Part 8 out of 8
wouldn't listen to you; I was headstrong, but I understand it all now. My
eyes 'ave been opened. Them pious folk that got up the prosecution knew
what they was about. I forgive them one and all."
William coughed a little. The conversation paused, and the cough was
repeated down the corridor. Now it came from the men lying on the long
cane chairs; now from the poor emaciated creature, hollow cheeks, brown
eyes and beard, who had just come out of his ward and had sat down on a
bench by the wall. Now it came from an old man six feet high, with
snow-white hair. He sat near them, and worked assiduously at a piece of
tapestry. "It'll be better when it's cut," he said to one of the nurses,
who had stopped to compliment him on his work; "it'll be better when it's
cut." Then the cough came from one of the wards, and Esther thought of the
fearsome boy sitting bolt up, his huge tallow-like face staring through
the silence of the room. A moment after the cough came from her husband's
lips, and they looked at each other. Both wanted to speak, and neither
knew what to say. At last William spoke.
"I was saying that I never had that feeling about Chasuble as one 'as
about a winner. Did she run second? Just like my luck if she did. Let me
see the paper."
Esther handed it to him.
"Bramble, a fifty to one chance, not a man in a hundred backed her; King
of Trumps, there was some place money lost on him; Young Hopeful, a rank
outsider. What a day for the bookies!"
"You mustn't think of them things no more," said Esther. "You've got the
Book; it'll do you more good."
"If I'd only have thought of Bramble... I could have had a hundred to one
against Matchbox and Bramble coupled."
"What's the use of thinking of things that's over? We should think of the
"If I'd only been able to hedge that bet I should have been able to leave
you something to go on with, but now, when everything is paid for, you'll
have hardly a five-pound note. You've been a good wife to me, and I've
been a bad husband to you."
"Bill, you mustn't speak like that. You must try to make your peace with
God. Think of Him. He'll think of us that you leave behind. I've always
had faith in Him. He'll not desert me."
Her eyes were quite dry; the instinct of life seemed to have left her.
They spoke some little while longer, until it was time for visitors to
leave the hospital. It was not until she got into the Fulham Road that
tears began to run down her cheeks; they poured faster and faster, like
rain after long dry weather. The whole world disappeared in a mist of
tears. And so overcome was she by her grief that she had to lean against
the railings, and then the passers-by turned and looked at her curiously.
With fair weather he might hold on till Christmas, but if much fog was
about he would go off with the last leaves. One day Esther received a
letter asking her to defer her visit from Friday to Sunday. He hoped to be
better on Sunday, and then they would arrange when she should come to take
him away. He begged of her to have Jack home to meet him. He wanted to see
his boy before he died.
Mrs. Collins, a woman who lived in the next room, read the letter to
"If you can, do as he wishes. Once they gets them fancies into their heads
there's no getting them out."
"If he leaves the hospital on a day like this it'll be the death of him."
Both women went to the window. The fog was so thick that only an outline
here and there was visible of the houses opposite. The lamps burnt low,
mournful, as in a city of the dead, and the sounds that rose out of the
street added to the terror of the strange darkness.
"What do he say about Jack? That I'm to send for him. It's natural he
should like to see the boy before he goes, but it would be cheerfuller to
take him to the hospital."
"You see, he wants to die at home; he wants you to be with him at the
"Yes, I want to see the last of him. But the boy, where's he to sleep?"
"We can lay a mattress down in my room--an old woman like me, it don't
Sunday morning was harsh and cold, and when she came out of South
Kensington Station a fog was rising in the squares, and a great whiff of
yellow cloud drifted down upon the house-tops. In the Fulham road the tops
of the houses disappeared, and the light of the third gas-lamp was not
"This is the sort of weather that takes them off. I can hardly breathe it
Everything was shadow-like; those walking in front of her passed out of
sight like shades, and once she thought she must have missed her way,
though that was impossible, for her way was quite straight.... Suddenly
the silhouette of the winged building rose up enormous on the sulphur sky.
The low-lying gardens were full of poisonous vapour, and the thin trees
seemed like the ghosts of consumptive men. The porter coughed like a dead
man as she passed, and he said, "Bad weather for the poor sick ones
She was prepared for a change for the worse, but she did not expect to see
a living man looking so like a dead one.
