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One day Mrs. Barfield and Esther were walking in the avenue, when, to their surprise, they saw Mr. Arthur open the white gate and come through. The mother hastened forward to meet her son, but paused, dismayed by the anger that looked out of his eyes. He did not like the notices, and she was sorry that he was annoyed. She didn't think that he would mind them, and she hastened by his side, pleading her excuses. But to her great sorrow Arthur did not seem to be able to overcome his annoyance. He refused to listen, and continued his reproaches, saying the things that he knew would most pain her.
He did not care whether the trees stood or fell, whether the cement remained upon the walls or dropped from them; he didn't draw a penny of income from the place, and did not care a damn what became of it. He allowed her to live there, she got her jointure out of the property, and he didn't want to interfere with her, but what he could not stand was the snuffy little folk from the town coming round his house. The Barfields at least were county, and he wished Woodview to remain county as long as the walls held together. He wasn't a bit ashamed of all this ruin. You could receive the Prince of Wales in a ruin, but he wouldn't care to ask him into a dissenting chapel. Mrs. Barfield answered that she didn't see how the mere assembling of a few friends in prayer could disgrace a house. She did not know that he objected to her asking them. She would not ask them any more. The only thing was that there was no place nearer than Beeding where they could meet, and she could no longer walk so far. She would have to give up meeting.
"It seems to me a strange taste to want to kneel down with a lot of little shop-keepers.... Is this where you kneel?" he said, pointing to the long deal table. "The place is a regular little Bethel."
"Our Lord said that when a number should gather together for prayer that He would be among them. Those are true words, and as we get old we feel more and more the want of this communion of spirit. It is only then that we feel that we're really with God.... The folk that you despise are equal in His sight. And living here alone, what should I be without prayer? and Esther, after her life of trouble and strife, what would she be without prayer?... It is our consolation."
"I think one should choose one's company for prayer as for everything else. Besides, what do you get out of it? Miracles don't happen nowadays."
"You're very young, Arthur, and you cannot feel the want of prayer as we do--two old women living in this lonely house. As age and solitude overtake us, the realities of life float away and we become more and more sensible to the mystery which surrounds us. And our Lord Jesus Christ gave us love and prayer so that we might see a little further."
An expression of great beauty came upon her face, that unconscious resignation which, like the twilight, hallows and transforms. In such moments the humblest hearts are at one with nature, and speaks out of the eternal wisdom of things. So even this common racing man was touched, and he said--
"I'm sorry if I said anything to hurt your religious feelings."
Mrs. Barfield did not answer.
"Do you not accept my apologies, mother?"
"My dear boy, what do I care for your apologies; what are they to me? All I think of now is your conversion to Christ. Nothing else matters. I shall always pray for that."
"You may have whom you like up here; I don't mind if it makes you happy. I'm ashamed of myself. Don't let's say any more about it. I'm only down for the day. I'm going home to-morrow."
"Home, Arthur! this is your home. I can't bear to hear you speak of any other place as your home."
"Well, mother, then I shall say that I'm going back to business to-morrow."
Mrs. Barfield sighed.
Days, weeks, months passed away, and the two women came to live more and more like friends and less like mistress and maid. Not that Esther ever failed to use the respectful "ma'am" when she addressed her mistress, nor did they ever sit down to a meal at the same table. But these slight social distinctions, which habit naturally preserved, and which it would have been disagreeable to both to forego, were no check on the intimacy of their companionship. In the evening they sat in the library sewing, or Mrs. Barfield read aloud, or they talked of their sons. On Sundays they had their meetings. The folk came from quite a distance, and sometimes as many as five-and-twenty knelt round the deal table in the drawing room, and Esther felt that these days were the happiest of her life. She was content in the peaceful present, and she knew that Mrs. Barfield would not leave her unprovided for. She was almost free from anxiety. But Jack did not seem to be able to obtain regular employment in London, and her wages were so small that she could not help him much. So the sight of his handwriting made her tremble, and she sometimes did not show the letter to Mrs. Barfield for some hours after.
One Sunday morning, after meeting, as the two women were going for their walk up the hill, Esther said--
"I've a letter from my boy, ma'am. I hope it is to tell me that he's got back to work."
"I'm afraid I shan't be able to read it, Esther. I haven't my glasses with me."
"It don't matter, ma'am--it'll keep."
