Bess Thompson started off on her way to her desolate home, almost heart-broken, and with such a wrathful resentment against Stephen, and Martha, and Tim, as seemed to blot out all memory of the lessons she had been learning from Miss Anne since the little child’s death. She could never bear to go near them, or speak to them again, since they had sworn against her father; and had not he been good to them when Stephen was ill, often sparing her to watch with Martha, as well as helping to make up his wages? If this was their religion, she did not care to have it; for nobody else in Botfield would have done the same. And now she might as well give up all thoughts of getting to heaven, where little Nan and her baby sister were; for there would be nobody to care for her, and she would be obliged to go back to all her old ways.
These were her bitter thoughts as she walked homewards alone, for Stephen was gone up to the doctor’s house to inquire after the master and Miss Anne, and the others were waiting for him in Longville. She heard their voices after a while coming along the turnpike road, and walking quickly as if to overtake her; so she turned aside into a field, and hid herself under a hedge that they might pass by. She crouched down low upon the grass, and covered her red and smarting eyes from the sunshine with her shawl, and then she listened for their footsteps to die away in the distance. But she felt an arm stealing round her, and Martha’s voice whispered close in her ear,—
’Bess, dear Bess, thee must not hide thyself from us. We love thee, Bess; and we are sore sorry for thee. Stephen is ever so down-hearted about thee and thy father. Oh, Bess, thee must have no spite at us.’
‘Bess,’ said Stephen, ’thy father owned I was telling the truth, and said he forgave me for speaking agen him; and he shook hands with me afore he went; and he said, “Stephen, thee be a friend to my poor lass!” and I gave him a sure promise that I would.’
‘Nobody’ll ever look at me now,’ cried Bess; ’nobody’ll be friends with me if father’s transported.’
‘We’re thy friends,’ answered Stephen, ’and thee has a Father in heaven that cares for thee. Listen, Bess; it will do thee good, and poor old grandfather no harm now. He was transported beyond the seas once; and no one casts it up to him now, nor to us; and haven’t we got friends? Cheer up, Bess. Miss Anne says, maybe this very trouble will bring thy father to repentance. He said he’d repent some time; and maybe this will be the very time for him. And Miss Anne sends her kind love to thee and thy mother, and she’ll come and see thy mother as soon as she can leave the master.’
Thus comforted, poor sorrowful Bess rose from the ground, and walked on with them to Botfield. Most of the house doors were open, and the women were standing at them in order to waylay them with inquisitive questions; but Stephen’s grave and steady face, and the presence of Bess, who walked close beside him, as if there was shelter and protection there, kept them silent; and they were compelled to satisfy their curiosity with secondhand reports. Martha went on with Bess to her own cottage to stay all night with her, and help her to console her broken-hearted mother.