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“Cold as a side of beef,” said the man's voice, “and dripping wet.”
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“She'll have pneumony on her, likely,” said the soft voice of a woman.
“What'd we best do?” said the man. “She's nobbut a girl.”
“Put her in my chair,” said the woman, “and fetch me two blankets and some towels. You can go and help Martin while I strip her off and dry her. I shan't be ten minutes.”
“Aye,” said the man. “Horse'll need a good rubbing down, given it's as drenched as she is.”
Margaret heard a door close, and flickered her eyelids up to catch a picture of flecked green eyes in a large red face with a straggle of gray hair around it. She tried to say thank you, but her lips wouldn't move.
“There, there,” said the woman, “we'll soon have you to rights, my dear. Warm and dry and sleeping like the angels.”
Then there was darkness.
Voices swam in the dark, and pictures which shifted into each other before they could really mean anything. Uncle Peter snorted in his chair by the fire, and the bull snorted toward her over the mashed turf, and Mr. Gordon raised his blackthorn stick and cried, “The Devil has taken his own!” Then they were all on the sledge, including Aunt Anne, racing along the hissing snow in glorious freedom, but the snow had melted and Tim was trying to haul the sledge through a plowed field, only now it was a capstan and the rope broke like a strand of wool and Uncle Peter, swinging his ax, galloped at her out of the smoke and she leaped for the tug but it wasn't there and she was falling, falling, falling.
There were many dreams like that, sometimes with the dogs hurtling after her, sometimes with seas of petrol reeking over her, sometimes Mr. Gordon rocking and clucking till she forgot the lifesaving lie and blurted out the truth. But at last she woke to a strange ceiling with a black beam straight above her head, motes dancing in the sunlight, limed walls. A large woman in a gray dress sat by her bed, knitting placidly but looking very serious. Her eyes were the color of plovers' eggs, and flecked with the same brown spots. She spoke as soon as Margaret opened her eyes.
“Don't tell me anything. I don't want to know. You talked enoughâmore than enoughâin your fever.”
“Oh,” whispered Margaret.
“Four days you've been lying here,” said the woman, “and talking I don't know what wickedness.”
“No,” said Margaret. “It wasn't like that, it really wasn't. Please, I'd like to tell you. You look as though you'd understand.”
The needles clicked to the end of the row and the woman put them down.
“Tell me one thing first,” she said, “before I decide to listen. Do you believe, right in the honest heart of you, that you've done God's will?”
“I've not thought of it that way,” said Margaret. “But yes, I suppose so. Once we'd begun we couldn't have done anything else. It would have been wrong to stop.”
“If you believe that,” said the woman, “really and truly, I'll hear you out. Don't you tire yourself, mind.”
So Margaret told her story while the needles rattled and the fat fingers fluttered and the motes drifted and shafts of sunlight edged across the room. All the words she needed came to her just when she wanted them. She never changed her voice, but let the story roll out in a steady whisper, even and simple, like water sliding into a millrace. All the time she watched the woman's face, which never changed by the smallest wrinkle or the least movement of the mouth corners, up or down. When the story was ended she shut her eyes and tried to sink back into the darkness which had been her home for four days.
“Aye,” said the woman, “it's wicked water, the Severn. No, I don't see what else you could have done, my dear. Thank you for telling me. My men are out sowingâthat's my husband and my sonâand we won't tell them what you and I know. They wouldn't understand the rights and wrongs of it like we do, being women. My name's Sarah Dore, and you're welcome to stay here as long as you like.”
“Oh, you are kind,” said Margaret. “But really I must go and tell Aunt Anne what's happened to Jonathan.”
“Maybe you must,” said Mrs. Dore, “but not till you're well inside yourself. Two days you were that nigh death I fairly gave you up.”
“How's Scrub?” said Margaret.
“Right as rain. My Martin's got a way with horses, so he's pulling a cart up in Long Collins.”
