozen boys—the vanguard of Hutton's—at the street corner, ducked himself free and raced from vengeance across the yard.
The old gentleman followed; and the crowd from Hutton's, surging past, showed him the way to Fighting-green where a knot of King's Scholars politely made room for him, perceiving that in spite of his small stature, his rusty wig and countrified brown suit, he was a person of some dignity and no little force of character. They read it perhaps in the set of his mouth, perhaps in the high aquiline arch of his nose, which he fed with snuff as he gazed round the ring while the fighters rested, each in his corner, after the first round: for a mill at Westminster was a ceremonious business, and the Head Master had been known to adjourn school for one.
"H'm," said the newcomer; "no need to ask which is Wesley."
His eyes set deep beneath brows bristling like a wire-haired terrier's—were on the boy in the farther corner, who sat on his backer's knee, shoeless, stripped to the buff, with an angry red mark on the right breast below the collar-bone; a slight boy and a trifle undersized, but lithe, clear-skinned, and in the pink of condition; a handsome boy, too. By his height you might have guessed him under sixteen, but his face set you doubting. There are faces almost uncannily good-looking: they charm so confidently that you shrink from predicting the good fortune they claim, and bethink you that the gods' favourites are said to die young: and Charles Wesley's was such a face. He tightened the braces about his waist and stepped forward for the second round with a sweet and serious smile. Yet his mouth meant business.
Master Randall—who stood near three inches taller—though nicknamed "Butcher," was merely a dull heavy-shouldered Briton, dogged, hard to beat; the son of a South Sea merchant, retired and living at Barnet, who swore by Walpole and King George. But at Westminster these convictions—and, confound it! they were the convictions of England, after all—met with scurrilous derision; and here Master Randall nursed a dull and inarticulate resentment in a world out of joint, where the winning side was a butt for epigrams. To win, and be laughed at! To have the account reopened in lampoons and witticisms, contemptible but irritating, when it should be closed by the mere act of winning! It puzzled him, and he brooded over it, turning sulky in the end, not vicious. It was in no viciousness that he had flung a book at young Murray's head and called him a lousy Jacobite, but simply to provoke Wesley and get his grievance settled by intelligible weapons, such as fists.
He knew his to be the unpopular side, and that even Freind, the Head Master, would chuckle over the defeat of a Whig. Outside of Hutton's, who cheered him for the honour of their house, he had few well-wishers; but among them was a sprinkling of boys bearing the great Whig names—Cowpers, Sackvilles, Osborns—for whose sake and for its own tradition the ring would give him fair play.
The second round began warily, Wesley sparring for an opening, Randall defensive, facing round and round, much as a bullock fronts a terrier. He knew his game; to keep up his guard and wait for a chance to get in with his long left. He was cunning, too; appeared slower than he was, tempting the other to take liberties, and, towards the end of the round, to step in a shade too closely. It was but a shade. Wesley, watching his eye, caught an instant's warning, flung his head far back and sprang away—not quickly enough to avoid a thud on the ribs. It rattled him, but did no damage, and it taught him his lesson.
Round 3. Tempted in turn by his slight success, Randall shammed slow again. But once bitten is twice shy, and this time he overreached himself, in two senses. His lunge, falling short, let in the little one, who dealt him a double knock—rap, rap, on either side of the jaw—before breaking away. Stung out of caution he rushed and managed to close, but took a third rap which cut his upper lip. First blood to Wesley. The pair went to grass together, Randall on top. But it was the Tories who cheered.
Round 4. Randall, having bought his experience, went back to sound tactics. This and the next two rounds were uninteresting and quite indecisive, though at the end of them Wesley had a promising black eye and Randall was bleeding at mouth and nose. The old gentleman rubbed his chin and took snuff. This Fabian fighting was all against the lighter weight, who must tire in time.
Yet he did not look like tiring, but stepped out for Round 7 with the same inscrutable smile. Randall met it with a shame-faced grin— really a highly creditable, good-natured grin, though the blood about his mouth did its meaning some injustice. And with this there happened that which dismayed many and puzzled all. Wesley's fists went up, but hung, as it were impotent for the moment, while his eyes glanced aside from his adversary's and rested, with a stiffening of surprise, on the corner of the ring where the old gentleman stood. A cry went up from the King's Scholars—a groan and a warning. At the sound he flung back his head instinctively—as Randall's left shot out, caught him on the apple of the throat, and drove him staggering back across the green.