He could no longer lie back in bed and breathe, so he was propped up with
pillows, and he looked even as shadow-like as those she had half seen in
the fog-cloud. There was fog even in the ward, and the lights burned red
in the silence. There were five beds--low iron bedsteads--and each was
covered with a dark red rug. In the furthest corner lay the wreck of a
great working man. He wore his hob-nails and his corduroys, and his once
brawny arm lay along his thigh, shrivelled and powerless as a child's. In
the middle of the room a little clerk, wasted and weary, without any
strength at all, lay striving for breath. The navvy was alone; the little
clerk had his family round him, his wife and his two children, a baby in
arms and a little boy three years old. The doctor had just come in, and
the woman was prattling gaily about her confinement. She said--
"I was up the following week. Wonderful what we women can go through. No
one would think it.... brought the childer to see their father; they is a
little idol to him, poor fellow."
"How are you to-day, dearie?" Esther said, as she took a seat by her
"Better than I was on Friday, but this weather'll do for me if it
continues much longer.... You see them two beds? They died yesterday, and
I've 'eard that three or four that left the hospital are gone, too."
The doctor came to William's bed. "Well, are you still determined to go
home?" he said.
"Yes; I'd like to die at home. You can't do nothing for me.... I'd like to
die at home; I want to see my boy."
"You can see Jack here," said Esther.
"I'd sooner see him at 'ome.... I suppose you don't want the trouble of a
death in the 'ouse."
"Oh, William, how can you speak so!" The patient coughed painfully, and
leaned against the pillows, unable to speak.
Esther remained with William till the time permitted to visitors had
expired. He could not speak to her but she knew he liked her to be with
When she came on Thursday to take him away, he was a little better. The
clerk's wife was chattering; the great navvy lay in the corner, still as a
block of stone. Esther often looked at him and wondered if he had no
friend who could spare an hour to come and see him.
"I was beginning to think that you wasn't coming," said William.
"He's that restless," said the clerk's wife; "asking the time every three
or four minutes."
"How could you think that?" said Esther.
"I dun know... you're a bit late, aren't you?"
"It often do make them that restless," said the clerk's wife. "But my poor
old man is quiet enough--aren't you, dear?" The dying clerk could not
answer, and the woman turned again to Esther.
"And how do you find him to-day?"
"Much the same.... I think he's a bit better; stronger, don't yer know.
But this weather is that trying. I don't know how it was up your way, but
down my way I never seed such a fog. I thought I'd have to turn back." At
that moment the baby began to cry, and the woman walked up and down the
ward, rocking it violently, talking loud, and making a great deal of
noise. But she could not quiet him.... "Hungry again," she said. "I never
seed such a child for the breast," and she sat down and unbuttoned her
dress. When the young doctor entered she hurriedly covered herself; he
begged her to continue, and spoke about her little boy. She showed him a
scar on his throat. He had been suffering, but it was all right now. The
doctor glanced at the breathless father.
"A little better to-day, thank you, doctor."
"That's all right;" and the doctor went over to William.
"Are you still determined to leave the hospital?" he said.
"Yes, I want to go home. I want to--"
"You'll find this weather very trying; you'd better--"
"No, thank you, sir. I should like to go home. You've been very kind;
you've done everything that could be done for me. But it's God's will....
My wife is very grateful to you, too."
"Yes, indeed, I am, sir. However am I to thank you for your kindness to my
"I'm sorry I couldn't do more. But you'll want the sister to help you to
dress him. I'll send her to you."
When they got him out of bed, Esther was shocked at the spectacle of his
poor body. There was nothing left of him. His poor chest, his wasted ribs,
his legs gone to nothing, and the strange weakness, worst of all, which
made it so hard for them to dress him. At last it was nearly done: Esther
laced one boot, the nurse the other, and, leaning on Esther's arm, he
looked round the room for the last time. The navvy turned round on his bed
"Good-bye.... Good-bye, all."
The clerk's little son clung to his mother's skirt, frightened at the
weakness of so big a man.
"Go and say good-bye to the gentleman."
The little boy came forward timidly, offering his hand. William looked at
the poor little white face; he nodded to the father and went out.
As he went downstairs he said he would like to go home in a hansom. The
doctor and nurse expostulated, but he persisted until Esther begged of him
to forego the wish for her sake.
"They do rattle so, these four-wheelers, especially when the windows are
up. One can't speak."
The cab jogged up Piccadilly, and as it climbed out of the hollow the
dying man's eyes were fixed on the circle of lights that shone across the
Green Park. They looked like a distant village, and Esther wondered if
William was thinking of Shoreham--she had seen Shoreham look like that
sometimes--or if he was thinking that he was looking on London for the
last time. Was he saying to himself, "I shall never, never see Piccadilly
again"? They passed St. James's Street. The Circus, with its mob of
prostitutes, came into view; the "Criterion" bar, with its loafers
standing outside. William leaned a little forward, and Esther was sure he
was thinking that he would never go into that bar again. The cab turned to
the left, and Esther said that it would cross Soho, perhaps pass down Old
Compton Street, opposite their old house. It happened that it did, and
Esther and William wondered who were the new people who were selling beer
and whisky in the bar? All the while boys were crying, "Win-ner, all the
"The ---- was run to-day. Flat racing all over, all over for this year."
Esther did not answer. The cab passed over a piece of asphalte, and he
"Is Jack waiting for us?"
"Yes, he came home yesterday."
The fog was thick in Bloomsbury, and when he got out of the cab he was
taken with a fit of coughing, and had to cling to the railings. She had to
pay the cab, and it took some time to find the money. Would no one open
the door? She was surprised to see him make his way up the steps to the
bell, and having got her change, she followed him into the house.
"I can manage. Go on first; I'll follow."
And stopping every three or four steps for rest, he slowly dragged himself
up to the first landing. A door opened and Jack stood on the threshold of
the lighted room.
"Is that you, mother?"
"Yes, dear; your father is coming up."
The boy came forward to help, but his mother whispered, "He'd rather come
up by himself."
William had just strength to walk into the room; they gave him a chair,
and he fell back exhausted. He looked around, and seemed pleased to see
his home again. Esther gave him some milk, into which she had put a little
brandy, and he gradually revived.
"Come this way, Jack; I want to look at you; come into the light where I
can see you."
"I haven't long to see you, Jack. I wanted to be with you and your mother
in our own home. I can talk a little now: I may not be able to to-morrow."
"I want you to promise me, Jack, that you'll never have nothing to do with
racing and betting. It hasn't brought me or your mother any luck."
"Very well, father."
"You promise me, Jack. Give me your hand. You promise me that, Jack."
"Yes, father, I promise."
"I see it all clearly enough now. Your mother, Jack, is the best woman in
the world. She loved you better than I did. She worked for you--that is a
sad story. I hope you'll never hear it."
Husband and wife looked at each other, and in that look the wife promised
the husband that the son should never know the story of her desertion.
"She was always against the betting, Jack; she always knew it would bring
us ill-luck. I was once well off, but I lost everything. No good comes of
money that one doesn't work for."
"I'm sure you worked enough for what you won," said Esther; "travelling
day and night from race-course to race-course. Standing on them
race-courses in all weathers; it was the colds you caught standing on them
race-courses that began the mischief."
"I worked hard enough, that's true; but it was not the right kind of
work.... I can't argue, Esther.... But I know the truth now, what you
always said was the truth. No good comes of money that hasn't been
He sipped the brandy-and-milk and looked at Jack, who was crying bitterly.
"You mustn't cry like that, Jack; I want you to listen to me. I've still
something on my mind. Your mother, Jack, is the best woman that ever
lived. You're too young to understand how good. I didn't know how good for
a long time, but I found it all out in time, as you will later, Jack, when
you are a man. I'd hoped to see you grow up to be a man, Jack, and your
mother and I thought that you'd have a nice bit of money. But the money I
hoped to leave you is all gone. What I feel most is that I'm leaving you
and your mother as badly off as she was when I married her." He heaved a
deep sigh, and Esther said--
"What is the good of talking of these things, weakening yourself for
"I must speak, Esther. I should die happy if I knew how you and the boy
was going to live. You'll have to go out and work for him as you did
before. It will be like beginning it all again."
The tears rolled down his cheeks; he buried his face in his hands and
sobbed, until the sobbing brought on a fit of coughing. Suddenly his mouth
filled with blood. Jack went for the doctor, and all remedies were tried
without avail. "There is one more remedy," the doctor said, "and if that
fails you must prepare for the worst." But this last remedy proved
successful, and the haemorrhage was stopped, and William was undressed and
put to bed. The doctor said, "He mustn't get up to-morrow."
"You lie in bed to-morrow, and try to get up your strength. You've
overdone yourself to-day."
She had drawn his bed into the warmest corner, close by the fire, and had
made up for herself a sort of bed by the window, where she might doze a
bit, for she did not expect to get much sleep. She would have to be up and
down many times to settle his pillows and give him milk or a little weak
Night wore away, the morning grew into day, and about twelve o'clock he
insisted on getting up. She tried to persuade him, but he said he could
not stop in bed; and there was nothing for it but to ask Mrs. Collins to
help her dress him. They placed him comfortably in a chair. The cough had
entirely ceased and he seemed better. And on Saturday night he slept
better than he had done for a long while and woke up on Sunday morning
refreshed and apparently much stronger. He had a nice bit of boiled rabbit
for his dinner. He didn't speak much; Esther fancied that he was still
thinking of them. When the afternoon waned, about four o'clock, he called
Jack; he told him to sit in the light where he could see him, and he
looked at his son with such wistful eyes. These farewells were very sad,
and Esther had to turn aside to hide her tears.
"I should have liked to have seen you a man, Jack."
"Don't speak like that--I can't bear it," said the poor boy, bursting into
tears. "Perhaps you won't die yet."
"Yes, Jack; I'm wore out. I can feel," he said, pointing to his chest,
"that there is nothing here to live upon.... It is the punishment come
"Punishment for what, father?"
"I wasn't always good to your mother, Jack."
"If to please me, William, you'll say no more."
"The boy ought to know; it will be a lesson for him, and it weighs upon my
"I don't want my boy to hear anything bad about his father, and I forbid
him to listen."
The conversation paused, and soon after William said that his strength was
going from him, and that he would like to go back to bed. Esther helped
him off with his clothes, and together she and Jack lifted him into bed.
He sat up looking at them with wistful, dying eyes.
"It is hard to part from you," he said. "If Chasuble had won we would have
all gone to Egypt. I could have lived out there."
"You must speak of them things no more. We all must obey God's will."
Esther dropped on her knees; she drew Jack down beside her, and William
asked Jack to read something from the Bible. Jack read where he first
opened the book, and when he had finished William said that he liked to
listen. Jack's voice sounded to him like heaven.
About eight o'clock William bade his son good-night.
"Good-night, my boy; perhaps we shan't see each other again. This may be
my last night."
"I won't leave you, father."
"No, my boy, go to your bed. I feel I'd like to be alone with mother." The
voice sank almost to a whisper.
"You'll remember what you promised me about racing.... Be good to your
mother--she's the best mother a son ever had."
"I'll work for mother, father, I'll work for her."
"You're too young, my son, but when you're older I hope you'll work for
her. She worked for you.... Good-bye, my boy."
The dying man sweated profusely, and Esther wiped his face from time to
time. Mrs. Collins came in. She had a large tin candlestick in her hand in
which there was a fragment of candle end. He motioned to her to put it
aside. She put it on the table out of the way of his eyes.
"You'll help Esther to lay me out.... I don't want any one else. I don't
like the other woman."
"Esther and me will lay you out, make your mind easy; none but we two
shall touch you."
Once more Esther wiped his forehead, and he signed to her how he wished
the bed-clothes to be arranged, for he could no longer speak. Mrs. Collins
whispered to Esther that she did not think that the end could be far off,
and compelled by a morbid sort of curiosity she took a chair and sat down.
Esther wiped away the little drops of sweat as they came upon his
forehead; his chest and throat had to be wiped also, for they too were
full of sweat. His eyes were fixed on the darkness and he moved his hand
restlessly, and Esther always understood what he wanted. She gave him a
little brandy-and-water, and when he could not take it from the glass she
gave it to him with a spoon.
