MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
Author of Robert Elsmere, Lady Rose's Daughter, Missing, Helena, etc.
Two old labourers came out of the lane leading to Great End Farm. Both carried bags slung on sticks over their shoulders. One, the eldest and tallest, was a handsome fellow, with regular features and a delicately humorous mouth. His stoop and his slouching gait, the gray locks also, which straggled from under his broad hat, showed him an old man—probably very near his old-age pension. But he carried still with him a look of youth, and he had been a splendid creature in his time. The other was short of stature and of neck, bent besides by field work. A broadly-built, clumsy man, with something gnome-like about him, and the cheerful look of one whose country nerves had never known the touch of worry or long sickness. The name of the taller man was Peter Halsey, and Joseph Batts was his companion.
It was a fine July evening, with a cold north wind blowing from the plain which lay stretched to their right. Under the unclouded sun, which by its own "sun-time" had only reached half-past four in the afternoon, though the clock in the village church had already struck half-past five, the air was dry and parching, and the fields all round, the road itself, and the dusty hedges showed signs of long drought.
"It du want rain," said Peter Halsey, looking at a crop of oats through an open gate, "it du want rain—bad."
"Aye!" said the other, "that it du. Muster Shenstone had better 'a read the prayer for rain lasst Sunday, I'm thinkin', than all them long ones as ee did read."
Halsey was silent a moment, his half-smiling eyes glancing from side to side. At last he said slowly,—
"We du be prayin' a lot about ower sins, and Muster Shenstone is allus preachin' about 'em. But it's the sins o' the Garmins I be thinkin' of. If it hadn't a bin for the sins o' the Garmins my Tom wouldn't ha' lost 'is right hand."
"An' ower Jim wouldn't be goin' into them trenches next November as ever is," put in Batts. "It's the sins o' the Garmins as ha' done that, an' nothin' as you or I ha' done, Peter."
Halsey shook his head assentingly.
"Noa—for all that pratin', pacifist chap was sayin' lasst week. I didn't believe a word ee said. 'Yis,' I says, 'if you want this war to stop, I'm o' your mind,' I says, 'but when you tells me as England done it—you'm—'"
The short man burst into a cackling laugh.
"'You'm a liar!' Did you say that, Peter?"
Peter fenced a little.
"There be more ways nor one o' speakin' your mind," he said at last. "But I stood up to un. Did you hear, Batts, as Great End Farm is let?"
The old man turned an animated look on his companion.
"Well, for sure!" said Batts, astonished. "An' who's the man?"
"It's not a man. It's a woman."
"A woman!" repeated Batts, wondering. "Well, these be funny times to live in, when the women go ridin' astride an' hay-balin', an' steam-ploughin', an' the Lord knows what. And now they must be takin' the farms, and turnin' out the men. Well, for sure."
A mild and puzzled laughter crossed the speaker's face.
"An' now they've got the vote. That's the top on't! My old missis, she talks poltiks now to me of a night. I don't mind her, now the childer be all gone. But I'd ha' bid her mind her own business when they was yoong an' wanted seein' to."
"Now, what can a woman knoa about poltiks?" said Batts, still in the same tone of pleasant rumination. "It isn't in natur. We warn't given the producin' o' the babies—we'd ha' cried out if we 'ad been!"
A chuckle passed from one old man to the other.
"Well, onyways the women is all in a flutter about the votin'," said Halsey, lighting his pipe with old hands that shook. "An' there's chaps already coomin' round lookin' out for it."
"You bet there is!" was Batts's amused reply. "But they'll take their toime, will the women. 'Don't you try to hustle-bustle me like you're doin',' say my missus sharp-like to a Labour chap as coom round lasst week, 'cos yo' won't get nothin' by it.' And she worn't no more forthcomin' to the Conservative man when ee called."
"Will she do what you tell her, Batts?" asked Halsey, with an evident interest in the question.
"Oh, Lord, no!" said Batts placidly, "shan't try. But now about this yoong woman an' Great End?—"
"Well, I ain't heared much about her—not yet awhile. But they say as she's nice-lookin', an' Muster Shentsone ee said as she'd been to college somewhere, where they'd larn't her farmin'."
Batts made a sound of contempt.
"College!" he said, with a twitching of the broad nostrils which seemed to spread over half his face. "They can't larn yer farmin'!"
"She's been on a farm too somewhere near Brighton, Muster Shenstone says, since she was at college; and ee told me she do seem to be terr'ble full o' new notions."
"She'd better be full o' money," said the other, cuttingly. "Notions is no good without money to 'em."
"Aye, they're wunnerfull costly things is notions. Yo'd better by a long way go by the folk as know. But they do say she'll be payin' good wages."
"I dessay she will! She'll be obleeged. It's Hobson's choice, as you might say!" said Batts, chuckling again.
Halsey was silent, and the two old men trudged on with cheerful countenances. Through the minds of both there ran pleasant thoughts of the contrast between the days before the war and the days now prevailing. Both of them could remember a wage of fifteen and sixteen shillings a week. Then just before the war, it had risen to eighteen shillings and a pound. And now—why the Wages Board for Brookshire had fixed thirty-three shillings as a weekly minimum, and a nine-hours' day! Prices were high, but they would go down some day; and wages would not go down. The old men could not have told exactly why this confidence lay so deep in them; but there it was, and it seemed to give a strange new stability and even dignity to life. Their sons were fighting; and they had the normal human affection for their sons. They wished the war to end. But, after all, there was something to be said for the war. They—old Peter Halsey and old Joe Batts—were more considered and more comfortable than they would have been before the war. And it was the consideration more even than the comfort that warmed their hearts.
The evening grew hotter, and the way to the village seemed long. The old men were now too tired to talk; till just as they came in sight of the first houses, they perceived the village wagonette coming towards them.
"There she be! I did hear as Webb wor to meet her at the station. He's took her over once before," said old Halsey, raising his eyes for a moment and then dropping them again. Batts did the same. The glance was momentary. But both men had the same impression of a pleasant-faced young woman sitting erect behind Jonathan Webb, the decrepit driver of the wagonette, and looking straight at them as they passed her. There was a general effect of youth and bright colour; of pale brown hair, too, over very dark eyes.
"Aye, she be quite nice-lookin'," said Batts, with unction, "rayther uncommon. She minds me summat o' my missis when she wor a young 'un." Halsey's mouth twitched a little, but though his thoughts were ironical, he said nothing. It was generally admitted by the older people that Mrs. Batts had been through many years the village beauty, but her fall from that high place was now of such ancient date that it seemed foolish of Batts to be so fond of referring to it.
The wagonette passed on. The woman sitting in it carefully took note of the scene around her, in a mood of mingled hope and curiosity. She was to live in this valley without a stream, under these high chalk downs with their hanging woods, and within a mile or so of the straggling village she had just driven through. At last, after much wandering, she was to find a home—a real home of her own. The word "home" had not meant much—or much at least that was agreeable—to her, till now. Her large but handsome mouth took a bitter fold as she thought over various past events.
Now they had left the village behind, and were passing through fields that were soon to be her fields. Her keen eyes appraised the crops standing in them. She had paid the family of her predecessor a good price for them, but they were worth it. And just ahead, on her left, was a wide stretch of newly-ploughed land rising towards a bluff of grassy down-land on the horizon. The ploughed land itself had been down up to a few months before this date; thin pasture for a few sheep, through many generations. She thought with eagerness of the crops she was going to make it bear, in the coming year. Wheat, or course. The wheat crops all round the village were really magnificent. This was going to be the resurrection year for English farming, after fifty years of "death and damnation"—comparatively. And there would be many good years to come after.
Yes, Mr. Thomas Wellin, whose death had thrown the farm which she had now taken on the market, had done well for the land. And it was not his fault but the landlord's that the farmhouse and buildings had been allowed to fall into such a state. Mr. Wellin had not wanted the house, since he was only working the land temporarily in addition to his own farm half a mile away. But the owner, Colonel Shepherd, ought to have looked after the farmhouse and buildings better. Still, they were making her a fair allowance for repairs.
She was longing to know how the workmen from Millsboro had been getting on. Hastings, the Wellins' former bailiff, now temporarily hers, had promised to stay behind that evening to meet her at the farm. She only meant to insist on what was absolutely necessary. Even if she had wished for anything more, the lack of labour would have prevented it.
The old horse jogged on, and presently from a row of limes beside the road, a wave of fragrance, evanescent and delicious, passed over the carriage. Miss Henderson sniffed it with delight. "But one has never enough of it!" she thought discontentedly. And then she remembered how as a child—in far-away Sussex—she used to press her face into the lime-blossom in her uncle's garden—passionately, greedily, trying to get from it a greater pleasure than it would ever yield. For the more she tried to compel it, by a kind of violence, the more it escaped her. She used to envy the bees lying drunk among the blooms. They at least were surfeited and satisfied.