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“He won't like
,” she said and fell asleep again, a silky, dreamless, healing sleep that lasted until she woke to the hungry smell of frying bacon. She got out of bed, found a dressing gown on the chair where Mrs. Dore had sat and, holding weakly to walls and banisters, traced the smell down to the kitchen, where the Dores greeted her as though she'd belonged in that family ever since she could crawl. She stayed with them eighteen days, and at last rode off after trying to say thank you in a hundred different ways, none of which seemed nearly enough. Indeed, the day before she left Martin brought up from the beach a gull with a broken wing, which he set before bandaging the bird into a fruit basket so that it could not harm itself with its struggles. Margaret looked into its desperate wild eye and tried to tell it that it was safe here.
The gale had blown the winter away, and weald and wold were singing with early spring. Really singingâinnumerable birds practicing their full melody among the still-bare branches of every hedge. As she crossed the smooth upland behind the Dores' farm she saw a dazzling blink of black and white, gone before she could see the true shape of it, but she was sure it was wheatears. And then there were curlews, playing in the steady southwest wind. The color of the woods had changedâbeeches russet with the swelling of their tight little leaf buds, birch tops purple as a plum. And the larches were a real red with their tasseled flowers, and the sticky buds of chestnuts glistened when the sun came out from behind the lolloping fat clouds which rode up off the Atlantic.
But, more than anything, every breath she took was full of the odor of new growth, a smell as strong as hyacinths. In winter there are no smells, or very few and sourâwood-smoke and reeking dung heaps and the sharp odors man makes with his toil. But there comes a morning when the wind is right and the sun has real pith in it, and then all the sappy smells of growth are sucked out of the earth, like mists from a marsh, and the winds spread them abroad, streaming on the breeze with a thrilling honey-sweetness which even high summerâthe summer of bees nosing into lime blossomâcannot equal.
It was through such a world as this that Margaret rode home, with Scrub dancing and happy beneath her and all her blood and all her mind well again. (To be fair, Scrub was probably mostly happy not to be pulling the Dores' cart.) She had to fetch a wide circle around Bristol, which seemed an even bigger city than Gloucester, and ask her way north many times; but all the people she spoke to were full of the kindliness of the season and answered her like friends. That night she slept in an isolated barn beside a beech hanger, north of Chipping Sodbury. The air turned cold but she snuggled deeper into the tickling hay and made herself a nest of warmth where she dozed until the dawn birds began their clatter of small talk again.
It was another dew-fresh day, chilly but soft, with scarfs of mist floating in the valleys. The sun, an hour after it was up, became strong enough to strike caressingly through her coat, and the wind was less than yesterday's and herding fewer clouds. She had started so early that she was hungry enough for another meal by midmorning. As she settled to eat it in the nook of a south-facing dry-stone wall she saw, almost at her feet on the strip of last year's plowland, a tuft of wildflowers: yellow and white, marked out with strong brown-purple lines which made each flower a quaint cat face. Wild pansies, heartsease. They must have been the very first of all the year.
She reached out to pick them so that she could carry home with her a token of that grimy but heroic tug, then drew her hand back and left them growing. All the time she munched the good farmbread and the orange cheese, she kept looking at them, so frail and delicate, but fluttering undamaged above the stony tilth.
It was dinnertime in the village when she came to Low Wood. She had worked her way around by well-known paths so as to be able to come to the farm without passing another house. Now she tied Scrub to a wild cherry, just big enough for the hired man not to have felled it, in the hollow of a little quarry where he couldn't be seen from the road. She tried to tackle her problem Jonathan-style, so she used a knot which Scrub would be able to loose with a jerk or twoâjust in case she was trapped by vengeful villagers. The safest thing would be to creep up and hide until she could talk to Aunt Anne alone.
Primroses fringed the quarry, and celandine sparkled in the wood. She walked up the eight-acre, keeping well in under the hedge; then stole through the orchard. There seemed to be no sound of life in the whole village, though most of the chimneys showed a faint plume of smoke; no men called, no bridles clinked. She tiptoed along the flagged path at the edge of the yard and peeped carefully through the kitchen window.
They had finished their meal but were still sitting at the tableânot in their own chairs at either end but side by side on the bench where the children used to sit. Aunt Anne's hand lay out across the white deal, and Uncle Peter's huge fist covered it. Their faces were shaped with hard lines, like those a stonecarver's chisel makes when he is roughing out a figure for a tombstone. They both looked as though they had lost everything they had ever loved.