The silence grew more solemn, and the clock on the mantelpiece striking
ten sharp strokes did not interrupt it; and then, as Esther turned from
the bedside for the brandy, Mrs. Collins's candle spluttered and went out;
a little thread of smoke evaporated, leaving only a morsel of blackened
wick; the flame had disappeared for ever, gone as if it had never been,
and Esther saw darkness where there had been a light. Then she heard Mrs.
"I think it is all over, dear."
The profile on the pillow seemed very little.
"Hold up his head, so that if there is any breath it may come on the
"He's dead, right enough. You see, dear, there's not a trace of breath on
"I'd like to say a prayer. Will you say a prayer with me?"
"Yes, I feel as if I should like to myself; it eases the heart wonderful."
She stood on the platform watching the receding train. A few bushes hid
the curve of the line; the white vapour rose above them, evaporating in
the grey evening. A moment more and the last carriage would pass out of
sight. The white gates swung slowly forward and closed over the line.
An oblong box painted reddish brown lay on the seat beside her. A woman of
seven or eight and thirty, stout and strongly built, short arms and
hard-worked hands, dressed in dingy black skirt and a threadbare jacket
too thin for the dampness of a November day. Her face was a blunt outline,
and the grey eyes reflected all the natural prose of the Saxon.
The porter told her that he would try to send her box up to Woodview
to-morrow.... That was the way to Woodview, right up the lane. She could
not miss it. She would find the lodge gate behind that clump of trees. And
thinking how she could get her box to Woodview that evening, she looked at
the barren strip of country lying between the downs and the shingle beach.
The little town clamped about its deserted harbour seemed more than ever
like falling to pieces like a derelict vessel, and when Esther passed over
the level crossing she noticed that the line of little villas had not
increased; they were as she had left them eighteen years ago, laurels,
iron railing, antimacassars. It was about eighteen years ago, on a
beautiful June day, that she had passed up this lane for the first time.
At the very spot she was now passing she had stopped to wonder if she
would be able to keep the place of kitchen-maid. She remembered regretting
that she had not a new dress; she had hoped to be able to brighten up the
best of her cotton prints with a bit of red ribbon. The sun was shining,
and she had met William leaning over the paling in the avenue smoking his
pipe. Eighteen years had gone by, eighteen years of labour, suffering,
disappointment. A great deal had happened, so much that she could not
remember it all. The situations she had been in; her life with that dear
good soul, Miss Rice, then Fred Parsons, then William again; her marriage,
the life in the public-house, money lost and money won, heart-breakings,
death, everything that could happen had happened to her. Now it all seemed
like a dream. But her boy remained to her. She had brought up her boy,
thank God, she had been able to do that. But how had she done it? How
often had she found herself within sight of the workhouse? The last time
was no later than last week. Last week it had seemed to her that she would
have to accept the workhouse. But she had escaped, and now here she was
back at the very point from which she started, going back to Woodview,
going back to Mrs. Barfield's service.
William's illness and his funeral had taken Esther's last few pounds away
from her, and when she and Jack came back from the cemetery she found that
she had broken into her last sovereign. She clasped him to her bosom--he
was a tall boy of fifteen--and burst into tears. But she did not tell him
what she was crying for. She did not say, "God only knows how we shall
find bread to eat next week;" she merely said, wiping away her tears, "We
can't afford to live here any longer. It's too expensive for us now that
father's gone." And they went to live in a slum for three-and-sixpence a
week. If she had been alone in the world she would have gone into a
situation, but she could not leave the boy, and so she had to look out for
charing. It was hard to have to come down to this, particularly when she
remembered that she had had a house and a servant of her own; but there
was nothing for it but to look out for some charing, and get along as best
she could until Jack was able to look after himself. But the various
scrubbings and general cleaning that had come her way had been so badly
paid that she soon found that she could not make both ends meet. She would
have to leave her boy and go out as a general servant. And as her
necessities were pressing, she accepted a situation in a coffee-shop in
the London Road. She would give all her wages to Jack, seven shillings a
week, and he would have to live on that. So long as she had her health she
did not mind.