It struck her that there was a kind of parable in it of her whole life—so far.
But now there was a new world opening. The past was behind her. She drew herself stiffly erect, conscious through every limb of youth and strength, and filled with a multitude of vague hopes. Conscious, too, of the three thousand pounds that Uncle Robert had so opportunely left her. She had never realized that money could make so much difference; and she thought gratefully of the elderly bachelor, her mother's brother, who had unexpectedly remembered her. It had enabled her to get her year's training, and to take this farm with a proper margin of capital. She wished she had been able to tell Uncle Robert before he died what it meant to her.
They passed one or two pairs of labourers going home, then a group of girls in overalls, then a spring cart containing four workmen behind a ragged pony, no doubt the builder's men who had been at work on the Great End repairs. They all looked at her curiously, and Rachel Henderson looked back at them—steadily, without shyness. They were evidently aware of who she was and where she was going. Some of them perhaps would soon be in her employ. She would be settling all that in a week or two.
Ah, there was the house. She leant forward and saw it lying under the hill, the woods on the slope coming down to the back of it. Yes, it was certainly a lonely situation. That was why the house, the farm lands, too, had been so long unlet, till old Wellin, the farm's nearest neighbour, having made a good deal of money, had rented the land from Colonel Shepherd, to add to his own. The farm buildings, too, he had made some use of, keeping carts and machines, and certain stores there. But the house he had refused to have any concern with. It had remained empty and locked up for a good many years.
The wagonette turned into the rough road leading through the middle of a fine field of oats to the house. The field was gaily splashed with poppies, which ran, too, along the edges of the crop, swayed by the evening breeze, and flaming in the level sun. Though lonesome and neglected, the farm in July was a pleasant and picturesque object. It stood high and the air about it blew keen and fresh. The chalk hill curved picturesquely round it, and the friendly woods ran down behind to keep it company. Rachel Henderson, in pursuit of that campaign she was always now waging against a natural optimism, tried to make herself imagine it in winter—the leafless trees, the solitary road, the treeless pasture or arable fields, that stretched westward in front of the farm, covered perhaps with snow; and the distant stretches of the plain. There was not another house, not even a cottage, anywhere in sight. The village had disappeared. She herself, in the old wagonette, seemed the only living thing.
No, there was a man emerging from the farm-gate, and coming to meet her—the bailiff, George Hastings. She had only seen him once before, on her first hurried visit, when, after getting a rough estimate from him of the repairs necessary to the house and buildings, she had made up her mind to take the farm, if the landlord would agree to do them.
"Yon's Muster Hastings," said Jonathan Webb, turning on her a benevolent and wrinkled countenance, with two bright red spots in the midst of each weather-beaten cheek. Miss Henderson again noticed the observant curiosity in the old man's eyes. Everybody, indeed, seemed to look at her with the same expression. As a woman farmer she was no doubt just a freak, a sport, in the eyes of the village. Well, she prophesied they would take her seriously before long.
"I'm afraid I haven't as much to show you, miss, as I'd like," said Hastings, as he helped her to alight. "It's cruel work nowadays trying to do anything of this kind. Two of the men that began work last week have been called up, and there's another been just 'ticed away from me this week. The wages that some people about will give are just mad!" He threw up his hands. "Colonel Shepherd says he can't compete."
Miss Henderson replied civilly but decidedly that somehow or other the work would have to be done. If Colonel Shepherd couldn't find the wages, she must pay the difference. Get in some time, during August, she must.
The bailiff looked at her with a little sluggish surprise. He was not used to being hustled, still less to persons who were ready to pay rather than be kept waiting. He murmured that he dared say it would be all right, and she must come and look.
They turned to the right up a stony pitch, through a dilapidated gate, and so into the quadrangle of the farm. To the left was a long row of open cow-sheds, then cow-houses and barns, the stables, a large shed in which stood an old and broken farm cart, and finally the house, fronting the barns.
The house was little more than a large cottage built in the shabbiest way forty years ago, and of far less dignity than the fine old barn on which it looked. It abutted at one end on the cart-shed, and between it and the line of cow-sheds was the gate into the farmyard.
Miss Henderson stepped up to the house and looked at it.
"It is a poor place!" she said discontentedly; "and those men don't seem to have done much to it yet."
Hastings admitted it. But they had done a little, he said, shamefacedly, and he unlocked the door. Miss Henderson lingered outside a moment.
"I never noticed," she said, "that the living room goes right through. What draughts there'll be in the winter!"
For as she stood looking into the curtainless window that fronted the farm-yard, she saw through it a further window at the back of the room, and beyond that a tree. Both windows were large and seemed to take up most of the wall on either side of the small room. The effect was peculiarly comfortless, as though no one living in the room could possibly enjoy any shred of privacy. There were no cosy corners in it anywhere, and Miss Henderson's fancy imagined rows of faces looking in.
Inside a little papering and whitewashing had been done, but certainly the place looked remarkably unviting. A narrow passage ran from front to back, on one side of which was the living room with the two windows, while on the other were the kitchen and scullery. Upstairs there were two good-sized bedrooms with a small third room in a lean-to at the back, the lower part of which was occupied by a wash-house. Through the windows could be seen a neglected bit of garden, and an untidy orchard.
But when she had wandered about the rooms a little, Rachel Henderson's naturally buoyant temperament reasserted itself. She had brought some bright patterns of distemper with her which she gave to Hastings with precise instructions. She had visions of casement curtains to hide the nakedness of the big windows with warm serge curtains to draw over them in the winter. The floors must be stained. There should be a deep Indian-red drugget in the sitting-room, with pigeon-blue walls, and she thought complacently of the bits of old furniture she had been collecting, which were stored in a friend's flat in town. An old dresser, a grandfather's clock, some bits of brass, two arm-chairs, an old oak table—it would all look very nice when it was done, and would cost little. Then the bedrooms. She had brought with her some rolls of flowery paper. She ran to fetch them from the wagonette, and pinned some pieces against the wall. The larger room with the south aspect should be Janet's. She would take the north room for herself. She saw them both in her mind's eye already comfortably furnished; above all fresh and bright. There should be no dirt or dinginess in the house, if she could help it. In the country whitewash and distemper are cheap.
Then Hastings followed her about through the farm buildings, where her quick eye, trained in modern ways, perceived a number of small improvements to be made that he would never have noticed. She was always ready, he saw, to spend money on things that would save labour or lessen dirt. But she was not extravagant, and looking through the list of her directions and commissions, as he hastily jotted them down, he admitted to himself that she seemed to know what she was about. And being an honest man himself, and good-tempered, though rather shy and dull, he presently recognized the same qualities of honesty and good temper in her; and took to her. Insensibly their tone to each other grew friendly. Though he was temporarily in the landlord's employ, he had been for some years in the service of the Wellin family. Half-consciously he contrasted Miss Henderson's manner to him with theirs. In his own view he had been worse treated than an ordinary farm labourer throughout his farming life, though he had more education, and was expected naturally to have more brains and foresight than the labourer. He was a little better paid; but his work and that of his wife was never done. He had got little credit for success and all the blame for failure. And the Wellin women-folk had looked down on his wife and himself. A little patronage sometimes, and worthless gifts, that burnt in the taking; but no common feeling, no real respect. But Miss Henderson was different. His rather downtrodden personality felt a stimulus. He began to hope that when she came into possession she would take him on. A woman could not possibly make anything of Great End without a bailiff!
Her "nice" looks, no doubt, counted for something. Her face was, perhaps, a little too full for beauty—the delicately coloured cheeks and the large smiling mouth. But her brown eyes were very fine, with very dark pupils, and marked eyebrows; and her nose and chin, with their soft, blunted lines, seemed to promise laughter and easy ways. She was very lightly and roundly made; and everything about her, her step, her sunburn, her freckles, her evident muscular strength, spoke of open-air life and physical exercise. Yet, for all this general aspect of a comely country-woman, there was much that was sharply sensitive and individual in the face. Even a stranger might well feel that its tragic, as well as its humorous or tender possibilities, would have to be reckoned with.
"All right!" said Miss Henderson at last, closing her little notebook with a snap, "now I think we've been through everything. I'll take over one cart, and Mrs. Wellin must remove the other. I'll buy the chaff-cutter and the dairy things, but not the reaping machine—"
"I'm afraid that'll put Mrs. Wellin out considerably!" threw in Hastings.
"Can't help it. I can't have the place cluttered up with old iron like that. It's worth nothing. I'm sure you wouldn't advise me to buy it!"
