Mrs. Humphries, an elderly person, who looked after a bachelor's establishmen_wo doors up, and generally slipped in about tea-time, soon began to speak o_red as a very nice young man who would be likely to make a woman happy. Bu_sther moved about the kitchen in her taciturn way, hardly answering. Suddenl_he told Mrs. Humphries that she had been to Dulwich with him, and that it wa_onderful how he and Jackie had taken to one another.
"You don't say so! Well, it is nice to find them religious folks less
'ard-'earted than they gets the name of."
Mrs. Humphries was of the opinion that henceforth Esther should give hersel_ut as Jackie's aunt. "None believes them stories, but they make one seem mor_espectable like, and I am sure Mr. Parsons will appreciate the intention."
Esther did not answer, but she thought of what Mrs. Humphries had said.
Perhaps it would be better if Jackie were to leave off calling her Mummie.
Auntie! But no, she could not bear it. Fred must take her as she was or not a_ll. They seemed to understand each other; he was earning good money, thirt_hillings a week, and she was now going on for eight-and-twenty; if she wa_ver going to be married it was time to think about it.
"I don't know how that dear soul will get on without me," she said one
October morning as they jogged out of London by a slow train from St.
Paul's. Fred was taking her into Kent to see his people.
"How do you expect me to get on without you?"
"Trust you to manage somehow. There ain't much fear of a man not looking afte_is little self."
"But the old folk will want to know when. What shall I tell them?"
"This time next year; that'll be soon enough. Perhaps you'll get tired of m_efore then."
"Say next spring, Esther."
The train stopped.
"There's father waiting for us in the spring-cart. Father! He don't hear us.
He's gone a bit deaf of late years. Father!"
"Ah, so here you are. Train late."
"This is Esther, father."
They were going to spend the day at the farm-house, and she was going to b_ntroduced to Fred's sisters and to his brother. But these did not concern he_uch, her thoughts were set on Mrs. Parsons, for Fred had spoken a great dea_bout his mother. When she had been told about Jackie she was of course ver_orry; but when she had heard the whole of Esther's story she had said, "W_re all born into temptation, and if your Esther has really repented an_rayed to be forgiven, we must not say no to her." Nevertheless Esther was no_uite easy in her mind, and half regretted that she had consented to se_red's people until he had made her his wife. But it was too late to think o_uch things. There was the farm-house. Fred had just pointed it out, an_centing his stable, the old grey ascended the hill at a trot, and Esthe_ondered what the farm-house would be like. All the summer they had had a fin_how of flowers, Fred said. Now only a few Michaelmas daisies withered in th_arden, and the Virginia creeper covered one side of the house with a crimso_antle. The old man said he would take the trap round to the stable, and Fre_alked up the red-bricked pavement and lifted the latch. As they passe_hrough the kitchen Fred introduced Esther to his two sisters, Mary and Lily.
But they were busy cooking.
"Mother is in the parlour," said Mary; "she is waiting for you." By th_indow, in a wide wooden arm-chair, sat a large woman about sixty, dressed i_lack. She wore on either side of her long white face two corkscrew curls,
which gave her a somewhat ridiculous appearance. But she ceased to b_idiculous or grotesque when she rose from her chair to greet her son. He_ace beamed, and she held out her hands in a beautiful gesture of welcome.
"Oh, how do you do, dear Fred? I am that glad to see you! How good of you t_ome all this way! Come and sit down here."
"Mother, this is Esther."
"How do you do, Esther? It was good of you to come. I am glad to see you.
Let me get you a chair. Take off your things, dear; come and sit down."
She insisted on relieving Esther of her hat and jacket, and, having laid the_n the sofa, she waddled across the room, drawing over two chairs.
"Come and sit down; you'll tell me everything. I can't get about much now, bu_ like to have my children round me. Take this chair, Esther." Then turning t_red, "Tell me, Fred, how you've been getting on. Are you still living a_ackney?"
"Yes, mother; but when we're married we're going to have a cottage a_ortlake. Esther will like it better than Hackney. It is nearer the country."
"Then you've not forgotten the country. Mortlake is on the river, I think.
I hope you won't find it too damp."
"No, mother, there are some nice cottages there. I think we shall find tha_ortlake suits us. There are many friends there; more than fifty meet togethe_very Sunday. And there's a lot of political work to be done there. I kno_hat you're against politics, but men can't stand aside nowadays. Time_hange, mother."
"So long as we have God in our hearts, my dear boy, all that we do is well.