The old gentleman snapped down the lid of his snuffbox, and at the same moment felt a hand gripping him by the elbow. "Now, how the—" he began, turning as he supposed to address a Westminster boy, and found himself staring into the face of a lady.
He had no time to take stock of her. And although her fingers pinched his arm, her eyes were all for the fight.
It had been almost a knock-down; but young Wesley just saved himself by touching the turf with his fingertips and, resting so, crouched for a spring. What is more, he timed it beautifully; helped by Randall himself, who followed up at random, demoralised by the happy fluke and encouraged by the shouts of Hutton's to "finish him off." In the fall Wesley had most of his remaining breath thumped out of him; but this did not matter. He had saved the round.
The old gentleman nodded. "Well recovered: very pretty—very pretty indeed!" He turned to the lady. "I beg your pardon, madam—"
"I beg yours, sir." She withdrew her hand from his arm.
"If he can swallow that down, he may win yet."
She stood almost a head taller than he, and he gazed up into a singularly noble face, proud and strong, somewhat pinched about the lips, but having such eyes and brows as belong to the few accustomed to confront great thoughts. It gave her the ineffable touch of greatness which more than redeemed her shabby black gown and antique bonnet; and, on an afterthought, the old gentleman decided that it must have been beautiful in its day. Just now it was pale, and one hand clutched the silk shawl crossed upon her bosom. He noted, too, that the hand was shapely, though roughened with housework where the mitten did not hide it.
She had scarcely glanced at him, and after a while he dropped his scrutiny and gazed with her across the ring.
"H'm," said he, "dander up, this time!"
"Yes," the lady answered, "I know that look, sir, though I have never seen it on him. And I trust to see him wear it, one day, in a better cause."
"Tut, madam, the cause is good enough. You don't tell me I'm talking to a Whig?—not that I'd dispute with a lady, Whig or Tory."
"A Whig?" She fetched up a smile: she had evidently a reserve of mirth. "Indeed, no: but I was thinking, sir, of the cause of Christ."
"Oh!" said the old gentleman shortly, and took snuff.
They were right. Young Wesley stepped out this time with a honeyed smile, but with a new-born light in his hazel eyes—a demoniac light, lambent and almost playful. Master Randall, caressed by them, read the danger signal a thought too late. A swift and apparently reckless feint drew another of his slogging strokes, and in a flash the enemy was under his guard. Even so, for the fraction of a second, victory lay in his arms, a clear gift to be embraced: a quick crook of the elbow, and Master Wesley's head and neck would be snugly in Chancery. Master Wesley knew it—knew, further, that there was no retreat, and that his one chance hung on getting in his blow first and disabling with it. He jabbed it home with his right, a little below the heart: and in a second the inclosing fore-arm dragged limp across his neck. He pressed on, aiming for the point of the jaw; but slowly lowered his hands as Randall tottered back two steps with a face of agony, dropped upon one knee, clutching at his breast, and so to the turf, where he writhed for a moment and fainted.
As the ring broke up, cheering, and surged across the green, the old gentleman took snuff again and snapped down the lid of his box.
"Good!" said he; then to the lady, "Are you a relative of his?"
"I am his mother, sir."
She moved across the green to the corner where Charles was coolly sponging his face and chest over a basin. "In a moment, ma'am!" said he, looking up with a twinkle in his eye as the boys made way for her.
She read the meaning of it and smiled at her own mistake as she drew back the hand she had put out to take the sponge from him. He was her youngest, and she had seen him but twice since, at the age of eight, he had left home for Westminster School. In spite of the evidence of her eyes he was a small child still—until his voice warned her.
She drew back her hand at once. Boys scorn any show of feeling, even between mother and son; and Charles should not be ridiculed on her account. So he sponged away and she waited, remembering how she had taught him, when turned a year old, to cry softly after a whipping. Ten children she had brought up in a far Lincolnshire parsonage, and without sparing the rod; but none had been allowed to disturb their father in his study where he sat annotating the Scriptures or turning an heroic couplet or adding up his tangled household accounts.
A boy pushed through the group around the basin, with news that Butcher Randall had come-to from his swoon and wished to shake hands: and almost before Charles could pick up a towel and dry himself the fallen champion appeared with a somewhat battered grin.
"No malice," he mumbled: "nasty knock—better luck next time."
"Come, I say!" protested Charles, shaking hands and pulling a mock face, "Is there going to be a next time?"
"Well, you don't suppose I'm convinced—" Randall began: but Mrs. Wesley broke in with a laugh.
