HotFreeBooks.com
Esther - A Book for Girls
by Rosa Nouchette Carey
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

And when Dot had fallen asleep, I went down to Uncle Geoffrey and repeated our conversation, to which he listened with a great deal of interest.

"You are perfectly right, Esther," he said, thoughtfully; "but I think there is another meaning involved in the words 'There shall be no more sea.'"

"The sea divides us often from those we love," he went on musingly; "it is our great earthly barrier. In that perfected life that lies before us there can be no barrier, no division, no separating boundaries. In the new earth there will be no fierce torrents or engulfing ocean, no restless moaning of waves. Do you not see this?"

"Yes, indeed, Uncle Geoffrey;" but all the same I thought in my own mind that it was a pretty fancy of the child's, thinking that he saw father walking across the moonlight sea. No, he could not have fallen in the dark water, no fear of that, Dot, when the angel of His mercy would hold him by the hand; and then I remembered a certain lake and a solemn figure walking quietly on its watery floor, and the words, "It is I, be not afraid," that have comforted many a dying heart!

Allan had to leave us the next day, and go back to his work; it was a pity, as his mere presence, the very sound of his bright, young voice, seemed to rouse mother and do her good. As for me, I knew when Allan went some of the sunshine would go with him, and the world would have a dull, work-a-day look. I tried to tell him so as we took our last walk together. There was a little lane just by Uncle Geoffrey's house; you turned right into it from the High street, and it led into the country, within half a mile of the house. There were some haystacks and a farmyard, a place that went by the name of Grubbings' Farm; the soft litter of straw tempted us to sit down for a little, and listen to the quiet lowing of the cattle as they came up from their pasture to be milked.

"It reminds me of Combe Manor," I said, and there was something wet on my cheek as I spoke; "and oh, Allan! how I shall miss you to-morrow," and I touched his coat sleeve furtively, for Allan was not one to love demonstration. But, to my surprise, he gave me a kind little pat.

"Not more than I shall miss you," he returned, cheerily. "We always get along well, you and I, don't we, little woman?" And as I nodded my head, for something seemed to impede my utterance at that moment, he went on more seriously, "You have a tough piece of work before you, Esther, you and Carrie; you will have to put your Combe Manor pride in your pockets, and summon up all your Cameron strength of mind before you learn to submit to the will of strangers.

"Our poor, pretty Carrie," he continued, regretfully; "the little saint, as Uncle Geoffrey used to call her. I am afraid her work will not be quite to her mind, but you must smoothe her way as much as possible; but there, I won't preach on my last evening; let me have your plans instead, my dear."

But I had no plans to tell him, and so we drifted by degrees into Allan's own work; and as he told me about the hospital and his student friends, and the great bustling world in which we lived, I forgot my own cares. If I had not much of a life of my own to lead, I could still live in his.

The pleasure of this talk lingered long in my memory; it was so nice to feel that Allan and I understood each other so well and had no divided interests; it always seems to me that a sister ought to dwell in the heart of a brother and keep it warm for that other and sacred love that must come by-and-by; not that the wife need drive the sister into outer darkness, but that there must be a humbler abiding in the outer court, perchance a little guest-chamber on the wall; the nearer and more royal abode must be for the elected woman among women.

There is too little giving up and coming down in this world, too much jealous assertion of right, too little yielding of the scepter in love. It may be hard—God knows it is hard, to our poor human nature, for some cherished sister to stand a little aside while another takes possession of the goodly mansion, yet if she be wise and bend gently to the new influence, there will be a "come up higher," long before the dregs of the feast are reached. Old bonds are not easily broken, early days have a sweetness of their own; by-and-by the sister will find her place ready for her, and welcoming hands stretched out without grudging.

The next morning I rose early to see Allan off Just at the last moment Carrie came down in her pretty white wrapper to bid him good-by. Allan was strapping up his portmanteau in the hall, and shook his head at her in comic disapproval. "Fie, what pale cheeks, Miss Carrie! One would think you had been burning the midnight oil." I wonder if Allan's jesting words approached the truth, for Carrie's face flushed suddenly, and she did not answer.

Allan did not seem to notice her confusion. He bade us both good-by very affectionately, and told us to be good girls and take care of ourselves, and then in a moment he was gone.

