Page:Household Words - Volume 12.djvu/614

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32 [Dec. 15, 1353.]
[Conducted by

century ago, and grew up a wild, wilful-tempered girl, impatient of all restraint, and eager for change and excitement. At sixteen she married, and very shortly afterwards her husband found it expedient to leave the dales, and to enlist in a regiment which was ordered on foreign service. Hester followed him to India, and led the life of camps for several years. During this interval her family lost sight of her completely; for, having parted in anger, no correspondence was kept up between them. This silence and separation lasted full nine years, during which time, Death dealt hardly with those left at home. Of all the large family of sons and daughters whom the old people had seen grow up to man's and woman's estate, not one survived. Their hearts began to soften towards the offending child, and they made efforts to learn if the regiment to which her husband belonged had returned to England. It had not.

One bleak and wintry night, while the solitary and bereaved couple were sitting by their silent hearth—it was a very lonely and retired spot where the house stood—a heavy step came up the little garden path. Neither of them stirred. They thought it was one of the farm-servants returning from the village, whither he had been sent on some errand. The curtains had not been closed over the window, and all the room, filled with the shine of a yule-tide fire, was visible to the wayfarer without. The mother sat facing the window; lifting her slow, dull gaze from the white wood-ashes on the hearth, she looked across towards it, and uttered a low, frightened cry. She saw a dark face peering in at the glass, which wore the traits of her daughter Hester. She thought it was her wraith, and said so to the old man, who, taking a lantern, went out to see if anybody was lurking about. It was a very boisterous night : loud with wind, and black with clouds of sleety rain. At the threshold he stumbled over a dark form, which had crouched there for the slight shelter afforded by the porch. He lowered the lantern, and threw the light on the face of a woman.

"Dame! dame! It is our bairn: it is lile Hester!"

The mother appeared, and, with a great, gasping cry, recognised her daughter.

They led her into the house, towards the glowing heat of the fire, and set her down by the hearth ; for her limbs would scarcely support her. Hester wore a thin and ragged cloak, beneath the folds of which she had hidden her child from the storm. He had fallen asleep in her bosom; but as her mother removed the dripping garment from her shoulders, he woke up with a laugh of childish surprise and pleasure. He was a fine, well-grown boy, of from six to seven years old, and showed none of those signs of want and suffering which had graven premature age upon the wasted features and gaunt frame of his mother. It was some time before Hester recovered from her frozen exhaustion, and then her first and eager demand was for food for the child.

"O Heaven, pity me!" cried the old woman, who was weeping over the pair. "Hester and her lad starving, while there was to spare at home!"

She supplied their wants soon, and would have taken the boy ; but Hester held him to her with a close and jealous grasp, chafing his limbs, warming his little hands in her bosom, and covering his hand with passionate kisses.

He fell asleep in her arms at last; and then she told her brief story. She was widowed; her husband had died in India from wound-fever, and she had been sent home to England; on her arrival there she found herself destitute, and had traversed the country on foot, subsisting by the casual charity of strangers. Thus much she said, and no more. She indulged in no details of her own exquisite sufferings; perhaps they were forgotten, when she ended by saying, "Thank the Lord, the lad is saved!"

Hester lived on at the farm with her parents; and, as the old man failed more and more daily, she took the vigorous management of it upon herself, and things throve with them. By degrees, her beauty was restored, and then she had repeated offers of marriage; for, the inheritance which would be hers at her father's death was by no means despicable. But, she kept herself single, for the lad's sake. Wilfred grew strong, handsome, and high-spirited like his mother, indeed, with whom, much as they loved each other, he had many a fierce contention. He never could bear to be thwarted or checked by her, and often Hester, in the bitterness of her unbridled anger, would cry, "O Wilfred! it would have been better for thee and thy mother if we had died on the door-stone in the snow, that night we came home."

Still, she had an intense pride in him; and always, after their quarrels, she allowed his extravagance to have freer, scope, though that was what usually led to their disputes. As might have been expected, Wilfred, under such uncertain training, became reckless, wild, and domineering, though he preserved a certain rough generosity and frankness of character which redeemed his faults, and made him a favourite with the country folks, and a sort of king amongst his companions, whose superior in all rustic sports he was.

His grandfather died when he was nineteen; his grandmother, eighteen months later. Then Hester was sole mistress of the little farm. Wilfred soon began to urge his mother to sell the property and leave the dales, whose uneventful quiet fretted his restless disposition. This she absolutely refused to do; and was on one occasion so deeply irritated at his persistence as to say: