Nelly Polwhele gave a little jump when Mr. Wesley had spoken. It had come at last. She had done her best to steal away from the explanation which she feared she would have to make to him. But somehow she did not now dread facing it so greatly as she had done in the Mill. She had heard that the Reverend Mr. Wesley was severe, as well as austere. She had heard his Methodism mocked by the fashionable folk at Bath, story after story being told of his daring in rebuking the frivolities of the day. She had believed him to be an unsympathetic curmudgeon of a man, whose mission it was to banish every joy from life.

But now that she had heard his voice, so full of gentleness—now that his eyes had rested upon her in kindliness and sympathy—now that she had heard him not disdain to spend an hour telling her and her friends that romance of the backwoods, thrilling them by his telling of it, her dread of being rebuked by him for her levity was certainly a good deal less than it had been. Still she looked uneasily away from him, and they had taken a good many steps in silence together before she made an attempt to answer him. And even then she did not look at him.

“'Twas a piece of folly, I am afraid, sir,” she said in a low tone. “At least you may esteem it folly, though it did not fail to amuse the good people at the Mill,” she added in an impulse of vanity not to be resisted.

“I had no doubt that it was a domestic game,” said he. “They were all roaring with laughter. Had you heard, as I did, from without, the loud laughter of the men and above it the wild, shrill shrieks, you would, I am sure, have been as amazed as I was.”

She laughed now quite without restraint.

“Bedlam—Bedlam—nothing less than Bedlam it must have seemed to you, Mr. Wesley,” she said.

“I will not contend with you as to the appropriateness of your description,” said he, smiling, still kindly.

“The truth is, sir, that I have just returned from paying my first visit to the Bath,” said she. “'Twas the greatest event in my simple life. I went to act as dresser to the Squire's young ladies, and they were so good as to allow me to see mostly all that there was to be seen, and to hear all that there was to be heard.”

“What—all? That were a perilous permission that your young ladies gave to you.”

“I know not what is meant by all, but I heard much, sir; singers and preachers and players. I was taken to the Cave of Harmony for lovely music, and to the playhouse, where I saw Mistress Woffington in one of her merry parts. I was busy telling of this when you entered the Mill. I was doing my best to shriek like Mistress Woffington.”

She spoke lightly and with a certain assurance, as though she were determined to uphold her claim to go whithersoever she pleased.

She was in a manner disappointed that he did not at once show himself to be shocked. But he heard her and remained silent himself. Some moments passed; but still he did not speak; he waited.

Of course she began to excuse herself; he knew that she would do so. The uneasily confident way in which she had talked of the playhouse had told him that she would soon be accusing herself by her excuses without the need for him to open his lips.

“You will understand, sir, I doubt not, that I was but in the position of a servant, though my ladies treated me graciously; I could not but obey them in all matters,” she said.

“Does your saying that mean that you had some reluctance in going to the playhouse?” he asked her.

“I was not quite—quite—sure,” she replied slowly. “I had heard that the playhouse was a wicked place.”

“And therefore you were interested in it—is that so?”

“But I asked myself, 'Would my young ladies go to the playhouse—would the Squire, who surely knows a good deal about wickedness, having lived for so many years in London—would the Squire and his lady allow them to go to the playhouse if there was anything evil in it?'”

“And so you went and you were delighted with the painted faces on both sides of the stage, and you have remained unsettled ever since, so that you must needs do your best to imitate an actress whose shamelessness of living is in everybody's mouth? I know that you imitated this Woffington woman to your young ladies when you returned warm and excited from the playhouse, and they laughed hugely at your skill.”

Nelly stood still, so startled was she at the divination of her companion.

“How came you to hear that?” she cried.

“Were we not alone in the bedroom? Who could have told you so much?”

“And when you returned to your home you were not many hours under its roof before you were strutting about feeling yourself to be decked out in the fine clothes which you had seen that woman wear in the playhouse?”

“You have been talking to someone—was it Jake Pullsford? But how could he have known? Oh, sir; you seem to have in yourself a power equal to that of the water-finder's wand, only surer by a good measure.”

“And you saw no evil in the playhouse?” he said gently.

“I do not want to go again, Mr. Wesley,” she said. “But indeed I dare not say that I saw any of the wickedness that I have heard of, in the theatre.”

“What, are you not in yourself an example of the evil?” said he.

“What—I, sir? Surely not, Mr. Wesley. Whatever you may have heard you could hear nothing against me,” she cried, somewhat indignantly.

Her indignation lent her boldness and she turned to him, saying:

“I affirm, sir, and I am not ashamed to do so, that I saw nothing of evil in the playhouse, and I made up my mind that instead of spending my days hidden away in a lonely village far from all the pleasures of life, I would try my fortune as an actress. I believe that I have some gift of mimicry—my ladies told me so. Why, sir, you allowed that my shrieks frightened you outside the Mill.”