Breakfast was rather a miserable business after that; I was glad Uncle Geoffrey read his paper so industriously and did not peep behind the urn. Dot did, and slipped a hot little hand in mine, in an old-fashioned sympathizing way. Carrie, who was sitting in her usual dreamy, abstracted way, suddenly startled us all by addressing Uncle Geoffrey rather abruptly.

"Uncle Geoffrey, don't you think either Esther or I ought to go over to the Thornes? They want a governess, you know."

"Eh, what?" returned Uncle Geoffrey, a little disturbed at the interruption in the middle of the leading article. "The Thornes? Oh, yes, somebody was saying something to me the other day about them; what was it?" And he rubbed his hair a little irritably.

"We need not trouble Uncle Geoffrey," I put in, softly; "you and I can go across before mother comes down. I must speak to Deborah, and then I meant to hear Jack's lessons, but they can wait."

"Very well," returned Carrie, nonchalantly; and then she added, in her composed, elder sisterly way, "I may as well tell you, Esther, that I mean to apply for the place myself; it will be so handy, the house being just opposite; far more convenient than if I had a longer walk."

"Very well," was my response, but I could not help feeling a little relief at her decision; the absence of any walk was an evil in my eyes. The Thornes' windows looked into ours; already I had had a sufficient glimpse of three rather untidy little heads over the wire blind, and the spectacle had not attracted me. I ventured to hint my fears to Carrie that they were not very interesting children; but, to my dismay, she answered that few children are interesting, and that one was as good as another.

"But I mean to be fond of my pupils," I hazarded, rather timidly, as I took my basket of keys. I thought Uncle Geoffrey was deep in his paper again. "I think a governess ought to have a good moral influence over them. Mother always said so."

"We can have a good moral influence without any personal fondness," returned Carrie, rather dryly. Poor girl! her work outside was distasteful to her, and she could not help showing it sometimes.

"One cannot take interest in a child without loving it in time," I returned, with a little heat, for I did not enjoy this slavish notion of duty—pure labor, and nothing else. Carrie did not answer, she leaned rather wearily against the window, and looked absently out. Uncle Geoffrey gave her a shrewd glance as he folded up the newspaper and whistled to Jumbles.

"Settle it between yourselves girls," he observed, suddenly, as he opened the door; "but if I were little Annie Thorne, I know I should choose Esther;" and with this parting thrust he left the room, making us feel terribly abashed.



CHAPTER VII.

OVER THE WAY.

I cannot say that I was prepossessed with the Thorne family, neither was Carrie.

Mrs. Thorne was what I call a loud woman; her voice was loud, and she was full of words, and rather inquisitive on the subject of her neighbors.

She was somewhat good-looking, but decidedly over-dressed. Early as it was, she was in a heavily-flounced silk dress, a little the worse for wear. I guessed that first day, with a sort of feminine intuition, that Mrs. Thorne wore out all her second-best clothes in the morning. Perhaps it was my country bringing up, but I thought how pure and fresh Carrie's modest dress looked beside it; and as for the quiet face under the neatly-trimmed bonnet, I could see Mrs. Thorne fell in love with it at once. She scarcely looked at or spoke to me, except when civility demanded it; and perhaps she was right, for who would care to look at me when Carrie was by? Then Carrie played, and I knew her exquisite touch would demand instant admiration. I was a mere bungler, a beginner beside her; she even sang a charming little chanson. No wonder Mrs. Thorne was delighted to secure such an accomplished person for her children's governess. The three little girls came in by-and-by—shy, awkward children, with their mother's black eyes, but without her fine complexion; plain, uninteresting little girls, with a sort of solemn non-intelligence in their blank countenances, and a perceptible shrinking from their mother's sharp voice.

"Shake hands with Miss Cameron, Lucy; she is going to teach you all manner of nice things. Hold yourself straight, Annie. What will these young ladies think of you, Belle, if they look at your dirty pinafore? Mine are such troublesome children," she continued, in a complaining voice; "they are never nice and tidy and obedient, like other children. Mr. Thorne spoils them, and then finds fault with me."

"What is your name, dear?" I whispered to the youngest, when Mrs. Thorne had withdrawn with Carrie for a few minutes. They were certainly very unattractive children; nevertheless, my heart warmed to them, as it did to all children. I was child-lover all my life.