It was a squat brick building with four windows that looked down on the
pavement with a short-sighted stare. On each window was written in letters
of white enamel, "Well-aired beds." A board nailed to a post by the
side-door announced that tea and coffee were always ready. On the other
side of the sign was an upholsterer's, and the vulgar brightness of the
Brussels carpets seemed in keeping with the slop-like appearance of the
Sometimes a workman came in the morning; a couple more might come in about
dinner-time. Sometimes they took rashers and bits of steak out of their
"Won't you cook this for me, missis?"
But it was not until about nine in the evening that the real business of
the house began, and it continued till one, when the last straggler
knocked for admittance. The house lived on its beds. The best rooms were
sometimes let for eight shillings a night, and there were four beds which
were let at fourpence a night in the cellar under the area where Esther
stood by the great copper washing sheets, blankets, and counterpanes, when
she was not cleaning the rooms upstairs. There was a double-bedded room
underneath the kitchen, and over the landings, wherever a space could be
found, the landlord, who was clever at carpentering work, had fitted up
some sort of closet place that could be let as a bedroom. The house was a
honeycomb. The landlord slept under the roof, and a corner had been found
for his housekeeper, a handsome young woman, at the end of the passage.
Esther and the children--the landlord was a widower--slept in the
coffee-room upon planks laid across the tops of the high backs of the
benches where the customers mealed. Mattresses and bedding were laid on
these planks and the sleepers lay, their faces hardly two feet from the
ceiling. Esther slept with the baby, a little boy of five; the two big
boys slept at the other end of the room by the front door. The eldest was
about fifteen, but he was only half-witted; and he helped in the
housework, and could turn down the beds and see quicker than any one if
the occupant had stolen sheet or blanket. Esther always remembered how he
would raise himself up in bed in the early morning, rub the glass, and
light a candle so that he could be seen from below. He shook his head if
every bed was occupied, or signed with his fingers the prices of the beds
if they had any to let.
The landlord was a tall, thin man, with long features and hair turning
grey. He was very quiet, and Esther was surprised one night at the
abruptness with which he stopped a couple who were going upstairs.
"Is that your wife?" he said.
"Yes, she's my wife all right."
"She don't look very old."
"She's older than she looks."
Then he said, half to Esther, half to his housekeeper, that it was hard to
know what to do. If you asked them for their marriage certificates they'd
be sure to show you something. The housekeeper answered that they paid
well, and that was the principal thing. But when an attempt was made to
steal the bedclothes the landlord and his housekeeper were more severe. As
Esther was about to let a most respectable woman out of the front door,
the idiot boy called down the stairs, "Stop her! There's a sheet missing."
"Oh, what in the world is all this? I haven't got your sheet. Pray let me
pass; I'm in a hurry."
"I can't let you pass until the sheet is found."
"You'll find it upstairs under the bed. It's got mislaid. I'm in a hurry."
"Call in the police," shouted the idiot boy.
"You'd better come upstairs and help me to find the sheet," said Esther.
The woman hesitated a moment, and then walked up in front of Esther. When
they were in the bedroom she shook out her petticoats, and the sheet fell
on the floor.
"There, now," said Esther, "a nice botheration you'd 've got me into. I
should've had to pay for it."
"Oh, I could pay for it; it was only because I'm not very well off at
"Yes, you _will_ pay for it if you don't take care," said Esther.
It was very soon after that Esther had her mother's books stolen from her.
They had not been doing much business, and she had been put to sleep in
one of the bedrooms. The room was suddenly wanted, and she had no time to
move all her things, and when she went to make up the room she found that
her mother's books and a pair of jet earrings that Fred had given her had
been stolen. She could do nothing; the couple who had occupied the room
were far away by this time. There was no hope of ever recovering her books
and earrings, and the loss of these things caused her a great deal of
unhappiness. The only little treasure she possessed were those earrings;
now they were gone, she realised how utterly alone she was in the world.