“Child, your feet are on a path perilous,” said he. “You were indignant when I said that you were in yourself an example of the evil of going to the playhouse. Every word that you have spoken since has gone to prove the truth of my assertion. Do you say that the unsettling of your mind is no evil due to your visits to the playhouse—the unsettling of your mind, the discontent at your homely and virtuous surroundings, the arousing of a foolish vanity in your heart and the determination to take a step that would mean inevitable ruin to such as you—ruin and the breaking of your father's heart?”

He spoke calmly, and in his voice there was more than a suggestion of sorrow.

She had become pale; she made an attempt to face him and repel his accusations, but there was something in his face that took all the strength out of her. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed bitterly. He watched her for some moments, and then he put a soothing hand upon her arm.

“Nay, dear child, be not overcome,” said he. “Have you not said to me that you have no wish ever to enter the playhouse again? Let that be enough. Be assured that I will not upbraid you for your possession of that innocence which saved you from seeing aught that was wrong in the play or the players. Unto the pure all things are pure. Unto the innocent all things are harmless. You were born for the glory of God. If you let that be your thought day and night your feet will be kept in the narrow way.”

She caught his hand and held it in both her own hands.

“I give you my promise,” she cried, her eyes upon his face; they were shining all the more brightly through her tears.

“Nay, there is no need for you to give me any promise,” he said. “I will have confidence in your fidelity without any promise.”

“You will have to reckon with me first, you robber!”


They both started at the sound of the voice. It came from a scowling man who, unperceived by them, had come through a small plantation of poplars on the slope at one side of the road, and now leaped from the bank, high though it was, and stood confronting them.

The girl faced him.

“What do you here, John Bennet?” she cried. “Have you been playing the spy as usual?”

“You are one of them that needs to be watched, my girl,” said he. “You know that I speak the truth and that is why you feel it the more bitterly. But rest sure that I shall watch you and watch you and watch you while I have eyes in my head.”

He was a lank man, who wore his own red hair tied in a queue. He had eyes that certainly would make anyone feel that the threat which he had uttered to the girl was one that he was well qualified to carry out; they were small and fierce—the eyes of a fox when its vigilance is overstrained.

He kept these eyes fixed upon her for some moments, and then turned them with the quickness of a flash of light upon Wesley.

“I heard what she said and I heard what you said, my gentleman,” said he. “You will have faith in her fidelity—the fidelity of Nelly Polwhele. I know not who you are that wears a parson's bands; but parson or no parson I make bold to tell you that you are a fool—the biggest fool on earth if you have faith in any promise made by that young woman.”

“Sir,” said Wesley, “you called me a thief just now. My knowledge of the falsehood of that accusation enables me to disregard any slander that you may utter against this innocent girl.”

“I called you a thief once and I shall call you so a second time,” cried the man. “You have stolen the love of this girl from me—nay, 'tis no use for you to raise your hand like that. I know you are ready to swear that you said nothing except what a good pastor would say to one of his flock—swear it, swear it and perjure yourself, as usual—all of your cloth do it when the Bishop lays his hands upon their wigs, and they swear to devote their lives to the souls of their parishes and then hasten to their rectories to get on their hunting boots—their hunting boots that are never off their legs save when they are playing bowls or kneeling—kneeling—ay, in the cock-pit.”

“Silence, sir!” cried Wesley. “Pass on your way and allow us to proceed on ours.”

“I have told your reverence some home truths; and as for yonder girl, who has doubtless tricked you as she did me——”

“Silence, sir, this instant! You were coward enough to insult a man who you knew could not chastise you, and now you would slander a girl! There is your way, sir; ours is in the other direction.”

He had his eyes fixed on the man's eyes, and as he faced him he pointed with his riding whip down the road. The man stared at him, and then Nelly saw all the fierceness go out of his eyes. He retreated slowly from Mr. Wesley, as though he were under the influence of a force upon which he had not previously reckoned. Once he put his hands quickly up to his face, as if to brush aside something that was oppressing him. His jaw fell, and although he was plainly trying to speak, no words came from his parted lips. With a slow indrawing of his breath he followed with his eyes the direction indicated by the other's riding whip. A horseman was trotting toward them, but in the distance.

Then it was that the man recovered his power of speech.

“You saw him coming—that emboldened you!” he said. “Don't fancy that because I was a bit dazed that 'twas you who got the better of me. I'll have speech with you anon, and if you still have faith in that girl——”

The sound of the clattering hoofs down the road became more distinct. The man took another quick glance in the direction of the sound, and then with an oath turned and leapt up to the green bank beside him. He scrambled up to the top and at once disappeared among the trees.