"Annie," returned the little one, shyly rolling her fat arms in her pinafore. She was less plain than the others, and had not outgrown her plumpness.

"Do you know I have a little brother at home, who is a sad invalid;" and then I told them about Dot, about his patience and his sweet ways, and how he amused himself when he could not get off his couch for weeks; and as I warmed and grew eloquent with my subject, their eyes became round and fixed, and a sort of dawning interest woke up on their solemn faces; they forgot I was a stranger, and came closer, and Belle laid a podgy and a very dirty hand on my lap.

"How old is your little boy?" asked Lucy, in a shrill whisper. And as I answered her Mrs. Thorne and Carrie re-entered the room. They both looked surprised when they saw the children grouped round me; Carrie's eyebrows elevated themselves a little quizzically, and Mrs. Thorne called them away rather sharply.

"Don't take liberties with strangers, children. What will Miss Cameron think of such manners?" And then she dismissed them rather summarily. I saw Annie steal a little wistful look at me as she followed her sisters.

We took our leave after that. Mrs. Thorne shook hands with us very graciously, but her parting words were addressed to Carrie. "On Monday, then. Please give my kind regards to Dr. Cameron, and tell him how thoroughly satisfied I am with the proposed arrangement." And Carrie answered very prettily, but as the door closed she sighed heavily.

"Oh, what children! and what a mother!" she gasped, as she took my arm, and turned my foot-steps away from the house. "Never mind Jack, I am going to the service at St. Barnabas; I want some refreshment after what I have been through." And she sighed again.

"But, Carrie," I remonstrated, "I have no time to spare. You know how Jack has been neglected, and how I have promised Allan to do my best for her until we can afford to send her to school."

"You can walk with me to the church door," she returned, decidedly. I was beginning to find out that Carrie could be self-willed sometimes. "I must talk to you, Esther; I must tell you how I hate it. Fancy trying to hammer French and music into those children's heads, when I might—I might—" But here she stopped, actually on the verge of crying.

"Oh, my darling, Carrie!" I burst out, for I never could bear to see her sweet face clouded for a moment, and she so seldom cried or gave way to any emotion. "Why would you not let me speak? I might have saved you this. I might have offered myself in your stead, and set you free for pleasanter work." But she shook her head, and struggled for composure.

"You would not have done for Mrs. Thorne, Esther. Don't think me vain if I say that I play and sing far better than you."

"A thousand times better," I interposed. "And then you can draw."

"Well, Mrs. Thorne is a woman who values accomplishments. You are clever at some things; you speak French fairly, and then you are a good Latin scholar" (for Allan and I studied that together); "you can lay a solid foundation, as Uncle Geoffrey says; but Mrs. Thorne does not care about that," continued Carrie a little bitterly; "she wants a flimsy superstructure of accomplishments—music, and French, and drawing, as much as I can teach a useful life-work, Esther."

"Well, why not?" I returned, with a little spirit, for here was one of Carrie's old arguments. "If it be the work given us to do, it must be a useful life-work. It might be our duty to make artificial flowers for our livelihood—hundreds of poor creatures do that—and you would not scold them for waste of time, I suppose?"

"Anyhow, it is not work enough for me," replied Carrie firmly, and passing over my clever argument with a dignified silence; "it is the drudgery of mere ornamentation that I hate. I will do my best for those dreadful children, Esther. Are they not pitiful little overdressed creatures? And I will try and please their mother though I have not a thought in common with her. And when I have finished my ornamental brick-making—told my tales of the bricks——" here she paused, and looked at me with a heightened color.

"And what then?" I asked, rather crossly, for there was a flaw in her speech somewhere, and I could not find it out.

"We shall see, my wise little sister," she said, letting go my arm with a kind pressure. "See, here is St. Barnabas; is it not a dear old building? Must you go back to Jack?"

"Yes, I must," I answered, shortly. "Laborare est orare—to labor is to pray, in my case, Carrie;" and with that I left her.