She looked with bright decision at her companion, who smiled a little awkwardly, and said nothing. The old long habit of considering the Wellin interest first, before any other in the world, held him still, though he was no longer their servant.
Miss Henderson moved back towards the house.
"And you'll hurry these men up?—as much as you can? They are slow-coaches! I must get in the week after next. Miss Leighton and I intend to come, whatever happens."
Hastings understood that "Miss Leighton" was to be Miss Henderson's partner in the farm, specially to look after the dairy work. Miss Henderson seemed to think a lot of her.
"And you must please engage those two men you spoke of. Neither of them, you say, under sixty! Well, there's no picking and choosing now. If they were eighty I should have to take them! till the harvest's got in. There are two girls coming from the Land Army, and you've clinched that other girl from the village?"
"Well, I dare say we shall get the harvest in somehow," she said, standing at the gate, and looking over the fields. "Miss Leighton and I mean to put our backs into it. But Miss Leighton isn't as strong as I am."
Her eyes wandered thoughtfully over the wheat-field, ablaze under the level gold of the sun. Then she suddenly smiled.
"I expect you think it a queer business, Mr. Hastings, women taking to farming?"
"Well, it's new, you see, Miss Henderson."
"I believe it's going to be very common. Why shouldn't the women do it!" She frowned a little.
"Oh, no reason at all," said Hastings hurriedly, thinking he had offended her. "I've nothing against it myself. And there won't be men enough to go round, after the war."
She looked at him sharply.
"You've got a son in the war?"
"Two, and one's been killed."
"No, last month."
Miss Henderson said nothing, but her look was full of softness. "He was to have been allowed home directly," Hastings went on, "for two or three months. He was head woodman before the war on Lord Radley's property." He pointed to the wooded slopes of the hill. "And they were to have given him leave to see to the cutting of these woods."
"These woods!" Miss Henderson turned a startled face upon him. "You don't mean to say they're coming down!"
"Half of them commandeered," said Hastings, with a shrug. "The Government valuers have been all over them these last weeks. They're splendid timber, you know. There's been a timber camp the other side of the hills a long while. They've got Canadians, and no doubt they'll move on here."
Miss Henderson made another quick movement. She said nothing, however. She was staring at the woods, which shone in the glow now steadily creeping up the hill, and Hastings thought she was protesting from the scenery point of view.
"Well, the Government must have the wood," he said, with resignation. "We've got to win the war. But it does seem a pity."
"I don't know that I should have taken the farm," she said, under her breath—
"If you had known? I wish I'd thought to tell you. But it was really only settled a few days ago."
"I don't like having a lot of strange men about the farm," she said abruptly, "especially when I have girls to look after."
"Oh, the camp's a long way from the farm," he said consolingly. "And these woods will come last."
Still Miss Henderson's face did not quite recover its cheerfulness. She looked at her watch.
"Don't let me keep you, Mr. Hastings. I'll lock up the house, if you'll tell me where to leave the key."
He showed her where to put it, in a corner of the stable, for him to find on the morrow. Then, in her rapid way, Miss Henderson offered him the post of bailiff on the farm, from the date of her entry. He agreed at once; his salary was settled, and he departed with a more cheerful aspect than when he arrived. The hopefulness and spring of youth had long since left him, and he had dreaded the new experience of this first meeting with a woman-farmer, from whom he desired employment simply because he was very badly off, he was getting old, and Mr. Wellin's widow had treated him shabbily. He had lost his nerve for new ventures. But Miss Henderson had made things easy. She had struck him as considerate and sensible—a "good sort." He would do his best for her.
Rachel Henderson, left to herself, did not immediately re-enter the house. She went with a face on which the cloud still rested to look at the well which was to be found under the cart-shed, at the eastern end of the house.
It was covered with a wooden lid which she removed. Under the shed roof there was but little light left. A faint gleam showed the level of the water, which, owing to the long drought, was very low. Hastings had told her that the well was extremely deep—-150 feet at least, and inexhaustible. The water was chalky but good. It would have to be pumped up every morning for the supply of the house and stables.
The well had a brick margin. Rachel sat down upon it, her eyes upon that distant gleam below. The dusk was fast possessing itself of all the farm, and an evening wind was gustily blowing through the cart-shed, playing with some old guano sacks that had been left there, and whistling round the corners of the house. Outside, Rachel could hear the horse fidgeting, and old Jonathan coughing—no doubt as a signal to her that she had kept him long enough.
Still, she sat bent together on the margin of the well. Then she drew off her glove, and felt for something in the leather bag she carried on her wrist. She took it out, and the small object sparkled a little as she held it poised for a moment—as though considering. Then with a rapid movement, she bent over the well, and dropped it into the water. There was a slight splash.
Rachel Henderson raised herself and stood up.
"That's done with!" she said to herself, with a straightening of all her young frame.
Yet all the way back to London she was tormented by thoughts of what she had declared was "done with"; of scenes and persons, that is, which she was determined to forget, and had just formally renounced for ever by her symbolic action at the well.
"You do seem to have hit on a rather nice spot, Rachel, though lonesome," said Miss Henderson's friend and partner, Janet Leighton, as they stood on the front steps of Great End Farm, surveying the scene outside, on an August evening, about a week after she and Rachel had arrived with their furniture and personal belongings to take possession of the farm.
During that week they had both worked hard—from dawn till dark, both outside and in. The harvest was in full swing, and as the dusk was filling, Janet Leighton, who had just returned herself from the fields, could watch the scene going on in the wheat-field beyond the farm-yard, where, as the reaping machine steadily pared away the remaining square of wheat, two or three men and boys with guns lay in wait outside the square for the rabbits as they bolted from their fast lessening shelter. The gold and glow of harvest was on the fields and in the air. At last the sun had come back to a sodden land, after weeks of cold and drenching showers which, welcomed in June, had by the middle of August made all England tremble for the final fate of the gorgeous crops then filling the largest area ever tilled on British soil with their fat promise. Wheat, oats, and barley stood once more erect, roots were saved, and the young vicar of Ipscombe was reflecting as he walked towards Great End Farm that his harvest festival sermon might now after all be rather easier to write than had seemed probable during the foregoing anxious weeks of chill and storm.
Rachel Henderson, who had thrown herself—tired out—into a chair in the sitting-room window, which was wide open, nodded as she caught her friend's remark and smiled. But she did not want to talk. She was in that state of physical fatigue when mere rest is a positive delight. The sun, the warm air, the busy harvest scene, and all the long hours of hard but pleasant work seemed to be still somehow in her pulses, thrilling through her blood. It was long since she had known the acute physical pleasure of such a day; but her sense of it had conjured up involuntarily recollections of many similar days in a distant scene—great golden spaces, blinding sun, and huge reaping machines, twice the size of that at work in the field yonder. The recollections were unwelcome. Thought was unwelcome. She wanted only food and sleep—deep sleep—renewing her tired muscles, till the delicious early morning came round again, and she was once more in the fields directing her team of workers.
"Why, there's the vicar!" said Janet Leighton, perceiving the tall and willowy figure of Mr. Shenstone, as its owner stopped to speak to one of the boys with the guns who were watching the game.
Rachel looked round with a look of annoyance.
"Oh, dear, what a bore," she said wearily. "I suppose I must go and tidy up. Nobody ought to be allowed to pay visits after five o'clock."
"You asked him something about a village woman to help, didn't you?"
"I did, worse luck!" sighed Rachel, gathering up her sunbonnet and disappearing from the window. Janet heard her go upstairs, and a hasty opening of cupboards overhead. She herself had come back an hour earlier from the fields than Rachel in order to get supper ready, and had slipped a skirt over the khaki tunic and knickerbockers which were her dress—and her partner's—when at work on the farm. She wondered mischievously what Rachel would put on. That her character included an average dose of vanity, the natural vanity of a handsome woman, Rachel's new friend was well aware. But Janet, Rachel's elder by five years, was only tenderly amused by it. All Rachel's foibles, as far as she knew them, were pleasant to her. They were in that early stage of a new friendship when all is glamour.
Yet Janet did sometimes reflect, "How little I really know about her. She is a darling—but a mystery!"
They had met at college, taken their farm training together, and fallen in love with each other. Janet had scarcely a relation in the world. Rachel possessed, it seemed, a brother in Canada, another in South Africa, and some cousins whom she scarcely knew, children of the uncle who had left her three thousand pounds. Each had been attracted by the loneliness of the other, and on leaving college nothing was more natural than they should agree to set up together. Rachel, as the capitalist, was to choose the farm and take command. Janet went to a Cheshire dairy farm for a time to get some further training in practical work; and she was now responsible for the dairy at Great End, with the housekeeping and the poultry thrown in. She was a thin, tall woman with spectacles, and had just seen her thirty-second birthday. Her eyes were honest and clear, her mouth humorous. She never grudged other women their beauty or their success. It always seemed to her she had what she deserved.
Meanwhile the vicar approached, and Miss Leighton descended the steps and went to meet him at the gate. His aspect showed him apologetic.
"I have come at an unearthly hour, Miss Leighton. But I thought I should have no chance of finding Miss Henderson free till the evening, and I came to tell you that I think I have found a woman to do your work."
Janet bade him come in, and assured him that Rachel would soon be visible. She ushered him into the sitting-room, which he entered on a note of wonderment.
"How nice you have made it all," he said, looking round him. "When I think what a deserted hole this has been for years. You know, the village people firmly believe it is haunted? Old Wellin never could get anybody to sleep here. But tramps often used it, I'm certain. They got in through the windows. Hastings told me he had several times found a smouldering fire in the kitchen."
"What sort is the ghost?" Janet inquired, as she pointed him to a chair, devoutly hoping that Rachel would hurry herself.
"Well, there's a story—but I wonder whether I ought to tell you—"
"I assure you as to ghosts—I have no nerves!" said Janet with a confident laugh, "and I don't think Rachel has either. We are more frightened of rats. This farm-yard contains the biggest I've ever seen. I dream of them at night."
"It's not exactly the ghost—" said the vicar, hesitating.
"But the story that produced the ghost? What—a murder?"
"Half a century ago," said the vicar reassuringly; "you won't mind that?"
"Not the least. A century ago would be romantic. If it was just the other day, we should feel we ought to have got the farm cheaper. But half a century doesn't matter. It's a mid-Victorian, just a plain, old-fashioned murder. Who did it?"
The vicar opened his eyes a little. Miss Leighton was, he saw, a lady, and perhaps clever. Her spectacles looked like it. No doubt she had been at Oxford or Cambridge before going to Swanley? These educated women in new professions were becoming a very pressing and common fact! As to the murder, he explained that it had been just an ordinary poaching affair. An old gamekeeper on the Shepherd estate had been attacked by a gang of poachers in the winter of 1866. He had been shot in one of the woods, and though mortally wounded had been able to drag himself to the outskirts of the farm where his strength had failed him. He was found dead under the cart-shed which backed on the stables, and the traces of blood on the hill marked the stages of his struggle for life. Two men were suspected, one of them a labourer on the Great End Farm; but there was no evidence. The suspected labourer had gone to Canada the year after the murder, and no one knew what had happened to him.
But having told the tale the vicar was again seized with compunction.
"I oughtn't to have told you—I really oughtn't; just on your settling in—I hope you won't tell Miss Henderson?"
Janet's amused reply was interrupted by Rachel's entrance. The vicar arose with eagerness to receive her. He was evidently attracted by his new parishioners and anxious to make a good impression on them. Miss Henderson's reception of the vicar, however, was far more guarded. The easy friendliness of manner which had attracted the bailiff Hastings was, at first at any rate, entirely absent. Her attitude was almost that of a woman defending herself against possible intrusion, and Janet Leighton, looking on, and occasionally sharing in the conversation, was surprised by it, as indeed she was by so many things concerning Rachel now that their acquaintance was deepening; surprised also, as though it were a new thing, by her friend's good looks as she sat languidly chatting with the vicar. Rachel had merely put on a blue overall above her land-worker's dress. But her beautiful head, with its wealth of brown hair, and her face, with its sensuous fulness of cheek and lip, its rounded lines, and lovely colour—like a slightly overblown rose—were greatly set off by the simple folds of blue linen; and her feet and legs, shapely but not small, in their khaki stockings and shoes, completed the general effect of lissom youth. The flush and heat of hard bodily work had passed away. She had had time to plunge her face into cold water and smooth her hair. But the atmosphere of the harvest field, its ripeness and glow, seemed to be still about her. A classically minded man might have thought of some nymph in the train of Demeter, might have fancied a horn of plenty, or a bow, slung from the sunburnt neck.
But the vicar had forgotten his classics. En revanche, however, he was doing his best to show himself sympathetic and up-to-date with regard to women and their new spheres of work—especially on the land. He had noticed three girls, he said, working in the harvest field. Two of them he recognized as from the village; the third he supposed was a stranger?
"She comes from Ralstone," said Rachel.
"Ah, that's the village where the new timber camp is. You really must see that camp, Miss Henderson."
"I hate to think of the woods coming down," she said, frowning a little.
"We all do. But that's the war. It can't be helped, alack! But it's wonderful to see the women at work, measuring and checking, doing the brain work, in fact, while the men do the felling and loading. It makes one envious."
The vicar sighed. A flush appeared on his young but slightly cadaverous face.
"Of the men—or the women?"
"Oh, their work, I mean. They're doing something for the war. I've done my best. But the Bishop won't hear of it."
And he rather emphatically explained how he had applied in vain for an army chaplaincy. Health and the shortage of clergy had been against him. "I suppose there must be some left at home," he said with a shrug, "and the doctors seem to have a down on me."
Janet was quite sorry for the young man—he was so eagerly apologetic, so anxious to propitiate what he imagined ought to be their feelings about him. And Rachel all the time sat so silent and unresponsive.
Miss Leighton drew the conversation back to the timber camp; she would like to go and see it, she said. Every one knew the Canadians were wonderful lumbermen.
The Vicar's eyes had travelled back to Rachel.
"Were you ever in Canada, Miss Henderson?" The question was evidently thrown out nervously at a venture, just to evoke a word or a smile from the new mistress of the farm.
Rachel Henderson frowned slightly before replying.
"Yes, I have been in Canada."
"You have? Oh, then, you know all about it."
"I know nothing about Canadian lumbering."
"You were on the prairies?"
"I lived some time on a prairie farm."
"Everything here must seem very small to you," said the vicar sympathetically. But this amiable tone fell flat. Miss Henderson still sat silent. The vicar began to feel matters awkward and took his hat from the floor.
"I trust you will call upon me for any help I can possibly be to you," he said, turning to Janet Leighton. "I should be delighted to help in the harvest if you want it. I have a pair of hands anyway, as you see!" He held them out.
He expatiated a little more on his disappointment as to the front. Janet threw in a few civil words. Rachel Henderson had moved to the window, and was apparently looking at the farm-girls carrying straw across the yard.
"Good-night, Miss Henderson," said the young man at last, conscious of rebuff, but irrepressibly effusive and friendly all the time. "I hope you will let your Ralstone girl come sometimes to the clubroom my sister and I have in the village? We feel young people ought to be amused, especially when they work hard."
"Thank you, but it's so far away. We don't like them to be out late."
"Certainly not. But in the long evenings—don't you know?" The vicar smiled persuasively. "However, there it is—whenever she comes she will be welcome. And then, as to your seat in church. There is a pew that has always belonged to the farm. It is about half-way up."
"We don't go to church," said Rachel, facing him. "At least, I don't." She looked at her companion.
"And I can't be counted on," said Janet, smiling.
The vicar flushed a little.
"Then you're not Church of England?"
"I am," said Rachel indifferently; "at least I'm not anything else. Miss Leighton is a Unitarian." Then her eyes lit up with a touch of fun, and for the first time she smiled. "I'm afraid you'll think us dreadful heathens, Mr. Shenstone!"
What the vicar did think was that he had never seen a smile transform a face so agreeably. And having begun to smile, Rachel perversely continued it. She walked to the gate with her visitor, talking with irrelevant animation, inviting him to come the following day to help in the "carrying," asking questions about the village and its people, and graciously consenting to fix a day when she and her friend would go to tea with Miss Shenstone at the vicarage. The young man fairly beamed under the unexpected change, and lingered at the gate as though unable to tear himself away; till with a little peremptory nod, though still smiling, Rachel dismissed him.
Janet Leighton meanwhile watched it all. She had seen Rachel treat a new male acquaintance before as she had just treated the vicar. To begin with, the manners of an icicle; then a sudden thaw, just in time to save the situation. She had come with amusement to the conclusion that, however really indifferent or capricious, her new friend could not in the long run resign herself to be disliked, even by a woman, and much more in the case of a man. Was it vanity, or sex, or both? Temperament perhaps; the modern word which covers so much. Janet remembered a little niece of her own who in her mother's absence entertained a gentleman visitor with great success. When asked for his name, she shook her pretty head. "Just a man, mummy," she said, bridling. Janet Leighton suspected that similar tales might have been told of Miss Henderson in her babyhood.