"There's old England for you!" She brought her mittened palms together as if to clap them, but they rested together in the very gesture of prayer. "'Won't be convinced,' you say? but oh, when it's done you are worth it! Nay—don't hide your face, sir! Wounds for an honest belief are not shameful, and I can only hope that in your place my son would have shown so fair a temper."
"Whe-ew!" one of the taller boys whistled. "It's Wesley's mother!"
"She was watching, too: the last two rounds at any rate. I saw her."
"—And so cool it might have been a dog-fight in Tuttle Fields. Your servant, ma'am!" The speaker made her a boyish bow and lifted his voice: "Three cheers for Mrs. Wesley!"
They were given—the first two with a will. The third tailed off; and Mrs. Wesley, looking about her, laughed again as the boys, suddenly turned shy or overtaken by a sense of delicacy, backed away sheepishly and left her alone with her son.
"Put on your shirt," said she, and again her hand went out to help him. "I want you to take a walk with me."
Charles nodded. "Have you seen Sam?"
"Yes. You may kiss me now, dear—there's nobody looking. I left him almost an hour ago: his leg is mending, but he cannot walk with us. He promises, though, to come to Johnson's Court this evening—I suppose, in a sedan-chair—and greet your uncle Annesley, whom I have engaged to take back to supper. You knew, of course, that I should be lodging there?"
"Sammy—we call him Sammy—told me on Sunday, but could not say when you would be arriving here."
"I reached London last night, and this morning your uncle Matthew came to my door with word that the Albemarle had entered the river. I think you are well enough to walk to the Docks with me."
"Well enough? Of course I am. But why not take a waterman from the stairs here?"
"'Twill cost less to walk and hire a boat at Blackwall, if necessary. Your father could give me very little money, Charles. We seem to be as poorly off as ever."
"And this uncle Annesley—" he began, but paused with a glance at his mother, whose face had suddenly grown hot. "What sort of a man is he?"
"My boy," she said with an effort, "I must not be ashamed to tell my child what I am not ashamed to hope. He is rich: he once promised to do much for Emmy and Sukey, and these promises came to nothing. But now that his wife is dead and he comes home with neither chick nor child, I see no harm in praying that his heart may be moved towards his sister's children. At least I shall be frank with him and hide not my hope, let him treat it as he will." She was silent for a moment. "Are all women unscrupulous when they fight for their children? They cannot all be certain, as I am, that their children were born for greatness: and yet, I wonder sometimes—" She wound up with a smile which held something of a playful irony, but more of sadness.
"Jacky could not come with you?"
"No, and he writes bitterly about it. He is tied to Oxford—by lack of pence, again."
By this time Charles had slipped on his jacket, and the pair stepped out into the streets and set their faces eastward. Mrs. Wesley was cockney-bred and delighted in the stir and rush of life. She, the mother of many children, kept a well-poised figure and walked with the elastic step of a maid; and as she went she chatted, asking a score of shrewd questions about Westminster—the masters, the food, the old dormitory in which Charles slept, the new one then rising to replace it; breaking off to recognise some famous building, or to pause and gaze after a company of his Majesty's guards. Her own masterful carriage and unembarrassed mode of speech—"as if all London belonged to her," Charles afterwards described it—drew the stares of the passers-by; stares which she misinterpreted, for in the gut of the Strand, a few paces beyond Somerset House, she suddenly twirled the lad about and "Bless us, child, your eye's enough to frighten the town! 'Tis to be hoped brother Sam has not turned Quaker in India; or that Sally the cook-maid has a beefsteak handy."
Mr. Matthew Wesley, apothecary and by courtesy "surgeon," to whose house in Johnson's Court, Fleet Street, they presently swerved aside, had not returned from his morning's round of visits. He was a widower and took his meals irregularly. But Sally had two covers laid, with a pot of freshly drawn porter beside each; and here, after Charles's eye had been attended to and the swelling reduced, they ate and drank and rested for half an hour before resuming their walk.
So far, and until they reached the Tower, their road was familiar enough; but from Smithfield onwards they had to halt and inquire their way again and again in intervals of threading the traffic which poured out of cross-streets and to and from the docks on their right—wagons empty, wagons laden with hides, jute, scrap-iron, tallow, indigo, woollen bales, ochre, sugar; trollies and pack-horses; here and there a cordon of porters and warehousemen trundling barrels as nonchalantly as a child his hoop. The business of piloting his mother through these cross-tides left Charles little time for observation; but one incident of that walk he never forgot.