But Carrie's arguments had seriously discomposed me. I longed to talk it all out with Allan, and I do not think I ever missed him so much as I did that day. I am afraid I was rather impatient with Jack that morning; to be sure she was terribly awkward and inattentive; she would put her elbows on the table, and ink her fingers, and then she had a way of jerking her hair out of her eyes, which drove me nearly frantic. I began to think we really must send her to school. We had done away with the folding doors, they always creaked so, and had hung up some curtains in their stead; through the folds I could catch glimpses of dear mother leaning back in her chair, with Dot beside her. He was spelling over his lesson to her, in a queer, little sing-song voice, and they looked so cool and quiet that the contrast was quite provoking; and there was Carrie kneeling in some dim corner, and soothing her perturbed spirits with softly-uttered psalms and prayers.

"Jack," I returned, for the sixth time, "I cannot have you kick the table in that schoolboy fashion."

Jack looked at me with roguish malice in her eyes. "You are not quite well, Esther; you have got a pain in your temper, haven't you, now?"

I don't know what I might have answered, for Jack was right, and I was as cross as possible, only just at that moment Uncle Geoffrey put his head in at the door, and stood beaming on us like an angel of deliverance.

"Fee-fo-fum," for he sometimes called Jack by that charming sobriquet, indeed, he was always inventing names for her, "it is too hot for work, isn't it? I think I must give you a holiday, for I want Esther to go out with me." Uncle Geoffrey's wishes were law, and I rose at once; but not all my secret feelings of relief could prevent me from indulging in a parting thrust.

"I don't think Jack deserves the holiday," I remarked, with a severe look at the culprit; and Jack jerked her hair over her eyes this time in some confusion.

"Hullo, Fee-fo-fum, what have you been up to? Giving Esther trouble? Oh, fie! fie!"

"I only kicked the table," returned Jack, sullenly, "because I hate lessons—that I do, Uncle Geoffrey—and I inked my fingers because I liked it; and I put my elbows on the copy-book because Esther said I wasn't to do it; and my hair got in my eyes; and William the Conqueror had six wives, I know he had; and I told Esther she had a pain in her temper, because she was as cross as two sticks; and I don't remember any more, and I don't care," finished Jack, who could be like a mule on occasions.

Uncle Geoffrey laughed—he could not help it—and then he patted Jack kindly on her rough locks. "Clever little Fee-fo-fum; so William the Conqueror had six wives, had he? Come, this is capital; we must send you to school, Jack, that is what we must do. Esther cannot be in two places at once." What did he mean by that, I wonder! And then he bid me run off and put on my hat, and not keep him waiting.

Jack's brief sullenness soon vanished, and she followed me out of the room to give me a penitent hug—that was so like Jack; the inky caress was a doubtful consolation, but I liked it, somehow.

"Where are you going, Uncle Geoff?" I asked, as we walked up the High street, followed by Jumbles, while Jack and Smudge watched us from the door.

"Miss Lucas wants to see you," he returned, briefly. "Bless me, there is Carrie, deep in conversation with Mr. Smedley. Where on earth has the girl picked him up?" And there, true enough, was Carrie, standing in the porch, talking eagerly to a fresh-colored, benevolent-looking man, whom I knew by sight as the vicar of St. Barnabas.

She must have waylaid him after service, for the other worshipers had dropped off; we had met two or three of them in the High street. I do not know why the sight displeased me, for of course she had a right to speak to her clergyman. Uncle Geoffrey whistled under his breath, and then laughed and wondered "what the little saint had to say to her pastor;" but I did not let him go on, for I was too excited with our errand.

"Why does Miss Lucas want to see me?" I asked, with a little beating of the heart. The Lucas family were the richest people in Milnthorpe.

Mr. Lucas was the banker, and kept his carriage, and had a pretty cottage somewhere by the seaside; they were Uncle Geoffrey's patients, I knew, but what had that to do with poor little me?

"Miss Lucas wants to find some one to teach her little niece," returned Uncle Geoffrey; and then I remembered all at once that Mr. Lucas was a widower with one little girl. He had lost his wife about a year ago, and his sister had come to live with him and take care of his motherless child. What a chance this would have been for Carrie! but now it was too late. I was half afraid as we came up to the great red brick house, it was so grand and imposing, and so was the solemn-looking butler who opened the door and ushered us into the drawing-room.

As we crossed the hall some one came suddenly out on us from a dark lobby, and paused when he saw us. "Dr. Cameron! This is your niece, I suppose, whom my sister Ruth is expecting?" and as he shook hands with us he looked at me a little keenly, I thought. He was younger than I expected; it flashed across me suddenly that I had once seen his poor wife. I was standing looking out of the window one cold winter's day, when a carriage drove up to the door with a lady wrapped in furs. I remember Uncle Geoffrey went out to speak to her, and what a smile came over her face when she saw him. She was very pale, but very beautiful; every one said so in Milnthorpe, for she had been much beloved.