Margaret changed her mind about hiding; she stepped across to the door, lifted the latch and went in. They looked up at her with a single jerk of both heads and sat staring.
“May I come back, please?” she said.
“Where's Jo?” said Uncle Peter. His voice was a coughing whisper.
“Safe in Ireland, I think. There was a storm, and Scrub and I were washed overboard, but we climbed a hill and I saw the boat going on into what looked like calmer water; and it was still going properly, too. He'll come back, Aunt Anne, I'm sure he willâas soon as the Changes are over, and that can't be long now.”
“Please God,” said Aunt Anne faintly. Margaret now saw that the whole of Uncle Peter's other side was hidden by a yellow sling.
“What have you done to your arm?” she said.
He gave an odd little chuckle.
done, you mean, lass. Your friend the bull broke it after he'd knocked Davey Gordon into the water and drowned him. But it's mending up nicely enough. I went down with them to see what I could do for you, supposing you got caught in your craziness. Leastways I think I did.”
“That's what I told Jo,” said Margaret. “Where's Rosie?”
“Sent her packing,” said Uncle Peter triumphantly. “What call had she to go nosing among my son's belongings in the middle of the night, eh?”
“Did he tell you why we did it?” said Margaret.
“He tried,” said Aunt Anne with a tiny smile, the first that Margaret could remember for months. “But he's a poor hand at explaining himself, at least on paper. You must tell us over supper.”
“You know,” interrupted Uncle Peter, “I needn't have troubled myself to traipse down there getting my arm broken. I might as well have stayed at home milking for all the help you needed of me, you and Jo.”
He sounded really pleased with the ideaâproud of them, almost.
“Thank you for coming home,” said Aunt Anne. “We need you, Pete and I.”
“Shall I be able to stay?” said Margaret. “I could dye my hair and pretend to be the new servant girl, I thought.”
“No need, no need,” said Uncle Peter.
“The village is different now, isn't it, Pete?” said Aunt Anne.
“It is that,” he answered. “All different since Davey died. Not that you can lay it against him, honestâhe just brought out of us what was in us. Oh, he piped the tune all right, but we'd no call to dance to it if we hadn't the lust in us. But never mind that: winter's gone now, and the season of idleness. Spring's on us, and that means hard work and easy hearts. What could a man ask more, hard work and an easy heart?”
“I saw some heartsease in a field above Dursley,” said Margaret.
“That's very early,” said Aunt Anne. “It's always been my favorite flower, with its funny face. Like Jo, I used to think.”
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“Oh,” said Margaret, surprised at the reasonâsurprised too that she hadn't thought of the likeness. “I nearly picked them to bring you, but it seemed best to leave them growing.”
“I'm glad you did,” said Aunt Anne.
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The Feel of Ending
There were no more storms. The little tug puffed its sturdy way westward and met up next morning with an Irish trawler. The trawler's radio carried the unlikely message to the mainland, and within a couple of hours a U.S. naval patrol boat came creaming out to meet them. Otto's bosses, out of the mere habit of secrecy, hushed up the failure of his mission. Otto took Lucy and Tim to his uncle's farm in Nebraska, where they both settled down happily. Lucy in particular liked civilization, with all its glossy, effort-free benefits. But Jonathan insisted on staying in Ireland, as near home as possible. He went to school, worked hard at science, and waited for the end. As he'd told Otto, he knew it was coming soon
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It's odd how sometimes we can sense things drawing to a close
a piece of unfamiliar music, a child's tantrum, a period in our own lives. Up and down Britain people had felt the same, sensing it dimly and in fear. A housewife making tallow candles might look up from the slow and smelly job and sigh, suddenly remembering how once in that very same room she'd been able to summon good, bright lights at the touch of a switch. And then she would shudder, no longer from horror of the thing itself, but from fear that she had thought of it. If anybody should find out! She dared not even tell her husband, though he perhaps would come in that evening from his backbreaking labor at the saw pit with his own mind full of the secret memory of how quickly and accurately the big circular saws used to slice the tree trunks into planking