He fought it single-handed. He had no money hire extra labour, and apparently had lost his old belief in borrowed capital, or perhaps had grown timid with home-keeping. A single labourer—his father’s old hind—managed the cows and the small farmstead. Hester superintended the dairy and the housework, with one small servant-maid at her beck and call. And John tackled the gardens, hiring a boy or two in the fruit-picking season, or to carry water in times of drought. So they lived for two years tranquilly. As for happiness—well, happiness depends on what you expect. It was difficult to know how much John Penaluna (never a demonstrative man) had expected.
As far as folks could judge, John and Hester were happy enough. Day after day, from sunrise to sunset, he fought with Nature in his small wilderness, and slowly won—hewing, digging, terracing, cultivating, reclaiming plot after plot, and adding it to his conquests. The slope was sunny but waterless, and within a year Hester could see that his whole frame stooped with the constant rolling of barrels and carriage of buckets and waterpots up and down the weary incline. It seemed to her that the hill thirsted continually; that no sooner was its thirst slaked than the weeds and brambles took fresh strength and must be driven back with hook and hoe. A small wooden summer-house stood in the upper angle of the cliff-garden. John’s father had set it there twenty years before, and given it glazed windows; for it looked down towards the harbour’s mouth and the open sea beyond. Before his death the brambles grew close about it, and level with the roof, choking the path to it and the view from it. John had spent the best part of a fortnight in clearing the ground and opening up the view again. And here, on warm afternoons when her house work was over, Hester usually sat with her knitting. She could hear her husband at work on the terraces below; the sound of his pick and mattock mingled with the clank of windlasses or the tick-tack of shipwrights’ mallets, as she knitted and watched the smoke of the little town across the water, the knots of idlers on the quay, the children, like emmets, tumbling in and out of the Mayows’ doorway, the ships passing out to sea or entering the harbour and coming to their anchorage.
One afternoon in midsummer week John climbed to his wife’s summer-house with a big cabbage-leaf in his hand, and within the cabbage-leaf a dozen strawberries. (John’s strawberries were known by this time for the finest in the neighbourhood.) He held his offering in at the open window, and was saying he would step up to the house for a dish of cream; but stopped short.
“Hullo!” said he; for Hester was staring at him rigidly, as white as a ghost. “What’s wrong, my dear?” He glanced about him, but saw nothing to account for her pallor—only the scorched hillside, alive with the noise of grasshoppers, the hot air quivering above the bramble-bushes, and beyond, a line of sunlight across the harbour’s mouth, and a schooner with slack canvas crawling to anchor on the flood-tide.