"My sister is in the drawing-room; you must excuse me if I say I am in a great hurry," and then he passed on with a bow. I thought him very formidable, the sort of man who would be feared as well as respected by his dependants. He had the character of being a very reserved man, with a great many acquaintances and few intimate friends. I had no idea at that time that no one understood him so well as Uncle Geoffrey.

I was decidedly nervous when I followed Uncle Geoffrey meekly into the drawing-room. Its size and splendor did not diminish my fears, and I little imagined then how I should get to love that room.

It was a little low, in spite of its spaciousness, and its three long windows opened in French fashion on to the garden. I had a glimpse of the lawn, with a grand old cedar in the middle, before my eyes were attracted to a lady in deep mourning, writing in a little alcove, half curtained off from the rest of the room, and looking decidedly cozy.

The moment she turned her face toward us at the mention of our names, my unpleasant feelings of nervousness vanished. She was such a little woman—slightly deformed, too—with a pale, sickly-looking face, and large, clear eyes, that seemed to attract sympathy at once, for they seemed to say to one, "I am only a timid, simple little creature. You need not be afraid of me."

I was not very tall, but I almost looked down on her as she gave me her hand.

"I was expecting you, Miss Cameron," she said, in such a sweet tone that it quite won my heart. "Your uncle kindly promised to introduce us to each other."

And then she looked at me, not keenly and scrutinizingly, as her brother had done, but with a kindly inquisitiveness, as though she wanted to know all about me, and to put me at my ease as soon as possible. I flushed a little at that, and my unfortunate sensitiveness took alarm. If it were only Carrie, I thought, with her pretty face and soft voice; but I was so sadly unattractive, no one would be taken with me at first sight. Fred had once said so in my hearing, and how I had cried over that speech!

"Esther looks older than she is; but she is only seventeen," interposed Uncle Geoffrey, as he saw that unlucky blush. "She is a good girl, and very industrious, and her mother's right hand," went on the simple man. If I only could have plucked up spirit and contradicted him, but I felt tongue-tied.

"She looks very reliable," returned Miss Lucas, in the kindest way. To this day I believe she could not find any compliment compatible with truth. I once told her so months afterward, when we were very good friends, and she laughed and could not deny it.

"You were frowning so, Esther," she replied, "from excess of nervousness, I believe, that your forehead was quite lost in your hair, and your great eyes were looking at me in such a funny, frightened way, and the corners of your mouth all coming down, I thought you were five-and-twenty at least, and wondered what I was to do with such a proud, repellant-looking young woman; but when you smiled I began to see then."

I had not reached the smiling stage just then, and was revolving her speech in rather a dispirited way. Reliable! I knew I was that; when all at once she left off looking at me, and began talking to Uncle Geoffrey.

"And so you have finished all your Good Samaritan arrangements, Dr. Cameron; and your poor sister-in-law and her family are really settled in your house? You must let me know when I may call, or if I can be of any use. Giles told me all about it, and I was so interested."

"Is it not good of Uncle Geoffrey?" I broke in. And then it must have been that I smiled; but I never could have passed that over in silence, to hear strangers praise him, and not join in.

"I think it is noble of Dr. Cameron—we both think so," she answered, warmly; and then she turned to me again. "I can understand how anxious you must all feel to help and lighten his burdens. When Dr. Cameron proposed your services for my little niece—for he knows what an invalid I am, and that systematic teaching would be impossible to me—I was quite charmed with the notion. But now, before we talk any more about it, supposing you and I go up to see Flurry."



CHAPTER VIII.

FLURRY AND FLOSSY.

What a funny little name! I could not help saying so to Miss Lucas as I followed her up the old oak staircase with its beautifully carved balustrades.

"It is her own baby abbreviation of Florence," she returned, pausing on the landing to take breath, for even that slight ascent seemed to weary her. She was quite pale and panting by the time we arrived at our destination. "It is nice to be young and strong," she observed, wistfully. "I am not very old, it is true"—she could not have been more than eight-and-twenty—"but I have never enjoyed good health, and Dr. Cameron says I never can hope to do so; but what can you expect of a crooked little creature like me?" with a smile that was quite natural and humorous, and seemed to ask no pity.