Wesley and the girl stood watching him, and when he had disappeared their eyes took the direction that the man's had taken. A gentleman, splendidly mounted on a roan, with half a dozen dogs—a couple of sleek spaniels, a rough sheep dog and three terriers—at his heels, trotted up. Seeing the girl, he pulled up.

“Hillo, Nelly girl!” he cried cheerily, when she had dropped him a curtsey. “Hillo! Who was he that slunk away among the trees?”

“'Twas only John Bennet, if you please, parson,” said she.

“It doth not please me,” said he. “The fellow is only fit for a madhouse or the county gaol. He looked, so far as I could see, as if he was threatening you or—I ask your pardon, sir; your horse hid you.”

When he had pulled up Mr. Wesley had been on the off side of his horse and half a dozen yards apart from the girl; so that the stranger had no chance of seeing the bands that showed him to be a clergyman.

“You arrived opportunely, sir,” he said. “I fear if the man had not perceived you coming in the distance, we might have found ourselves in trouble.”

“What, did the fellow threaten you? Shall I set the dogs upon his track? Say the word and I'll wager you King George against your sorry skewbald that he'll find himself in trouble before many minutes are over,” cried the stranger.

“Nay, sir; the man hath gone and we are unharmed,” said Wesley.

“The scoundrel! Let me but get him within reach of my whip!” said the other. “But the truth is, Nelly, that the fellow is more than half demented through his love for you. And i' faith, I don't blame him. Ah, a sad puss you are, Nelly. There will not be a whole heart in the Port if you do not marry some of your admirers.”

Then he turned to Wesley, saying:

“You are a brother parson, sir, I perceive, though I do not call your face to mind. Are you on your way to take some duty—maybe 'tis for Josh Hilliard; I heard that he had a touch of his old enemy. But now that I think on't 'twould not be like Josh to provide a substitute.”

“I have come hither without having a church to preach in, sir; my name is Wesley, John Wesley.”

“What, the head of the men we christened Methodists at Oxford?”

“The same, sir. I believe that the name hath acquired a very honourable significance since those days. I hope that we are all good churchmen, at any rate.”

“I don't doubt it, Mr. Wesley; but you will not preach in my church, sir, of that you may rest assured.”

“You are frank, sir; but pray remember that I have not yet asked your permission to do so.”

The other laughed, and spoke a word or two to his horse, who was becoming impatient and was only controlled with difficulty.

“A fair retort, Mr. Wesley—a fair retort, sir,” he said. “I like your spirit; and by my word, I have a sort of covert admiration for you. I hear that none can resist your preaching—not even a Bishop. You have my hearty sympathy and good will, sir, but I will not go to hear you preach. The truth is that you are too persuasive, Mr. Wesley, and I cannot afford to be persuaded to follow your example. I find the Church a very snug nest for a younger son with simple country tastes and a rare knowledge of whist; I am a practical man, sir, and my advice upon occasion has healed many a feud between neighbours. I know a good horse and I ride straight to hounds. In the cockpit my umpiring is as good law as the Attorney General could construe for a fee of a thousand guineas. Ask anyone in this county what is his opinion of Parson Rodney and you will hear the truth as I have told it to you. I wish you luck, Mr. Wesley, but I will not countenance your preaching in my church; nor will I hear you, lest I should be led by you to reform my ways, as I suppose you would say; I am a younger son, and a younger son cannot afford to have doubts on the existing state of things, when the living that he inherits is of the net value of eight hundred pounds per annum. So fare you well, sir, and I beg of you not to make my flock too discontented with my ten-minute sermons. They should not be so, seeing that my sermons are not mine; but for the most part Doctor Tillotson's—an excellent divine, sir—sound—sound and not above the heads of our gaffers. Fare thee well, Nelly; break as few hearts as thy vanity can do with.”

And Parson Rodney, smiling gallantly, and waving his whip gracefully, whistled to his dogs, and put his roan to the trot for which he was eager.

“An excellent type,” murmured Wesley. “Alas! but too good a type. Plain, honest, a gentleman; but no zeal, no sense of his responsibility for the welfare of the souls entrusted to his keeping.”

He stood for some time watching the man on the thoroughbred. Then he turned to Nelly Polwhele, saying:

“We were interrupted in our pleasant chat; but we have still three miles to go. Tell me what the people think of Parson Rodney.”

“They do not think aught about him, Mr. Wesley; they all like him: he never preaches longer than ten minutes.”

“A right good reason for their liking of him—as good a reason as he had for liking the Church; it doth not exact overmuch from him, and it saves him from sponging on his friends. The Church of England has ever been an indulgent mother.”

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