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Chapter 24

  • 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?"
  • Esther laughed.
  • "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.