Miss Ruth was perfectly content with her life. I found out afterward she evoked rare beauty out of its quiet every-day monotony, storing up precious treasures in homely vessels.

Life was to her full of infinite possibilities, a gradual dawning and brightening of hopes that would meet their full fruition hereafter. "Some people have strength to work," she said once to me, "and then plenty of work is given to them; and some must just keep quiet and watch others work, and give them a bright word of encouragement now and then. I am one of those wayside loiterers," she finished, with a laugh; but all the same every one knew how much Miss Ruth did to help others, in spite of her failing strength.

The schoolroom, or nursery, as I believe it was called, was a large pleasant room just over the drawing-room, and commanding the same view of the garden and cedar-tree. It had three windows, only they were rather high up, and had cushioned window-seats. In one of them there was a little girl curled up in company with a large brown and white spaniel.

"Well, Flurry, what mischief are you and Flossy concocting?" asked Miss Lucas, in a playful voice, for the child was too busily engaged to notice our entrance.

"Why, it is my little auntie," exclaimed Flurry, joyously, and she scrambled down, while Flossy wagged his tail and barked. Evidently Miss Ruth was not a frequent visitor to the nursery.

Flurry was about six, not a pretty child by any means, though there might be a promise of future beauty in her face. She was a thin, serious-looking little creature, more like the father than the mother, and no one could call Mr. Lucas handsome. Her dark eyes —nearly black they were—matched oddly, in my opinion, with her long fair hair; such pretty fluffy hair it was, falling over her black frock. When her aunt bade her come and speak to the lady who was kind enough to promise to teach her, she stood for a moment regarding me gravely with childish inquisitiveness before she gave me her hand.

"What are you going to teach me?" she asked. "I don't think I want to be taught, auntie; I can read, I have been reading to Flossy, and I can write, and hem father's handkerchiefs. Ask nursie."

"But you would like to play to dear father, and to learn all sorts of pretty hymns to say to him, would you not, my darling! There are many things you will have to know before you are a woman."

"I don't mean to be a woman ever, I think," observed Flurry; "I like being a child better. Nursie is a woman, and nursie won't play; she says she is old and stupid."

A happy inspiration came to me. "If you are good and learn your lessons, I will play with you," I said, rather timidly; "that is, if you care for a grown-up playfellow."

I was only seventeen, in spite of my pronounce features, and I could still enter into the delights of a good drawn battle of battledore and shuttlecock. Perhaps it was the repressed enthusiasm of my tone, for I really meant what I said; but Flurry's brief coldness vanished, and she caught at my hand at once.

"Come and see them," she said; "I did not know you liked dolls, but you shall have one of your own if you like;" and she led me to a corner of the nursery where a quantity of dolls in odd costumes and wonderfully constrained attitudes were arranged round an inverted basket.

"Joseph and his brethren," whispered Flurry. "I am going to put him in the pit directly, only I wondered what I should do for the camels —this is Issachar, and this Gad. Look at Gad's turban."

It was almost impossible to retain my gravity. I could see Miss Lucas smiling in the window seat. Joseph and his brethren—what a droll idea for a child! But I did not know then that Flurry's dolls had to sustain a variety of bewildering parts. When I next saw them the smart turbans were all taken off the flaxen heads, a few dejected sawdust bodies hung limply round a miller's cart. "Ancient Britons," whispered Flurry. "Nurse would not let me paint them blue, but they did not wear clothes then, you know." In fact, our history lesson was generally followed by a series of touching tableaux vivants, the dolls sustaining their parts in several moving scenes of "Alfred and the Cakes," "Hubert and Arthur," and once "the Battle of Cressy."

Flurry and I parted the best of friends; and when we joined Uncle Geoffrey in the drawing-room I was quite ready to enter on my duties at once.

Miss Lucas stipulated for my services from ten till five; a few simple lessons in the morning were to be followed by a walk, I was to lunch with them, and in the afternoon I was to amuse Flurry or teach her a little—just as I liked.