And yet impressions recurred to her of another kind—of a sensitive, almost fierce delicacy—a shrinking from the ugly or merely physical facts of life, as of one who had suffered some torment in connection with them.
Janet's eyes followed the curly brown head as its possessor came slowly back from the gate. She was thinking of a moment when, one evening, while they were both still at college, they had realized their liking for each other, and had agreed to set up in partnership. Then Rachel, springing to her feet, with her hands behind her, and head thrown back, had said suddenly: "I warn you, I have a story. I don't want to tell you, to tell anybody. I shan't tell you. It's done with. I give you my word that I'm not a bad woman. But if you don't want to be my partner on these terms, say so!"
And Janet had felt no difficulty whatever in becoming Rachel Henderson's partner on these terms. Nor had she ever yet regretted it.
The light farm cart which had been sent to the station for stores drove up to the yard gate as Rachel left it. She turned back to receive some parcels handed out by the "exempted" man who drove it, together with some letters which had been found lying at the village post office. Two of the letters were for Janet. She sent them up to the house, and went herself towards the harvest field.
There they stood—the rows of golden "shocks" or stooks. The "shockers" had just finished their day's work. She could hear the footsteps of the last batch, a cheerful chatter, while talk and laughter came softened through the evening air. The man who had been driving the reaping machine was doing some rough repairs to it in a far corner of the field, with a view to the morrow, and she caught sight of her new bailiff, Hastings, who had waited to see everybody off, disappearing towards his own cottage, which stood on a lonely spur of the down. The light was fast going, but the deep glow of the western sky answered the paler gold of the new-made stubble and the ranged stooks, while between rose the dark and splendid masses of the woods.
Rachel stood looking at the scene, possessed by a pleasure which in her was always an ardour. She felt nothing by halves. The pulse of life beat in her still with an energy, a passion, that astonished herself. She was full of eagerness for her new work and for success in it, full of desires, too, for vague, half-seen things, things she had missed so Far—her own fault. But somewhere in the long, hidden years, they must, they should be waiting for her.
The harvest was magnificent. She had paid the Wellins a high price for the standing crops, but there was going to be a profit on her bargain. Her mind was full of schemes, if only she could get the labour to carry them out. Farming was now on the up-grade. She had come into it at the very best moment, and England would never let farming go down again, after the war, for her own safety's sake.
The War! She felt towards it as to some distant force, which, so far as she personally was concerned, was a force for good. Owing to the war, farming was booming all over England, and she was in the boom, taking advantage of it. Yet she was ashamed to think of the war only in that way. She tried to tame the strange ferment in her blood, and could only do it by reminding herself of Hastings's wounded son, whose letter he had showed her. And then—in imagination—she began to see thousands of others like him, in hospital beds, or lying dead in trampled fields. Her mood softened, the tears came into her eyes.
Suddenly—a slight whimper—a child's whimper—close beside her. She paused in amazement, looking round her, till the whimper was renewed; and there, almost at her feet, cradled in the fragrant hollow of a wheat stook, she saw a tiny child—a baby about a year old, a fair, plump thing, just waking from sleep.
At sight of the face bending over her, the child set up a louder cry, which was not angry, however, only forlorn. The tears welled fast into her blue eyes. She looked piteously at Rachel.
"You poor little thing!" said Rachel. "Whose are you?"
One of the village women who had been helping in the "shocking," she supposed, had brought the child. She had noticed a little girl playing about the reapers in the afternoon—no doubt an elder sister brought to look after the baby. Between the mother and the sister there must have been some confusion, and one or other would come running back directly.
But meanwhile she took up the child, who at first resisted passionately, fighting with all its chubby strength against the strange arms. But Rachel seemed to have a way with her—a spell, which worked. She bent over the little thing, soothing and cooing to her, and then finding a few crumbs of cake in the pocket of her overall, the remains of her own lunch in the field, she daintily fed the rosy mouth, till the sobs ceased and the child stared upwards in a sleep wonder, her blue eyes held by the brown ones above her.
"Mummy!" she repeated, still whimpering slightly.
"Mummy's coming," said Rachel tenderly. "What a duck it is!"
And bending, she kissed the soft, downy cheek greedily, with the same ardour she had just been throwing into her own dreams of success.
She carried the child, now quiet and comforted, towards the house. The warm weight upon her arms was delicious to her. Only as she neared the gate in the now moonlit dusk, her lips quivered suddenly, and two tears rolled down her cheeks.
"I haven't carried a child," she thought, "since—"
Suddenly there was a shout from the farther gate of the harvest field, and a girl came running at top speed. It was the little one's elder sister, and with a proper scolding, Rachel gave up her prize.
The two land-girls had finished giving food and water to the cattle and a special mush to new-born calves. Everything was now in order for the night, and Janet, standing on the steps of the farm-house, rang a bell, which meant that supper would be ready in a few minutes. The two partners and their employees were soon gathered round the table in the kitchen, which was also the dining-room. It was a cold meal of bacon, with lettuce, bread and jam, some tea made on a "Tommy's cooker," and potatoes which Janet, who was for the present housekeeper and cook, produced hot and steaming from the hay-box to which she had consigned them after the midday dinner. A small oil-lamp had been lit, and through the open windows afterglow and moonrise streamed in to mingle with its light. There was a pot of flowers on the table—purple scabious, and tall cow-parsley, gathered from the orchard, where no one had yet had time to cut the ragged hay beneath the trees.
The scene was typical of a new England. Women governing—and women serving—they were all alike making their way through new paths to new ends. It was no household in the ordinary sense. The man was wanting. The two elder women were bound to the two younger by a purely business tie, which might or might not develop into something more personal. The two land-lasses had come to supper in their tunics and breeches, while Rachel Henderson and Janet had now both put on the coloured overalls which disguised the masculine garb beneath, and gave them something of the usual feminine air. Rachel's overall, indeed, was both pretty and artistic, embroidered a little here and there, and showing a sunburnt throat beneath the rounded chin.
The talk turned on the day's work, the weather prospects, the vagaries of the cows at milking time, and those horrid little pests the "harvesters," which haunt the chalk soils. The two "hands" were clear by now that they liked Miss Leighton the best of the two ladies, they hardly knew why. Betty Rolfe, the younger of them, who came from Ralstone, was a taking creature, with deep black, or rather violet, eyes, small features framed in curly hair, and the bloom of ripe fruit. She was naturally full of laughter and talk, and only spoilt by her discoloured and uneven teeth, which showed the usual English neglect of such things in childhood.
Her companion, Jenny Harberton, was a much more ordinary type, with broad cheeks, sandy hair, and a perpetual friendly grin, which generally served her instead of speech, at least in her employer's presence. She was a capital milker, and a good honest child. Her people lived in the village, and her forebears had always lived there. They were absolutely indigenous and autochthonous—a far older Brookshire family than any of the dwellers in the big houses about.
Then in the midst of a loving report by Betty on the virtues and docility of a beautiful Jersey cow who was the pride of Miss Henderson's new herd, Janet Leighton remembered one of her letters of the evening and drew it out of her pocket.
"Who do you think is going to be—is already—the commandant of the timber girls in the new camp?"
Rachel couldn't guess.
"You remember Mrs. Fergusson—at College?"
Rachel raised her eyebrows.
"The Irish lady? Perfectly."
"Well, it's she. She writes to me to say she is quite settled, with thirty girls, that the work is fascinating, and they all love it, and you and I must go over to see her."
Rachel looked irresponsive.
"It's a long way."
"Oh, Miss," said Jenny Harberton timidly, "it's not so very far. An' it's lovely when you get there. Father was there last week, drivin' some officers. He says it is interestin'!"
Jenny's father, a plumber in the village, owned a humble open car which was in perpetual request.
"There are a hundred Canadians apparently," said Janet Leighton, looking at her letter, "and German prisoners, quite a good few, and these thirty girls. Mrs. Fergusson begs us to come. Sunday's no good because we couldn't see the work, but—after the harvest? We could get there with the pony quite well."
Rachel said nothing.
Janet Leighton dropped the subject for the moment, but after supper, with her writing-desk on her knee, she returned to it.
"Can't you go without me?" said Rachel, who was standing with her back to the room, looking out of the window.
"Well, I could," said Janet, feeling rather puzzled, "but I thought you were curious to see these new kinds of work for women?"
"So I am. It isn't the women."
"The German prisoners, then?" laughed Janet.
"The Canadians?" asked Janet—in wonder—after a moment. Rachel turned abruptly towards her.
"Well, I didn't have exactly a good time in Canada," she said, as though the admission was dragged out of her; adding immediately, "but of course I'll go—sometime—after the harvest."