If her health were to break down to-morrow she would have to go to the
workhouse. What would become of her boy? She was afraid to think; thinking
did no good. She must not think, but must just work on, washing the
bedclothes until she could wash no longer. Wash, wash, all the week long;
and it was only by working on till one o'clock in the morning that she
sometimes managed to get the Sabbath free from washing. Never, not even in
the house in Chelsea, had she had such hard work, and she was not as
strong now as she was then. But her courage did not give way until one
Sunday Jack came to tell her that the people who employed him had sold
Then a strange weakness came over her. She thought of the endless week of
work that awaited her in the cellar, the great copper on the fire, the
heaps of soiled linen in the corner, the steam rising from the wash-tub,
and she felt she had not sufficient strength to get through another week
of such work. She looked at her son with despair in her eyes. She had
whispered to him as he lay asleep under her shawl, a tiny infant, "There
is nothing for us, my poor boy, but the workhouse," and the same thought
rose up in her mind as she looked at him, a tall lad with large grey eyes
and dark curling hair. But she did not trouble him with her despair. She
"I don't know how we shall pull through, Jack. God will help us."
"You're washing too hard, mother. You're wasting away. Do you know no one,
mother, who could help us?"
She looked at Jack fixedly, and she thought of Mrs. Barfield. Mrs.
Barfield might be away in the South with her daughter. If she were at
Woodview Esther felt sure that she would not refuse to help her. So Jack
wrote at Esther's dictation, and before they expected an answer, a letter
came from Mrs. Barfield saying that she remembered Esther perfectly well.
She had just returned from the South. She was all alone at Woodview, and
wanted a servant. Esther could come and take the place if she liked. She
enclosed five pounds, and hoped that the money would enable Esther to
leave London at once.
But this returning to former conditions filled Esther with strange
trouble. Her heart beat as she recognised the spire of the church between
the trees, and the undulating line of downs behind the trees awakened
painful recollections. She knew the white gate was somewhere in this
plantation, but could not remember its exact position; and she took the
road to the left instead of taking the road to the right, and had to
retrace her steps. The gate had fallen from its hinge, and she had some
difficulty in opening it. The lodge where the blind gatekeeper used to
play the flute was closed; the park paling had not been kept in repair;
wandering sheep and cattle had worn away the great holly hedge; and Esther
noticed that in falling an elm had broken through the garden wall.
When she arrived at the iron gate under the bunched evergreens, her steps
paused. For this was where she had met William for the first time. He had
taken her through the stables and pointed out to her Silver Braid's box.
She remembered the horses going to the downs, horses coming from the
downs--stabling and the sound of hoofs everywhere. But now silence. She
could see that many a roof had fallen, and that ruins of outhouses filled
the yard. She remembered the kitchen windows, bright in the setting sun,
and the white-capped servants moving about the great white table. But now
the shutters were up, nowhere a light; the knocker had disappeared from
the door, and she asked herself how she was to get in. She even felt
afraid.... Supposing she should not find Mrs. Barfield. She made her way
through the shrubbery, tripping over fallen branches and trunks of trees;
rooks rose out of the evergreens with a great clatter, her heart stood
still, and she hardly dared to tear herself through the mass of underwood.
At last she gained the lawn, and, still very frightened, sought for the
bell. The socket plate hung loose on the wire, and only a faint tinkle
came through the solitude of the empty house.
At last footsteps and a light; the chained door was opened a little, and a
voice asked who it was. Esther explained; the door was opened, and she
stood face to face with her old mistress. Mrs. Barfield stood, holding the
candle high, so that she could see Esther. Esther knew her at once. She
had not changed very much. She kept her beautiful white teeth and her
girlish smile; the pointed, vixen-like face had not altered in outline,
but the reddish hair was so thin that it had to be parted on the side and
drawn over the skull; her figure was delicate and sprightly as ever.
Esther noticed all this, and Mrs. Barfield noticed that Esther had grown
stouter. Her face was still pleasant to see, for it kept that look of
blunt, honest nature which had always been its charm. She was now the
thick-set working woman of forty, and she stood holding the hem of her
jacket in her rough hands.
"We'd better put the chain up, for I'm alone in the house."
"Aren't you afraid, ma'am?"
"A little, but there's nothing to steal. I asked the policeman to keep a
look-out. Come into the library."
There was the round table, the little green sofa, the piano, the parrot's
cage, and the yellow-painted presses; and it seemed only a little while
since she had been summoned to this room, since she had stood facing her
mistress, her confession on her lips. It seemed like yesterday, and yet
seventeen years and more had gone by. And all these years were now a sort
of a blur in her mind--a dream, the connecting links of which were gone,
and she stood face to face with her old mistress in the old room.