"The fact is," observed Miss Lucas, as I looked a little surprised at this programme, "Nurse is a worthy woman, and we are all very much attached to her; but she is very ignorant, and my brother will not have Flurry thrown too much on her companionship. He wishes me to find some one who will take the sole charge of the child through the day; in the evening she always comes down to her father and sits with him until her bedtime." And then she named what seemed to me a surprisingly large sum for services. What! all that for playing with Flurry, and giving her a few baby lessons; poor Carrie could not have more for teaching the little Thornes. But when I hinted this to Uncle Geoffrey, he said quietly that they were rich people and could well afford it.

"Don't rate yourself so low, little woman," he added, good-humoredly; "you are giving plenty of time and interest, and surely that is worth something." And then he went on to say that Jack must go to school, he knew a very good one just by; some ladies who were patients of his would take her at easy terms, he knew. He would call that very afternoon and speak to Miss Martin.

Poor mother shed a few tears when I told her our plans. It was sad for her to see her girls reduced to work for themselves; but she cheered up after a little while, and begged me not to think her ungrateful and foolish. "For we have so many blessings, Esther," she went on, in her patient way. "We are all together, except poor Fred, and but for your uncle's goodness we might have been separated."

"And we shall have such nice cozy evenings," I returned, "when the day's work is over. I shall feel like a day laborer, mother, bringing home my wages in my pocket. I shall be thinking of you and Dot all day, and longing to get back to you."

But though I spoke and felt so cheerfully, I knew that the evenings would not be idle. There would be mending to do and linen to make, for we could not afford to buy our things ready-made; but, with mother's clever fingers and Carrie's help, I thought we should do very well. I must utilize every spare minute, I thought. I must get up early and help Deborah, so that things might go on smoothly for the rest of the day. There was Dot to dress, and mother was ailing, and had her breakfast in bed—there would be a hundred little things to set right before I started off for the Cedars, as Mr. Lucas' house was called.

"Never mind, it is better to wear out than to rust out," I said to myself. And then I picked up Jack's gloves from the floor, hung up her hat in its place, and tried to efface the marks of her muddy boots from the carpet (I cannot deny Jack was a thorn in my side just now), and then there came a tap at my door, and Carrie came in.

She looked so pretty and bright, that I could not help admiring her afresh. I am sure people must have called her beautiful.

"How happy you look, Carrie, in spite of your three little Thornes," I said rather mischievously. "Has mother told you about Miss Lucas?"

"Yes, I heard all about that," she returned, absently. "You are very fortunate, Esther, to find work in which you can take an interest. I am glad—very glad about that."

"I wish, for your sake, that we could exchange," I returned, feeling myself very generous in intention, but all the same delighted that my unselfishness should not be put to the proof.

"Oh, no, I have no wish of that sort," she replied, hastily; "I could not quite bring myself to play with children in the nursery." I suppose mother had told her about the dolls. "Well, we both start on our separate treadmill on Monday—Black Monday, eh, Esther?"

"Not at all," I retorted, for I was far too pleased and excited with my prospects to be damped by Carrie's want of enthusiasm. I thought I would sit down and write to Jessie, and tell her all about it, but here was Carrie preparing herself for one of her chats.

"Did you see me talking to Mr. Smedley, Esther?" she began; and as I nodded she went on. "I had never spoken to him before since Uncle Geoffrey introduced us to him. He is such a nice, practical sort of man. He took me into the vicarage, and introduced me to his wife. She is very plain and homely, but so sensible."

I held my peace. I had rather a terror of Mrs. Smedley. She was one of those bustling workers whom one dreads by instinct. She had a habit of pouncing upon people, especially young ones, and driving them to work. Before many days were over she had made poor mother promise to do some cutting out for the clothing club, as though mother had not work enough for us all at home. I thought it very inconsiderate of Mrs. Smedley.

"I took to them at once," went on Carrie, "and indeed they were exceedingly kind. Mr. Smedley seemed to understand everything in a moment, how I wanted work, and——"

"But, Carrie," I demanded, aghast at this, "you have work: you have the little Thornes."

"Oh, don't drag them in at every word," she answered, pettishly—at least pettishly for her; "of course, I have my brick-making, and so have you. I am thinking of other things now, Esther; I have promised Mr. Smedley to be one of his district visitors."

I almost jumped off my chair at that, I was so startled and so indignant.

"Oh, Carrie! and when you know mother does not approve of girls of our age undertaking such work—she has said so over and over again —how can you go against her wishes?"