But you must want something after your journey. Fred, dear, knock at tha_oor. Your sister Clara's dressing there. Tell her to make haste."
"All right, mother," cried a voice from behind the partition which separate_he rooms, and a moment after the door opened and a young woman about thirt_ntered. She was better-looking than the other sisters, and the fashion of he_kirt, and the worldly manner with which she kissed her brother and gave he_and to Esther, marked her off at once from the rest of the family. She wa_orewoman in a large millinery establishment. She spent Saturday afternoon an_unday at the farm, but to-day she had got away earlier, and with the view t_mpressing Esther, she explained how this had come about.
Mrs. Parsons suggested a glass of currant wine, and Lily came in with a tra_nd glasses. Clara said she was starving. Mary said she would have to wait,
and Lily whispered, "In about half-an-hour."
After dinner the old man said that they must be getting on with their work i_he orchard. Esther said she would be glad to help, but as she was about t_ollow the others Mrs. Parsons detained her.
"You don't mind staying with me a few minutes, do you, dear? I shan't keep yo_ong." She drew over a chair for Esther. "I shan't perhaps see you again fo_ome time. I am getting an old woman, and the Lord may be pleased to take m_t any moment. I wanted to tell you, dear, that I put my trust in you. Yo_ill make a good wife to Fred, I feel sure, and he will make a good father t_our child, and if God blesses you with other children he'll treat your firs_o different than the others. He's told me so, and my Fred is a man of hi_ord. You were led into sin, but you've repented. We was all born int_emptation, and we must trust to the Lord to lead us out lest we should das_ur foot against a stone."
"I was to blame; I don't say I wasn't, but——"
"We won't say no more about that. We're all sinners, the best of us. You'r_oing to be my son's wife; you're therefore my daughter, and this house i_our home whenever you please to come to see us. And I hope that that will b_ften. I like to have my children about me. I can't get about much now, s_hey must come to me. It is very sad not to be able to go to meeting. I've no_een to meeting since Christmas, but I can see them going there from th_itchen window, and how 'appy they look coming back from prayer. It is easy t_ee that they have been with God. The Salvationists come this way sometimes.
They stopped in the lane to sing. I could not hear the words, but I could se_y their faces that they was with God… Now, I've told you all that was on m_ind. I must not keep you; Fred is waiting."
Esther kissed the old woman, and went into the orchard, where she found Fre_n a ladder shaking the branches. He came down when he saw Esther, and Harry,
his brother, took his place. Esther and Fred filled one basket, then, yieldin_o a mutual inclination, they wandered about the orchard, stopping on th_ittle plank bridge. They hardly spoke at all, words seemed unnecessary; eac_elt happiness to be in the other's presence. They heard the water tricklin_hrough the weeds, and as the light waned the sound of the falling apples gre_ore distinct. Then a breeze shivered among the tops of the apple-trees, an_he sered leaves were blown from the branches. The voices of the gatherer_ere heard crying that their baskets were full. They crossed the plank bridge,
joking the lovers, who stood aside to let them pass.
When they entered the house they saw the old farmer, who had slipped in befor_hem, sitting by his wife holding her hand, patting it in a curious old-tim_ay, and the attitude of the old couple was so pregnant with significance tha_t fixed itself on Esther's mind. It seemed to her that she had never see_nything so beautiful. So they had lived for forty years, faithful to eac_ther, and she wondered if Fred forty years hence would be sitting by her sid_olding her hand.
The old man lighted a lantern and went round to the stable to get a trap out.
Driving through the dark country, seeing village lights shining out of th_istant solitudes, was a thrilling adventure. A peasant came like a ghost ou_f the darkness; he stepped aside and called, "Good-night!" which the ol_armer answered somewhat gruffly, while Fred answered in a ringing, cheer_one. Never had Esther spent so long and happy a day. Everything had combine_o produce a strange exaltation of the spirit in her; and she listened to Fre_ore tenderly than she had done before.
The train rattled on through suburbs beginning far away in the country;
rattled on through suburbs that thickened at every mile; rattled on through _rick entanglement; rattled over iron bridges, passed over deep streets, ove_ndless lines of lights.
He bade her good-bye at the area gate, and she had promised him that the_hould be married in the spring. He had gone away with a light heart. And sh_ad run upstairs to tell her dear mistress of the happy day which her kindnes_ad allowed her to spend in the country. And Miss Rice had laid the book sh_as reading on her knees, and had listened to Esther's pleasures as if the_ad been her own.