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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHetty Wesley - Book 1 - Chapter 2
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Hetty Wesley - Book 1 - Chapter 2 Post by :jhaines Category :Long Stories Author :Arthur Thomas Quiller-couch Date :May 2012 Read :2630

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Hetty Wesley - Book 1 - Chapter 2

BOOK I CHAPTER II

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 I."

"--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."

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NEXT BOOKS

Hetty Wesley - Book 1 - Chapter 3 Hetty Wesley - Book 1 - Chapter 3

Hetty Wesley - Book 1 - Chapter 3
BOOK I CHAPTER IIIThat 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
PREVIOUS BOOKS

Hetty Wesley - Book 1 - Chapter 1 Hetty Wesley - Book 1 - Chapter 1

Hetty Wesley - Book 1 - Chapter 1
BOOK I CHAPTER I"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.
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