On which she left the room, and presently Janet saw her wandering among the stooks in the gloaming, her hands behind her back. She seemed in her ripe and comely youth to be somehow the very spirit of the harvest.
A little later, just before ten o'clock, while the sunset glow was still brooding on the harvest fields, the two farm-girls, after a last visit to the cows, slipped into the little sitting-room. Janet, who was mending her Sunday dress, greeted them with a smile and a kind word. Then she moved to the table and took up a New Testament that was lying there. She was an ardent and mystically-minded Unitarian, and her mind was much set towards religion.
"Shall we have prayers at night?" she had said quite simply to the f arm-girls on their arrival. "Don't if you don't want to." And they had shyly said "yes"—not particularly attracted by the proposal, but willing to please Miss Leighton, who was always nice to them.
So Janet read some verses from the sixth chapter of St. John: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on Me hath everlasting life ... I am the Bread of Life ... I am the living Bread which came down from Heaven ... The words that I speak unto you they are spirit and they are life."
Closing the book, while her quiet eyes shone in the gleaming dusk, she said a few simple things about the Words of Christ, and how the human soul may feed on them—the Word of Love—the Word of Purity—the Word of Service. While she was still speaking, the door opened and Rachel came in. It had been agreed between her and Janet that although she had no objection to the prayers, she was not to be asked to take part in them. So that Janet's pulses fluttered a little when she appeared. But there was no outward sign of it. The speaker finished what she had to say, while the eyes of her three hearers were sometimes on her face and sometimes on the wide cornfield beyond the open window, where the harvest moon, as yet only a brilliant sickle, was rising. The Earth Bread without—the "Bread of Life" within; even in Jenny's primitive mind, there was a mingling of the two ideas, which brought a quiet joy. She sat with parted lips, feeling that she liked Miss Leighton very much, and would try to please her with the cows.
Betty, meanwhile, beside her, passed into a waking dream. She was thinking of a soldier in the village: the blacksmith's son, a tall, handsome fellow, who had just arrived on leave for ten days. She had spent Sunday evening wandering in the lanes with him. She felt passionately that she must see him again—soon.
The little reading passed into the Lord's Prayer. Then it was over and the two girls disappeared to bed. Janet felt a little awkward when she was left alone with Rachel, but she went back to her sewing and began to talk of the day's news of the war. Rachel answered at random, and very soon said good-night.
But long after everybody else in the solitary farmhouse was asleep, Rachel Henderson was sitting up in bed, broad awake, her hands round her knees. The window beside her was open. She saw the side of the hill and the bare down in which it ended, with the moonlight bright upon it, and the dark woods crowning it. There were owls calling from the hill, and every now and then a light wind rustled through the branches of an oak that stood in the farm-yard.
She was thinking of what Janet had said about the "Words" of Christ—the Word of Purity—and the Word of Love. How often she had heard her father read and expound that chapter! very differently as far as phraseology—perhaps even as far as meaning—went, yet with all his heart, like Janet. He was an Anglican clergyman who had done missionary service in the Canadian West. He had been dead now three years, and her mother five. She had bitterly missed them both when she was in her worst need; yet now she was thankful they had died—before—
What would her father think of her now? Would he grant that she was free, or would he still hold to those rigid, those cruel views of his? Oh, he must grant it! She was free! Her breast shook with the fervour of her protest. She had been through passion and wrong, through things that seared and defiled. She knew well that she had been no mere innocent sufferer. Yet now she had her life before her again; and both heart and senses were hungry for the happiness she had so abominably missed. And her starved conscience—that, too, was eagerly awake. She had her self-respect to recover—the past to forget.
Work! that was the receipt—hard work! And this dear woman, Janet Leighton, to help her; Janet, with her pure, modest life and her high aims. So, at last, clinging to the thought of her new friend like a wearied child, Rachel Henderson fell asleep.
"A jolly view!"
Janet assented. She was sitting behind the pony, while Rachel had walked up the hill beside the carriage, to the high point where both she and the pony—a lethargic specimen of the race—had paused to take breath.
They were on a ridge whence there was a broad bit of the world to see. To the north, a plain rich in all the diversities of English land—field and wood, hamlet and church, the rising grounds and shallow depressions, the small enclosures and the hedgerow timber, that make all the difference between the English midlands and, say, the plain of Champagne, or a Russian steppe. Across the wide, many-coloured scene, great clouds from the west were sweeping, with fringes of rain and sudden bursts of light or shadow, which in their perpetual movement—suggesting attack from the sky and response from the earth—gave drama and symbol to the landscape.
On the south—things very different! First, an interlocked range of hills, forest-clothed, stretching east and west, and, at the very feet of the two women, a forest valley offering much that was strange to English eyes. Two years before it had been known only to the gamekeeper and the shooting guests of a neighbouring landowner. Now a great timber camp filled it. The gully ran far and deep into the heart of the forest country, with a light railway winding along the bottom, towards an unseen road. The steep sides of the valley—Rachel and Janet stood on the edge of one of them—were covered with felled trees, cut the preceding winter, and left as they fell. The dead branch and leaf of the trees had turned to a rich purple, and dyed all the inside of the long deep cup. But along its edges stretched the forest, still untouched, and everywhere, in the bare spaces left here and there by the felling among the "rubble and woody wreck," green and gold mosses and delicate grasses had sprung up, a brilliant enamel, inlaid with a multitude of wild flowers.
"Look!" cried Rachel.
For suddenly, down below them, a huge trunk began to move as though of its own accord. Hissing and crashing like some gray serpent, it glided down the hill-side, till it approached a group of figures and horses congregated at the head of the valley, near an engine puffing smoke. Then something invisible happened, and presently a trolley piled high with logs detached itself from the group, and set out on a solitary journey down the railway, watched here and there by men in queer uniforms with patches on their backs.
"German prisoners!" said Janet, and strained her eyes to see, thinking all the time of a letter she had received that morning from her soldier brother fighting with the English troops to the west of Rheims:—
"The beggars are on the run! Foch has got them this time. But, oh, Lord, the sight they've made of all this beautiful country! Trampled, and ruined, and smashed! all of it. Deliberate loot and malice everywhere, and tales of things done in the villages that make one see red. We captured a letter to his wife on a dead German this morning: 'Well, the offensive is a failure, but we've done one thing—we've smashed up another bit of France!' How are we ever going to live with this people in the same world after the war?"
And there below, in the heart of this remote English woodland, now being sacrificed to the war, moved the sons of this very people, cast up here by the tide of battle. Janet had heard that nobody spoke to them during the work, except to give directions; after work they had their own wired camp, and all intercourse between them and the Canadian woodmen, or the English timber girls, was forbidden. But what were they saying among themselves—what were they thinking—these peasants, some perhaps from the Rhineland, or the beautiful Bavarian country, or the Prussian plains? Janet had travelled a good deal in Germany before the war, using her holidays as a mistress in a secondary school, and her small savings, in a kind of wandering which had been a passion with her. She had known Bavarians and Prussians at home. But here, in this corner of rural England, with this veil of silence drawn between them and the nation which at last, in this summer of 1918, was grimly certain, after four years of vengeance and victory, what ferments were, perhaps, working in the German mind?
Yes, there was the German camp, and beyond it under the hill the Canadian forestry camp; whilst just beneath them could be seen the roof of the large women's hostel.
Another exclamation from Rachel, as, on their left, another great tree started for the bottom of the hollow.
"But haven't you seen all this before?" asked Janet.
"No, I never saw anything of lumbering."
The tone showed the sudden cooling and reserve that were always apparent in Rachel's manner when any subject connected with Canada came into conversation. Yet Janet had noticed with surprise that it was Rachel herself who, when the harvest was nearly over, had revived the subject of the camp, and planned the drive for this Saturday afternoon. It had seemed to Janet once or twice that she was forcing herself to do it, as though braving some nervousness of which she was ashamed.
The rough road on which they were driving wound gradually downward through the felled timber. Soon they could hear the clatter of the engine, and the hissing of the saws which seized the trees on their landing, and cut and stripped them in a trice, ready for loading. Round the engine and at the starting-place of the trolleys was a busy crowd: lean and bronzed Canadians; women in leather breeches and coats, busily measuring and marking; a team of horses showing silvery white against the purple of the hill; and everywhere the German prisoner lads, mostly quite young and of short stature. The pony carriage passed a group of them, and they stared with cheerful, furtive looks at the two women.
Then the group of timber girls below perceived the approaching visitors, and a figure, detaching itself from the rest, came to meet the carriage. A stately woman, black-haired, in coat and breeches like the rest, with a felt hat, and a badge of authority, touches of green besides on the khaki uniform. Janet recognized her at once as Mrs. Fergusson, their comrade for a time at college, and much liked both by her and Rachel.