They were passing Shadwell when they came on a knot of people and two watchmen posted at the corner of a street across which a reek of smoke mingled with clouds of gritty dust. Twice or thrice they heard a crash or dull rumble of falling masonry. A distillery had been blazing there all night and a gang of workmen was now clearing the ruins. But as Charles and his mother came by the corner, the knot of people parted and gave passage to a line of stretchers—six stretchers in all, and on each a body, which the bearers had not taken the trouble to cover from view. A bystander said that these were men who had run back into the building to drink the flaming spirit, and had dropped insensible, and been crushed when the walls fell in. The boy had never seen death before; and at the sight of it thrust upon him in this brutal form, he put out a hand towards his mother to find that she too was swaying.
"Hallo!" cried the same bystander, "look out there! the lady's fainting."
But Mrs. Wesley steadied herself. "'Tis not that," she gasped, at the same time waving him off; "'tis the fire—the fire!" And stepping by the crossing she fled along the street with Charles at her heels, nor ceased running for another hundred yards. "You do not remember," she began, turning at length; "no, of course you do not. You were a babe, not two years old; nurse snatched you out of bed—"
The odd thing was that, despite the impossibility, Charles seemed to remember quite clearly. As a child he had heard his sisters talk so often of the fire at Epworth Rectory that the very scene—and especially Jacky's escape—was bitten on the blank early pages as a real memory. He had half a mind now to question his mother about it and startle her with details, but her face forbade him.
She recovered her colour in bargaining with a waterman at Blackwall Stairs. Two stately Indiamen lay out on the river below, almost flank by flank; and, as it happened, the farther one was at that moment weighing her anchor, indeed had it tripped on the cathead. A cloud of boats hung about her, trailing astern as her head-sails drew and she began to gather way on the falling tide.
The waterman, a weedy loafer with a bottle nose and watery blue eyes, agreed to pull across for threepence; but no sooner were they embarked and on the tide-way, than he lay on his oars and jerked his thumb towards the moving ship. "Make it a crown, ma'am, and I'll overhaul her," he hiccupped.
Mrs. Wesley glanced towards the two ships and counted down threepence deliberately upon the thwart facing her, at the same time pursing up her lips to hide a smile. For the one ship lay moored stem and stern with her bows pointed up the river, and the other, drifting past, at this moment swung her tall poop into view with her windows flashing against the afternoon sun, and beneath them her name, the Josiah Childs, in tall gilt letters.
"Better make it a crown, ma'am," the waterman repeated with a drunken chuckle.
Mrs. Wesley rose in her seat. Her hand went up, and Charles made sure she meant to box the man's ears. He could not see the look on her face, but whatever it was it cowed the fellow, who seized his oars again and began to pull for dear life, as she sat back and laid her hand on the tiller.
"Easy, now," she commanded, after twenty strokes or so. "Easy, and ship your oar, unless you want it broken!" But for answer he merely stared at her, and a moment later his starboard oar snapped its tholepin like a carrot, and hurled him back over his thwart as the boat ran alongside the Albemarle's ladder.
"My friend," said Mrs. Wesley coolly, "you have a pestilent habit of not listening. I hired you to row me to the Albemarle, and this, I believe, is she." Then, with a glance up at the half-dozen grinning faces above the bulwarks, "Can I see Captain Bewes?"
"Your servant, ma'am." The captain appeared at the head of the ladder; a red apple-cheeked man in shirt-sleeves and clean white nankeen breeches, who looked like nothing so much as an overgrown schoolboy.
"Is Mr. Samuel Annesley on board?"
Captain Bewes rubbed his chin. He had grown suddenly grave. "I beg your pardon," said he, "but are you a kinswoman of Mr. Annesley's?"
"I am his sister, sir."
"Then I'll have to ask you to step on board, ma'am. You may dismiss that rascal, and one of my boats shall put you ashore."
He stepped some way down the ladder to meet her and she took his hand with trepidation, while the Albemarle's crew leaned over and taunted the cursing waterman.
"There—that will do, my man. I don't allow swearing here. Steady, ma'am, that's right; and now give us a hand, youngster."
"Is—is he ill?" Mrs. Wesley stammered.
"Who? Mr. Annesley? Not to my knowledge, ma'am."
"Then he is on board? We heard he had taken passage with you."
"Why, so he did; and, what's more, to the best of my knowledge, he sailed. It's a serious matter, ma'am, and we're all at our wits' ends over it; but the fact is—Mr. Annesley has disappeared."