"You've had a cold journey, Esther; you'd like some tea?"
"Oh, don't trouble, ma'am."
"It's no trouble; I should like some myself. The fire's out in the
kitchen. We can boil the kettle here."
They went through the baize door into the long passage. Mrs. Barfield told
Esther where was the pantry, the kitchen, and the larder. Esther answered
that she remembered quite well, and it seemed to her not a little strange
that she should know these things. Mrs. Barfield said--
"So you haven't forgotten Woodview, Esther?"
"No, ma'am. It seems like yesterday.... But I'm afraid the damp has got
into the kitchen, ma'am, the range is that neglected----"
"Ah, Woodview isn't what it was."
Mrs. Barfield told how she had buried her husband in the old village
church. She had taken her daughter to Egypt; she had dwindled there till
there was little more than a skeleton to lay in the grave.
"Yes, ma'am, I know how it takes them, inch by inch. My husband died of
They sat talking for hours. One thing led to another and Esther gradually
told Mrs. Barfield the story of her life from the day they bade each other
good-bye in the room they were now sitting in.
"It is quite a romance, Esther."
"It was a hard fight, and it isn't over yet, ma'am. It won't be over until
I see him settled in some regular work. I hope I shall live to see him
They sat over the fire a long time without speaking. Mrs. Barfield said--
"It must be getting on for bedtime."
"I suppose it must, ma'am."
She asked if she should sleep in the room she had once shared with
Margaret Gale. Mrs. Barfield answered with a sigh that as all the bedrooms
were empty Esther had better sleep in the room next to hers.
Esther seemed to have quite naturally accepted Woodview as a final stage.
Any further change in her life she did not seem to regard as possible or
desirable. One of these days her boy would get settled; he would come down
now and again to see her. She did not want any more than that. No, she did
not find the place lonely. A young girl might, but she was no longer a
young girl; she had her work to do, and when it was done she was glad to
sit down to rest.
And, dressed in long cloaks, the women went for walks together; sometimes
they went up the hill, sometimes into Southwick to make some little
purchases. On Sundays they walked to Beeding to attend meeting. And they
came home along the winter roads, the peace and happiness of prayer upon
their faces, holding their skirts out of the mud, unashamed of their
common boots. They made no acquaintances, seeming to find in each other
all necessary companionship. Their heads bent a little forward, they
trudged home, talking of what they were in the habit of talking, that
another tree had been blown down, that Jack was now earning good
money--ten shillings a week. Esther hoped it would last. Or else Esther
told her mistress that she had heard that one of Mr. Arthur's horses had
won a race. He lived in the North of England, where he had a small
training stable, and his mother never heard of him except through the
sporting papers. "He hasn't been here for four years," Mrs. Barfield said;
"he hates the place; he wouldn't care if I were to burn it down
to-morrow.... However, I do the best I can, hoping that one day he'll
marry and come and live here."
Mr. Arthur--that was how Mrs. Barfield and Esther spoke of him--did not
draw any income from the estate. The rents only sufficed to pay the
charges and the widow's jointure. All the land was let; the house he had
tried to let, but it had been found impossible to find a tenant, unless
Mr. Arthur would expend some considerable sum in putting the house and
grounds into a state of proper repair. This he did not care to do; he said
that he found race-horses a more profitable speculation. Besides, even the
park had been let on lease; nothing remained to him but the house and lawn
and garden; he could no longer gallop a horse on the hill without
somebody's leave, so he didn't care what became of the place. His mother
might go on living there, keeping things together as she called it; he did
not mind what she did as long as she didn't bother him. So did he express
himself regarding Woodview on the rare occasion of his visits, and when he
troubled to answer his mother's letters. Mrs. Barfield, whose thoughts
were limited to the estate, was pained by his indifference; she gradually
ceased to consult him, and when Beeding was too far for her to walk she
had the furniture removed from the drawing-room and a long deal table
placed there instead. She had not asked herself if Arthur would object to
her inviting a few brethren of the neighbourhood to her house for meeting,
or publishing the meetings by notices posted on the lodge gate.
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
"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
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
"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'
"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
"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.
"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
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
As they descended the hill Mrs. Barfield asked Esther if she ever heard of
"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
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
"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
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
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.