She came laughing, with hands outstretched.
"Well, here we meet again! Jolly to see you! A new scene, isn't it? Life doesn't stand still nowadays! One of my girls will take the carriage for you."
A stalwart maiden unharnessed the pony and let him graze.
Mrs. Fergusson took possession of her visitors, and walked on beside them, describing the different stages of the work, and sections of the workers.
"You see those tall fellows farthest off? Those work the saws and cut up the trees as they come down. Then the horses bring them to the rollers, and the Canadians guide them with those hooks till the crane seizes hold of them and lifts them on to the trolley. But before the hooks get them—you see the girls there?—they do all the measuring; they note everything in their books and they mark every log. All the payments of the camp, the wages paid, the sums earned by the trolley contractor who takes them to the station, the whole finance in fact, depends on the women. I've trained scores besides and sent them out to other camps! But now come, I must introduce you to the commandant of the camp."
"A Canadian?" asked Janet.
"No, an American! He comes from Maine, but he had been lumbering in Canada, with several mills and, camps under him. So he volunteered a year ago to bring over a large Forestry battalion—mostly the men he had been working with in Quebec. Splendid fellows! But he's the king!"
Then she raised her voice,—
A young man in uniform, with a slouch hat, came forward, leaping over the logs in his path. He gave a military salute to the two visitors, and a swift scrutinizing look to each of them. Rachel was aware of a thin, handsome face bronzed by exposure, a pair of blue eyes, rather pale in colour, to which the sunburn of brow and cheek gave a singular brilliance, and a well-cut, determined mouth. The shoulders were those of an athlete, but on the whole the figure was lightly and slenderly built, making an impression rather of grace and elasticity than of exceptional strength.
"You would like to see the camp?" he said, looking at Rachel.
"Aren't you too busy to show it?"
"Not at all. I am not wanted just now. Let me help you over those logs." He held out his hand.
"Oh, thank you, I don't want any help," said Rachel a little scornfully. He smiled in approving silence, and she followed his lead, leaping and scrambling over the piles of wood, with a deer's sureness of foot, till he invited her to stop and watch the timber girls at their measuring. As the two visitors approached, land-women and forest-women eyed each other with friendly looks, but without speech. For talk, indeed, the business in hand was far too strenuous. The logs were coming in fast; there must be no slip in measurement or note. The work was hard, and the women doing it had been at it all day. But on the whole, what a comely and energetic group, with the bright eyes, the clear skins, the animation born of open air and exercise.
"They can't talk to you now!" said Mrs. Fergusson in Janet's ear, amid the din of the engines, "but they'll talk at tea. And there's a dance to-night."
Janet looked round the wild glen in wonder.
"Oh, there's an Air Force camp half a mile away—an Army Service camp on the other side. The officers come—some of them—every Saturday. We take down the partitions in our huts. You can't think what pretty frocks the girls put on! And we dance till midnight."
"And you've no difficulty with the men working in the camp?"
"You mean—how do they treat the girls?" laughed Mrs. Fergusson. "They're charming to the girls! Chivalrous, kind, everything they should be. But then," she added proudly, "my girls are the pick—educated women all of them. I could trust them anywhere. And Captain Ellesborough—you won't get any mischief going on where he is."
Meanwhile the captain, well out of earshot of Mrs. Fergusson's praise, was explaining the organization of the camp to Rachel as they slowly climbed the hill, on the opposite side from that by which she and Janet had descended.
"Which works hardest, I wonder?" she said at last, as they paused to look down on the scene below. "We on our farm, or you here? I've never had more than five hours' sleep through the harvest? But now things are slacker."
He threw his head back with a laugh.
"Why, this seems to me like playing at lumbering! It's all so tiny—so babyish. Oh, yes, there's plenty of work—for the moment. But it'll be all done, in one more season; not a stick left. England can't grow a real forest."
"Compared to America?"
"Well, I was thinking of Canada. Do you know Canada?"
"A little." Then she added hastily: "But I never saw any lumbering."
"What a pity! It's a gorgeous life. Oh, not for women. These women here—awfully nice girls, and awfully clever too—couldn't make anything of it in Canada. I had a couple of square miles of forest to look after—magnificent stuff!—Douglas fir most of it—and two pulping mills, and about two hundred men—a rough lot."
"But you're not Canadian?"
"Oh, Lord, no! My people live in Maine. I was at Yale. I got trained at the forest school there, and after a bit went over the Canadian frontier with my brother to work a big concession in Quebec. We did very well—made a lot of money. Then came the war. My brother joined up with the Canadian army. I stayed behind to try and settle up the business, till the States went in, too. Then they set me and some other fellows to raise a Forestry battalion—picked men. We went to France first, and last winter I was sent here—to boss this little show! But I shan't stay here long! It isn't good enough. Besides, I want to fight! They've promised me a commission in our own army."
He looked at her with sparkling eyes, and her face involuntarily answered the challenge of his; so much so that his look prolonged itself. She was wonderfully pleasant to look upon, this friend of Mrs. Fergusson's. And she was farming on her own? A jolly plucky thing to do! He decided that he liked her; and his talk flowed on. He was frank about himself, and full of self-confidence; but there was a winning human note in it, and Rachel listened eagerly, talking readily, too, whenever there was an opening. They climbed to the top of the hill where they stood on the northern edge of the forest, looking across the basin and the busy throng below. He pointed out to her a timber-slide to their right, and they watched the trees rushing down it, dragged, as he now saw plainly, by the wire cable which was worked by the engine in the hollow. A group of German prisoners, half-way down, were on the edge of the slide, guiding the logs.
"We don't have any trouble with them," said the captain carelessly. "They're only too thankful to be here. They've two corporals of their own who keep order. Oh, of course we have our eyes open. There are some sly beggars among them. Our men have no truck with them. I shouldn't advise you to employ them. It wouldn't do for women alone."
His smile was friendly, and Rachel found it pleasant to be advised by him. As to employing prisoners, she said, even were it allowed, nothing would induce her to risk it. There were a good many on Colonel Shepherd's estate, and she sometimes met them, bicycling to and from their billets in the village, in the evening after work. "Once or twice they've jeered at me," she said, flushing.
"Jeered at you!" he repeated in surprise.
"At my dress, I mean. It seems to amuse them."
"I see. You wear the land army dress like these girls?"
"When I'm at work."
"Well, I'm glad you don't wear it always," he said candidly. "These girls here look awfully nice of an evening. They always change."
He glanced at her curiously. Her dress of dark blue linen, her pretty hat to match, with its bunch of flowers, not to speak of the slender ankles and feet in their blue stockings and khaki shoes, seemed to him extraordinarily becoming. But she puzzled him. There was something about her quite different from the girls of the hostel. She appeared to be older and riper than they; yet he did not believe she was a day more than five-and-twenty, and some of them were older than that. Unmarried, he supposed. "Miss Henderson?" Yes, he was sure that was the name Mrs. Fergusson had mentioned. His eyes travelled discreetly to her bare, left hand. That settled it.
"Well, if I came across these fellows jeering at an Englishwoman, I'd know the reason why!" he resumed hotly. "You should have complained."
She shook her head, smiling. "One doesn't want to be a nuisance in war time. One can always protect oneself."
"That's what women always say, and—excuse me—they can't!"
"Oh, yes, we can—the modern woman."
"I don't see much difference between the modern woman and the old-fashioned woman," he said obstinately. "It isn't dress or working at munitions that makes the difference."
"No, but—what they signify."
"What?—a freer life, getting your own way, seeing more of the world?" The tone was a trifle antagonistic.
"Knowing more of the world," she said, quietly. "We're not the ignorant babes our grandmothers were at our age. That's why we can protect ourselves."
And again he was aware of something sharp or bitter in her—some note of disillusionment—that jarred with the soft, rather broad face and dreamy eyes. It stirred him, and they presently found themselves plunged in a free and exciting discussion of the new place and opportunities of women in the world, the man from the more conservative, the women from the more revolutionary point of view. Secretly, he was a good deal repelled by some of his companion's opinions, and her expression of them. She quoted Wells and Shaw, and he hated both. He was an idealist and a romantic, with a volume of poems in his pocket. She, it seemed, was still on a rising wave of rebellion, moral and social, like so many women; while his wave had passed, and he was drifting in the trough of it. He supposed she had dropped religion, like everything else. Well, the type didn't attract him. He believed the world was coming back to the old things. The war had done it—made people think. No doubt this girl had rushed through a lot of things already, and thought she knew everything. But she didn't.