That same evening, in Mr. Matthew Wesley's parlour, Johnson's Court, Captain Bewes told the whole story—or so much of it as he knew. The disappearance from on board his ship of a person so important as Mr. Samuel Annesley touched his prospects in the Company's service, and he did not conceal it. He had already reported the affair at the East India House and was looking forward to a highly uncomfortable interview with the Board of Governors: but he was concerned, too, as an honest man; and had jumped at Mrs. Wesley's invitation to sup with her in Johnson's Court and tell what he could.
Mr. Matthew Wesley, as host, sat at the head of his table and puffed at a churchwarden pipe; a small, narrow-featured man, in a chocolate-coloured suit, with steel buttons, and a wig of professional amplitude. On his right sat his sister-in-law, her bonnet replaced by a tall white cap: on his left the Captain in his shore-going clothes. He and the apothecary had mixed themselves a glass apiece of Jamaica rum, hot, with sugar and lemon-peel. At the foot of the table, with his injured leg supported on a cushion, reclined the Reverend Samuel Wesley, Junior, Usher of Westminster School, his gaunt cheeks (he was the plainest-featured of the Wesleys) wan with recent illness, and his eyes fixed on Captain Bewes's chubby face.
"Well, as I told you, Mr. Annesley's cabin lay beside my state-room, with a window next to mine in the stern: and, as I showed Mrs. Wesley to-day, my stateroom opens on the 'captain's cabin' (as they call it), where I have dined as many as two dozen before now, and where I do the most of my work. This has three windows directly under the big poop-lantern. I was sitting, that afternoon, at the head of the mahogany swing table (just as you might be sitting now, sir) with my back to the light and the midmost of the three windows wide open behind me, for air. I had the ship's chart spread before me when my second mate, Mr. Orchard, knocked at the door with word that all was ready to cast off. I asked him a few necessary questions, and while he stood there chatting I heard a splash just under my window. Well, that might have been anything—a warp cast off and the slack of it striking the water, we'll say. Whatever it was, I heard it, turned about, and with one knee on the window-locker (I remember it perfectly) took a glance out astern. I saw nothing to account for the sound: but I knew of a dozen things which might account for it— anything, in fact, down to some lazy cabin-boy heaving the dinner-scraps overboard: and having, as you'll understand, a dozen matters on my mind at the moment, I thought no more of it, but turned to Mr. Orchard again and picked up our talk. To this day I don't know that there was anything in the sound, but 'tis fair to tell you all I can."—Captain Bewes took a sip at his grog, and over the rim looked down the table towards Samuel, who nodded.
The Captain nodded back, set down his glass, and resumed. "Quite so. The next thing is that Mr. Orchard, returning to deck two minutes later and having to pass the door of Mr. Annesley's cabin on his way, ran against an old Hindu beggar crouching there, fingering the door-handle and about to enter—or so Orchard supposed, and kicked him up the companion. He told me about it himself, next day, when we found the cabin empty and I began to make inquiries. 'Now here,' says you, 'here's a clue,' and I'm not denying but it may be one. Only when you look into it, what does it amount to? Mr. Annesley— saving your presence—was known for a stern man: you may take it for certain he'd made enemies over there, and these Hindus are the devil (saving your presence again, ma'am) for nursing a grudge. 'Keep a stone in your pocket seven years: turn it, keep it for another seven; 'twill be ready at hand for your enemy'—that's their way. But, to begin with, an old jogi is nothing strange to meet on a ship before she clears. These beggars in the East will creep in anywhere. And, next, you'll hardly maintain that an old beggarman ('seventy years old if a day,' said Orchard) was going to take an active man like Mr. Annesley and cram him bodily through a cabin window? 'Tis out of nature. And yet when we broke into his cabin, twenty-four hours later, there was not a trace of him: only his boxes neatly packed, his watch hanging to the beam and just running down, a handful of gold and silver tossed on to the bunk—just as he might have emptied it from his pockets—nothing else, and the whole cabin neat as a pin."
"But," objected Mr. Matthew Wesley, "if this jogi—or whatever you call him—had entered the cabin for no good, he would hardly have missed the money lying on the bunk."
"Sir, you must not judge these eastern mendicants by your London beggars. They are not thieves, nor avaricious, but religious men practising self-denial, who collect alms merely to support life, and believe that money so bestowed blesses the giver."
"A singularly perverted race!" was the apothecary's comment.