"Give it to me--his writing is large and legible. I think I can read it. 'My dear mother, the place I told you of in my last letter was given away, so I must go on in the toy-shop till something better turns up. I only get six shillings a week and my tea, and can't quite manage on that.' Then something--something--'pay three and sixpence a week'--something--'bed' --something--something."
"I know, ma'am; he shares a bed with the eldest boy."
"Yes, that's it; and he wants to know if you can help him. 'I don't like to trouble you, mother; but it is hard for a boy to get his living in London.'"
"But I've sent him all my money. I shan't have any till next quarter."
"I'll lend you some, Esther. We can't leave the boy to starve. He can't live on two and sixpence a week."
"You're very good, ma'am; but I don't like to take your money. We shan't be able to get the garden cleared this winter."
"We shall manage somehow, Esther. The garden must wait. The first thing to do is to see that your boy doesn't want for food."
The women resumed their walk up the hill. When they reached the top Mrs. Barfield said--
"I haven't heard from Mr. Arthur for months. I envy you, Esther, those letters asking for a little money. What's the use of money to us except to give it to our children? Helping others, that is the only happiness."
At the end of the coombe, under the shaws, stood the old red-tiled farmhouse in which Mrs. Barfield had been born. Beyond it, downlands rolled on and on, reaching half-way up the northern sky. Mrs. Barfield was thinking of the days when her husband used to jump off his cob and walk beside her through those gorse patches on his way to the farmhouse. She had come from the farmhouse beneath the shaws to go to live in an Italian house sheltered by a fringe of trees. That was her adventure. She knew it, and she turned from the view of the downs to the view of the sea. The plantations of Woodview touched the horizon, then the line dipped, and between the top branches of a row of elms appeared the roofs of the town. Over a long spider-legged bridge a train wriggled like a snake, the bleak river flowed into the harbour, and the shingle banks saved the low land from inundation. Then the train passed behind the square, dogmatic tower of the village church. Her husband lay beneath the chancel; her father, mother, all her relations, lay in the churchyard. She would go there in a few years.... Her daughter lay far away, far away in Egypt. Upon this downland all her life had been passed, all her life except the few months she had spent by her daughter's bedside in Egypt. She had come from that coombe, from that farmhouse beneath the shaws, and had only crossed the down.
And this barren landscape meant as much to Esther as to her mistress. It was on these downs that she had walked with William. He had been born and bred on these downs; but he lay far away in Brompton Cemetery; it was she who had come back! and in her simple way she too wondered at the mystery of destiny.
As they descended the hill Mrs. Barfield asked Esther if she ever heard of Fred Parsons.
"No, ma'am, I don't know what's become of him."
"And if you were to meet him again, would you care to marry him?"
"Marry and begin life over again! All the worry and bother over again! Why should I marry?--all I live for now is to see my boy settled in life."
The women walked on in silence, passing by long ruins of stables, coach-houses, granaries, rickyards, all in ruin and decay. The women paused and went towards the garden; and removing some pieces of the broken gate they entered a miniature wilderness. The espalier apple-trees had disappeared beneath climbing weeds, and long briars had shot out from the bushes, leaving few traces of the former walks--a damp, dismal place that the birds seemed to have abandoned. Of the greenhouse only some broken glass and a black broken chimney remained. A great elm had carried away a large portion of the southern wall, and under the dripping trees an aged peacock screamed for his lost mate.
"I don't suppose that Jack will be able to find any more paying employment this winter. We must send him six shillings a week; that, with what he is earning, will make twelve; he'll be able to live nicely on that."
"I should think he would indeed. But, then, what about the wages of them who was to have cleared the gardens for us?"
"We shan't be able to get the whole garden cleared, but Jim will be able to get a piece ready for us to sow some spring vegetables, not a large piece, but enough for us. The first thing to do will be to cut down those apple-trees. I'm afraid we shall have to cut down that walnut; nothing could grow beneath it. Did any one ever see such a mass of weed and briar? Yet it is only about ten years since we left Woodview, and the garden was let run to waste. Nature does not take long, a few years, a very few years."
All the winter the north wind roamed on the hills; many trees fell in the park, and at the end of February Woodview seemed barer and more desolate than ever; broken branches littered the roadway, and the tall trunks showed their wounds. The women sat over their fire in the evening listening to the blast, cogitating the work that awaited them as soon as the weather showed signs of breaking.