Then, as their talk went on, this first opinion dropped in confusion. For instead of presenting him with a consistent revolutionist, his companion was, it appeared, full of the most unexpected veins and pockets of something much softer and more appealing. She had astonishing returns upon herself; and after some sentiment that had seemed to him silly or even outrageous, a hurried "Oh, I dare say that's all nonsense!" would suddenly bewilder or appease a marked trenchancy of judgment in himself which was not accustomed to be so tripped up.
The upshot of it was that both Rachel and her new acquaintance enjoyed an agreeable, an adventurous half hour. They got rapidly beyond conventionalities. One moment she thought him rude, the next delightful; just as she alternately appeared to him feminist and feminine. Above them the doomed beech trees, still green in the late August afternoon, spread their canopy of leaf, and through their close stems ran dark aisles of shadow. Below them was the tree-strewn hill-side. In the hollow Rachel could see Janet Leighton and Mrs. Fergusson among the measuring girls; the horses moving to and fro; the Canadian lumber-men catching at and guiding the logs; the trolleys descending the valley; while just opposite to them trunk after trunk was crashing down the hill, the line of the steel cable gleaming now and then in a fitful sunshine which had begun to slip out below a roof of purple cloud. Only one prisoner was left to look after the slide. The others had just gone down the hill, at a summons from below. Suddenly Ellesborough sprang to his feet.
"Good Heavens! what's that?" For a loud cry had rung out, accompanied by what sounded like a report. The man who had been standing among the dead brushwood on the other side of the descending timber, about a hundred yards away, had disappeared; and the huge beech just launched from above had ceased to move.
Another cry for help.
"The cable's broken!" said Ellesborough, starting at full speed for the slide. Rachel rushed after him, and presently caught him up where he knelt beside a man lying on the ground, and writhing in great pain. The prisoner's cap had fallen off, and revealed a young German lad of nineteen or twenty, hardly conscious, and groaning pitifully at intervals. As he lay crouched on his face, the red patches on his back, intended to guide the aim of an armed guard in case of any attempt to escape, showed with a sinister plainness.
"The cable snapped, and has caught him round the body," Ellesborough explained. "Give him this brandy, please, while I try and make out—"
With skilled and gentle fingers he began to explore the injury.
"A rib broken, I think." He looked with anxiety at some blood that had begun to appear on the lips. "I must go down and get some men and a stretcher. They won't know what to do without me. My second in command is off duty for the day. Can you look after him while I go? Awfully sorry to—"
He gave her a swift, investigating glance.
She interrupted him.
"Tell me what to do, and I'll do it."
He loosened the boy's collar and very gently tried to ease his position.
"Mamma!" murmured the boy, with the accent of a miserable child in a bad dream. Ellesborough's face softened. He bent over him and said something in German. Rachel did not understand it—only the compassionate look in the man's blue eyes.
"Give him more brandy if you can, and try and keep him still," said Ellesborough as he rose to his feet. "I shall be back directly."
Her glance answered. By this time there was commotion below, the engine had stopped working and men were running up the hill. Ellesborough went bounding down the steep slope to meet them. They turned back with him, and Rachel supposed they had gone to fetch a stretcher, and if possible a doctor, from the small camp hospital which Mrs. Fergusson had pointed out to her near the gate. Meanwhile, for a few minutes, she was alone with this suffering lad. Was he fatally hurt—dying? She managed to get some brandy down, and then he lay groaning and unconscious, murmuring incoherent words. She caught "Mamma" again, then "Lisa," "Hans," and broken phrases that meant nothing to her. Was his mind back in some German home, which, perhaps, he would never see again?
All sorts of thoughts passed through her: vague memories gathered from the newspapers, of what the Germans had done in Belgium and France—horrible, indescribable things! Oh, not this boy, surely! He could not be more than nineteen. He must have been captured in the fighting of July, perhaps in his first action. Captain Ellesborough had said to her that there was no fighting spirit among any of the prisoners. They were thankful to find themselves out of it, "safely captured," as one of them had had the bravado to say, and with enough to eat. No doubt this boy had dreamt day and night of peace, and getting back to Germany, to "Mamma" and "Lisa" and "Hans." To die, if he was to die, by this clumsy accident, in an enemy country, was hard!
Pity, passionate pity sprang up in her, and it warmed her heart to remember the pity in the face of Captain Ellesborough. She would have hated him if he had shown any touch of a callous or cruel spirit towards this helpless creature. But there had been none.
In a few more minutes she was aware of Mrs. Fergusson and Janet climbing rapidly towards her. And behind them came stretcher-bearers, the captain, and possibly a doctor.
* * * * *
The accident broke up the working afternoon. The injured lad was carried to hospital, where the surgeon shook his head, and refused to prophesy till twenty-four hours were over.
Captain Ellesborough disappeared, while Rachel and Janet were given tea at the woman's hostel and shown the camp. Rachel took an absorbed interest in it all. This world of the new woman, with its widening horizons, its atmosphere of change and discovery, its independence of men, soothed some deep smart in her that Janet was only now beginning to realize. And yet, Janet remembered the vicar, and had watched the talk with Ellesborough. Clearly to be the professed enemy of man did not altogether disincline you for his company!
At any rate it seemed quite natural to Janet Leighton that, when it was time to go, and a charming girl in khaki with green facings caught the pony, and harnessed it for Mrs. Fergusson's parting guests, Ellesborough should turn up, as soon as the farewells were over; and that she should find herself driving the pony-carriage up the hill, while Ellesborough and Rachel walked behind, and at a lengthening distance. Once or twice she looked back, and saw that the captain was gathering some of the abounding wild flowers which had sprung up on the heels of the retreating forest, and that Rachel had fastened a bunch of them into her hat. She smiled to herself, and drove steadily on. Rachel was young and pretty. Marriage with some man—some day—was certainly her fate. The kind, unselfish Janet intended to "play up."
Then, with a jerk, she remembered there was a story. Nonsense! An unhappy love affair, no doubt, which had happened in her first youth, and in Canada. Well, such things, in the case of a girl with the temperament of Rachel, are only meant to be absorbed in another love affair. They are the leaf mould that feeds the final growth. Janet cheerfully said to herself that, probably, her partnership with Rachel would only be a short one.
The pair behind were, indeed, much occupied with each other. The tragic incident of the afternoon seemed to have carried them rapidly through the preliminary stages of acquaintance. At least, it led naturally to talk about things and feelings more real and intimate than generally haunt the first steps. And in this talk each found the other more and more congenial. Ellesborough was now half amused, half touched, by the mixture of childishness and maturity in Rachel. One moment her ignorance surprised him, and the next, some shrewd or cynical note in what she was saying scattered the ingenue impression, and piqued his curiosity afresh. She was indeed crassly ignorant about many current affairs in which he himself was keenly interested, and of which he supposed all educated women must by now have learnt the ABC. She could not have given him the simplest historical outline of the great war; he saw that she was quite uncertain whether Lloyd George or Asquith were Prime Minister; and as to politics and public persons in Canada, where she had clearly lived some time, her mind seemed to be a complete blank. None the less she had read a good deal—novels and poetry at least—and she took a queerly pessimistic view of life. She liked her farm work; she said so frankly. But on a sympathetic reply from him to the effect that he knew several other women who had taken to it, and they all seemed to be "happy" in it, she made a scornful mouth.
"Oh, well—'happy'?—that's a different thing. But it does as well as anything else."
The last thing she wanted, apparently, was to talk about Canada. He, himself, as a temporary settler in the Great Dominion, cherished an enthusiasm for Canada and a belief in the Canadian future, not, perhaps, very general among Americans; but although her knowledge of the country gave them inevitably some common ground, she continually held back from it, she entered on it as little as she could. She had been in the Dominion, he presently calculated, about seven or eight years; but she avoided names and dates, how adroitly, he did not perceive till they had parted, and he was thinking over their walk. She must have gone out to Canada immediately after leaving school. He gathered that her father had been a clergyman, and was dead; that she knew the prairie life, but had never been in British Columbia, and only a few days in Montreal and Toronto. That was all that, at the end of their walk, he knew; and all apparently she meant him to know. Whereas she on her side showed a beguiling power of listening to all he had to say about the mysterious infinity of the Canadian forest-lands and the wild life that, winter or spring, a man may live among them, which flattered the very human conceit of a strong and sensitive nature.
But at last they had climbed the tree-strewn slope, and were on the open ridge with the northern plain in view. The sun was now triumphantly out, just before his setting; the clouds had been flung aside, and he shone full upon the harvest world—such a harvest world as England had not seen for a century. There they lay, the new and golden fields, where, to north and south, to east and west, the soil of England, so long unturned, had joyously answered once more to its old comrade the plough.