Captain Bewes turned towards Mr. Samuel, who next spoke from the penumbra at the far end of the table. "I believe, Captain," said he, "that these mendicants are as a rule the most harmless of men?"
"Wouldn't hurt a fly, sir. I have known some whose charity extended to the vermin on their own bodies."
Mrs. Wesley sat tapping the mahogany gently with her finger-tips. "To my thinking, the key of this mystery, if there be one, lies at Surat. My brother had powerful enemies: his letters make that clear. We must inquire into them—their numbers and the particular grudge they bore him—and also into the state of his mind. He was not the sort of person to be kidnapped in open day."
—"By a Thames waterman, for instance, madam?" said Captain Bewes, jocularly, but instantly changed his tone. "You suggest that he may have disappeared on his own account? To avoid his enemies, you mean?"
"As to his motives, sir, I say nothing: but it certainly looks to me as if he had planned to give you the slip."
"Tut-tut!" exclaimed Matthew. "And left his money behind? Not likely!"
"We have still his boxes to search—"
"Under power of attorney," Sam suggested. "We must see about getting it to-morrow."
"Well, madam"—Captain Bewes knocked out his pipe, drained his glass, and rose—"the boxes shall be delivered up as soon as you bring me authority: and I trust, for my own sake as well as yours, the contents will clear up this mystery for us. I shall be tied to my ship for the next three days, possibly for another week—"
He was holding out his hand to Mrs. Wesley when the door opened behind him, and Sally appeared.
"If you please," she announced, "there's a gentleman without, wishes to see the company. He calls himself Mr. Wesley."
"It cannot be Charles?" Mrs. Wesley turned towards her son Sam. "But Charles must be at Westminster and in bed these two hours!"
"Surely," said he.
"'Tis not young Master Charles, ma'am, nor anyone like him: but a badger-faced old gentleman who snaps up a word before 'tis out of your mouth."
"Show him in," commanded Matthew: and the words were scarcely out before the visitor stood in the doorway. Mrs. Wesley recognised him at once as the old gentleman who had stood beside her that morning and watched the fight.
"Good evening, ma'am. I learned your address at Westminster: or, to be precise, at the Reverend Samuel Wesley's. You are he, I suppose?"—here he swung round upon Sam—"Your amiable wife told me I should find you here: and so much the better, my visit being on family business. Eh? What? I hope I'm not turning out this gentleman?"—indicating Captain Bewes—"No? Well, if you were leaving, sir, I won't detain you: since, as I say, mine is family business. Mr. Matthew Wesley, I presume?"—with a quick turn towards his host as Captain Bewes slipped away—"And brother of this lady's husband? Quite so. No, I thank you, I do not smoke; but will take snuff, if the company allows. I have heard reports of your skill, sir. My name is Wesley also: Garrett Wesley, of Dangan, County Meath, in Ireland: I sit for my county in Parliament and pass in this world for a respectable person. You'll excuse these details, ma'am; but when a man breaks in upon a family party at this hour of the night, he ought to give some account of himself."
Mrs. Wesley rose from her chair and dropped him a stately curtsey. "The name suffices for us, sir. I make my compliments to one of my husband's family."
"I'm obliged to you, ma'am, and pleased to hear the kinship acknowledged. A good family, as families go, though I say it. We have held on to Dangan since Harry Fifth's time; and to our name since Guy of Welswe was made a thane by Athelstan. We have a knack, ma'am, of staying the course: small in the build but sound in the wind. It did me good, to-day, to see that son of yours step out for the last round."
"Excuse me—" put in Samuel, pushing a candle aside and craning forward (he was short-sighted) for a better look at the visitor.
"Ha? You have not heard? Well, well—oughtn't to tell tales out of school, and certainly not to the Usher: but your mother and I, sir, had the fortune, this morning, to witness a bout of fisticuffs—Whig against Tory—and perhaps it will not altogether distress you to learn that the Whig took a whipping. I like that boy of yours, ma'am: he has breed. I do not forget"—with another bow—"his mother's descent from the Annesleys of Anglesea and Valentia: but she will forgive me that, while watching him, I thought rather of his blood derived from my own great-great-grandfather Robert, and of our common ancestors—Walter, the king's standard-bearer, Edward, who carried the heart of the Bruce to Palestine—but I weary Mr. Matthew perhaps?"
"Not at all, sir," the apothecary protested: rubbing a lump of sugar on the rind of a lemon. "You will suffer me to mix you a glass of punch while I listen? I am a practical man, who has been forced to make his own way in the world, and has made it, I thank God. I never found these ancestors of any use to me; but if one of them had time and leisure to carry the heart of the Bruce to Jerusalem I hope I have the leisure to hear about it. Did he return, may I ask?"
