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.