Mrs. Barfield had laid by a few pounds during the winter; and the day that Jim cleared out the first piece of espalier trees she spent entirely in the garden, hardly able to take her eyes off him. But the pleasure of the day was in a measure spoilt for her by the knowledge that on that day her son was riding in the great steeplechase. She was full of fear for his safety; she did not sleep that night, and hurried down at an early hour to the garden to ask Jim for the newspaper which she had told him to bring her. He took some time to extract the paper from his torn pocket.
"He isn't in the first three," said Mrs. Barfield. "I always know that he's safe if he's in the first three. We must turn to the account of the race to see if there were any accidents."
She turned over the paper.
"Thank God, he's safe," she said; "his horse ran fourth."
"You worry yourself without cause, ma'am. A good rider like him don't meet with accidents."
"The best riders are often killed, Esther. I never have an easy moment when I hear he's going to ride in these races. Supposing one day I were to read that he was carried back on a shutter."
"We mustn't let our thoughts run on such things, ma'am. If a war was to break out to-morrow, what should I do? His regiment would be ordered out. It is sad to think that he had to enlist. But, as he said, he couldn't go on living on me any longer. Poor boy! ...We must keep on working, doing the best we can for them. There are all sorts of chances, and we can only pray that God may spare them."
"Yes, Esther, that's all we can do. Work on, work on to the end.... But your boy is coming to see you to-day."
"Yes, ma'am, he'll be here by twelve o'clock.'"
"You're luckier than I am. I wonder if I shall ever see my boy again."
"Yes, ma'am, of course you will. He'll come back to you right enough one of these days. There's a good time coming; that's what I always says.... And now I've got work to do in the house. Are you going to stop here, or are you coming in with me? It'll do you no good standing about in the wet clay."
Mrs. Barfield smiled and nodded, and Esther paused at the broken gate to watch her mistress, who stood superintending the clearing away of ten years' growth of weeds, as much interested in the prospect of a few peas and cabbages as in former days she had been in the culture of expensive flowers. She stood on what remained of a gravel walk, the heavy clay clinging to her boots, watching Jim piling weeds upon his barrow. Would he be able to finish the plot of ground by the end of the week? What should they do with that great walnut-tree? Nothing would grow underneath it. Jim was afraid that he would not be able to cut it down and remove it without help. Mrs. Barfield suggested sawing away some of the branches, but Jim was not sure that the expedient would prove of much avail. In his opinion the tree took all the goodness out of the soil, and that while it stood they could not expect a very great show of vegetables. Mrs. Barfield asked if the sale of the tree trunk would indemnify her for the cost of cutting it down. Jim paused in his work, and, leaning on his spade, considered if there was any one in the town, who, for the sake of the timber, would cut the tree down and take it away for nothing. There ought to be some such person in town; if it came to that, Mrs. Barfield ought to receive something for the tree. Walnut was a valuable wood, was extensively used by cabinetmakers, and so on, until Mrs. Barfield begged him to get on with his digging.
At twelve o'clock Esther and Mrs. Barfield walked out on the lawn. A loud wind came up from the sea, and it shook the evergreens as if it were angry with them. A rook carried a stick to the tops of the tall trees, and the women drew their cloaks about them. The train passed across the vista, and the women wondered how long it would take Jack to walk from the station. Then another rook stooped to the edge of the plantation, gathered a twig, and carried it away. The wind was rough; it caught the evergreens underneath and blew them out like umbrellas; the grass had not yet begun to grow, and the grey sea harmonised with the grey-green land. The women waited on the windy lawn, their skirts blown against their legs, keeping their hats on with difficulty. It was too cold for standing still. They turned and walked a few steps towards the house, and then looked round.
A tall soldier came through the gate. He wore a long red cloak, and a small cap jauntily set on the side of his close-clipped head. Esther uttered a little exclamation, and ran to meet him. He took his mother in his arms, kissed her, and they walked towards Mrs. Barfield together. All was forgotten in the happiness of the moment--the long fight for his life, and the possibility that any moment might declare him to be mere food for powder and shot. She was only conscious that she had accomplished her woman's work--she had brought him up to man's estate; and that was her sufficient reward. What a fine fellow he was! She did not know he was so handsome, and blushing with pleasure and pride she glanced shyly at him out of the corners of her eyes as she introduced him to her mistress.
"This is my son, ma'am."
Mrs. Barfield held out her hand to the young soldier.
"I have heard a great deal about you from your mother."
"And I of you, ma'am. You've been very kind to my mother. I don't know how to thank you."
And in silence they walked towards the house.