"He did not, sir. The Saracens slew him before the Holy Sepulchre, and in fact the undertaking was, as you would regard it, unprofitable. But it gave us the palmer-shells on our coat of arms— argent, a cross sable, in each corner three escallops of the last. I believe, ma'am, the coat differs somewhat in your husband's branch of the family?" He spread a hand on the table so that the candle-light fell on his signet ring.
Mrs. Wesley smiled. "We keep the scallops, sir."
"Scallops!" grunted the apothecary. "Better for you, Susanna, if your husband had ever found the oyster!"
Garrett Wesley glanced at him from under his badger-gray brows. "We may be coming to the oyster, sir, if you have patience. Crest, a wivern proper: motto, 'God is love.' I am thinking, ma'am, a child of yours might find some use for that motto, since children of my own I have none."
"There could be none nobler, sir," Mrs. Wesley answered.
"'Tis his then, ma'am, if you can spare me your son Charles."
The lump of sugar dropped from old Matthew's fingers and splashed into the tumbler, and with that there fell a silence on the room. Samuel half rose from his couch and passed a nervous hand over his thick black hair. His purblind eyes sought his mother's; hers were fastened on this eccentric kinsman, but with a look that passed beyond him. Her lips were parted.
"God is love," she repeated it, soft and low, but with a thrill at which Garrett Wesley raised his head. "If ever I had distrusted it, that love is manifested here to-night. There was a kinsman, sir, from whom I hoped much for my son; to-day I learn that he is lost— dead, most like—and those hopes with him. He was my brother, and God—who understands mothers, and knows, moreover, how small was ever Samuel Annesley's kindness—must forgive me that I grieved less for him than for Charles's sake. The tale was brought us by the honest man who has just left, and it is scarcely told when another kinsman enters and lays his fortune in Charles's hands. Therefore I thank God for His goodness and"—her voice wavered and she ended with a frank laugh at her own expense—"you, on your part, may read the quality of the gratitude to expect from me. At least I have been honest, sir."
"Ma'am, I have lived long enough to value honesty above gratitude. I make this offer to please myself. The point is, Do I understand that you accept?"
"As for that," she answered deliberately—and Sam leaned forward again—"as for that, I am a married woman, and have learnt to submit to my husband's judgment. To be sure I have acquired some skill in guessing at it." She smiled again. "My husband is no ordinary man to jump at this offer. He has three sons, besides his women folk—"
"Whom he neglects," put in Matthew.
"His dearest ambition is to see each of these three an accredited servant of Christ. He desires learning for them, and the priest's habit, and the living God in their hearts. It will appear strange to you that he should rate these above wealth and a castle in Ireland and a seat in Parliament; but in fact he would. I know him. Think what you will of his ambition, it has this much of sincerity, that he is willing to pinch and starve for it. This, too, I have proved."
"You might add, mother," interposed Sam, "that he would like all these the better with a little success to season them."
"No, I will add that he has perhaps enough respect for me to listen to my entreaties and allow Charles to choose for himself. And this for the moment, sir, is all I can promise, though I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"Tut, woman!" snapped the apothecary. "Close with the offer and don't be a fool. My brother, sir, may be pig-headed—sit down, Susanna!"
"You and I, sir," said Garrett Wesley, "as childless men, are in no position to judge a parent's feelings."
"Children? Let me tell you that I had a son, sir, and he broke my heart. He is in India now, I believe; a middle-aged rake. I give you leave to find and adopt him, so long as you don't ask me to see his face again. One was too many for me, and here's a woman with ten children alive—Heaven knows how many she's buried—ten children alive and half-clothed, and herself the youngest of twenty-five!" He broke off and chuckled. "Did you ever hear tell, sir, what old Dr. Martin said after baptizing Susanna here? Someone asked him 'How many children had Dr. Annesley?' 'I forget for the moment,' said the doctor, but 'tis either two dozen or a quarter of a hundred.' And here's a woman, sir, with such a sense of her offspring's importance that she higgles over accepting a fortune for one of 'em!"
"Can you suffer this, ma'am?" Garrett Wesley began. But the apothecary for the moment was neither to hold nor to bind.
"Sam! You have a grain of sense in your head. Don't sit there mum-chance, man! Speak up and tell your mother not to be a fool. You are no child; you know your father, and that, if given one chance in a hundred to act perversely, he'll take it as sure as fate. For heaven's sake persuade your mother to use common caution and keep his finger out of this pie!"
"Nay, sir," answered Sam, "I think she has the right of it, that my father ought to be told; and that the chances are he will leave it to Charles to decide."
Matthew Wesley flung up his hands. "'Tis a conspiracy of folly! Upon my professional word, you ought all to be strait-waistcoated!" He glared around, found speech again, and pounced upon Sam. "A pretty success you've made of your father's ambitions—you, with your infatuation for that rogue Atterbury, and your born gift of choosing the cold side of favour! You might have been Freind's successor, Head Master of Westminster School! Where's your chance now? You'll not even get the under-mastership, I doubt. Some country grammar school is your fate—I see it; and all for lack of sense. If you lacked learning, lacked piety, lacked—"
"Excuse me, sir, but these are matters I have no mind to discuss with you. When Freind retires Nicoll will succeed him, and Nicoll deserves it. Whether I get Nicoll's place or no, God will decide, who knows if I deserve it. Let it rest in His hands. But when you speak of Bishop Atterbury, and when I think of that great heart breaking in exile, why then, sir, you defeat yourself and steel me against my little destinies by the example of a martyr."
He said it awkwardly, pulling the while at his bony knuckles; but he said it with a passion which cowed his uncle for the moment, and drew from his mother a startled, almost expectant, look. Yet she knew that Sam's eyes could never hold (for her joy and terror) the underlying fire which had shone in her youngest boy's that morning, and which mastered her—strong woman though she was—in her husband's. And this was the tragic note in her love for Sam—the more tragic because never sounded. Sam had learning, diligence, piety, a completely honest mind; he had never caused her an hour's reasonable anxiety; only—to this eldest son she had not transmitted his father's genius, that one divine spark which the Epworth household claimed for its sons as a birthright. An exorbitant, a colossal claim! Yet these Wesleys made it as a matter of course. Did the father know that one of his sons had disappointed it? Sam knew, at any rate; and Sam's mother knew; and each, aware of the other's knowledge, tried pitifully to ignore it.
Matthew Wesley bounced from his chair, unlocked the glazed doors of a bookcase behind him and pulled forth a small volume.
"Here you have it, sir, 'Maggots: by a Scholar'—that's my brother. 'Poems on Several Subjects never before Handled,'—that's the man all over. You may wager that if any man of sense had ever hit on these subjects, my brother had never come within a mile of 'em. Listen: 'The Grunting of a Hog,' 'To my Gingerbread Mistress,' 'A Box like an Egg,' 'Two Soldiers killing one another for a Groat,' 'A Pair of Breeches,' 'A Cow's Tail'—there's titles for you! Cow's tail, indeed! And here, look you, is the author's portrait for a frontispiece, with a laurel-wreath in his hair and a maggot in place of a parting! 'Maggots'! He began with 'em and he'll end with 'em. Maggots!" He slammed the two covers of the book together and tossed it across the table.
Mr. Garrett Wesley, during this tirade, had fallen back upon the attitude of a well-bred man who has dropped in upon a painful family quarrel and cannot well escape. He had taken his hat and stood with his gaze for the most part fastened on the carpet, but lifted now and then when directly challenged by the apothecary's harangue. The contemned volume skimmed across the table and toppled over at his feet. With much gravity he stooped and picked it up; and as he did so, heard Mrs. Wesley addressing him.
"And the curious part of it is," she was saying calmly, "that my brother-in-law means all this in kindness!"
"No, I don't," snapped Matthew; and in the next breath, "well, yes, I do then. Susanna, I beg your pardon, but you'd provoke a saint." He dropped into his chair. "You know well enough that if I lose my temper, 'tis for your sake and the girls'."
"I know," she said softly, covering his hand with hers. "But you must e'en let us go our feckless way. Sir,"—she looked up— "must this decision be made to-night?"
"Not at all, ma'am, not at all. The lad, if you will, may choose when he comes of age; I have another string to my bow, should he refuse the offer. But meantime, and while 'tis uncertain to which of us he'll end by belonging, I hope I may bear my part in his school fees."
"But that, to some extent, must bind him."
"No: for I propose to keep my share of it dark, with your leave. But you shall hear further of this by letter. May I say, that if I chose his father's son, I have come to-day to set my heart on his mother's? I wish you good night, ma'am! Good night, sirs!"
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.
"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!"
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."
"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."
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?