Carrie looked at me mildly, but she was not in the least discomposed at my words.

"Listen to me, you silly child," she said, good-humoredly; "this is one of mother's fancies; you cannot expect me with my settled views to agree with her in this."

I don't know what Carrie meant by her views, unless they consisted in a determination to make herself and every one else uncomfortable by an overstrained sense of duty.

"Middle-aged people are timid sometimes. Mother has never visited the poor herself, so she does not see the necessity for my doing it; but I am of a different opinion," continued Carrie, with a mild obstinacy that astonished me too much for any reply.

"When mother cried about it just now, and begged me to let her speak to Mr. Smedley, I told her that I was old enough to judge for myself, and that I thought one's conscience ought not to be slavishly bound even to one's parent. I was trying to do my duty to her and to every one, but I must not neglect the higher part of my vocation."

"Oh, Carrie, how could you? You will make her so unhappy."

"No; she only cried a good deal, and begged me to be prudent and not overtax my strength; and then she talked about you, and hoped I should help you as much as possible, as though I meant to shirk any part of my duty. I do not think she really disapproved, only she seemed nervous and timid about it; but I ask you, Esther, how I could help offering my services, when Mrs. Smedley told me about the neglected state of the parish, and how few ladies came forward to help?"

"But how will you find time?" I remonstrated; though what was the good of remonstrating when Carrie had once made up her mind?

"I have the whole of Saturday afternoon, and an hour on Wednesday, and now the evenings are light I might utilize them a little. I am to have Nightingale lane and the whole of Rowley street, so one afternoon in the week will scarcely be sufficient."

"Oh, Carrie," I groaned; but, actually, though the mending lay on my mind like a waking nightmare, I could not expostulate with her. I only looked at her in a dim, hopeless way and shook my head; if these were her views I must differ from them entirely. Not that I did not wish good—heavenly good—to the poor, but that I felt home duties would have to be left undone; and after all that uncle had done for us!

"And then I promised Mrs. Smedley that I would help in the Sunday -school," she continued, cheerfully. "She was so pleased, and kissed me quite gratefully. She says she and Mr. Smedley have had such up-hill work since they came to Milnthorpe—and there is so much lukewarmness and worldliness in the place. Even Miss Lucas, in spite of her goodness —and she owned she was very good, Esther—will not take their advice about things."

"I told her," she went on, hesitating, "that I would speak to you, and ask you to take a Sunday class in the infant school. You are so fond of children, I thought you would be sure to consent."

"So I would, and gladly too, if you would take my place at home," I returned, quickly; "but if you do so much yourself, you will prevent me from doing anything. Why not let me take the Sunday school class, while you stop with mother and Dot?"

"What nonsense!" she replied, flushing a little, for my proposition did not please her; "that is so like you, Esther, to raise obstacles for nothing. Why cannot we both teach; surely you can give one afternoon a week to God's work?"

"I hope I am giving not one afternoon, but every afternoon to it," I returned, and the tears rushed to my eyes, for her speech wounded me. "Oh, Carrie, why will you not understand that I think that all work that is given us to do is God's work? It is just as right for me to play with Flurry as it is to teach in the Sunday school."

"You can do both if you choose," she answered, coolly.

"Not unless you take my place," I returned, decidedly, for I had the Cameron spirit, and would not yield my point; "for in that case Dot would lose his Sunday lessons, and Jack would be listless and fret mother."

"Very well," was Carrie's response; but I could see she was displeased with my plain speaking; and I went downstairs very tired and dispirited, to find mother had cried herself into a bad headache.

"If I could only talk to your dear father about it," she whispered, when she had opened her heart to me on the subject of Carrie. "I am old-fashioned, as Carrie says, and it is still my creed that parents know best for their children; but she thinks differently, and she is so good that, perhaps, one ought to leave her to judge for herself. If I could only know what your father would say," she went on, plaintively.

I could give her no comfort, for I was only a girl myself, and my opinions were still immature and unfledged, and then I never had been as good as Carrie. But what I said seemed to console mother a little, for she drew down my face and kissed it.

"Always my good, sensible Esther," she said, and then Uncle Geoffrey came in and prescribed for the headache, and the subject dropped.



CHAPTER IX.

THE CEDARS.

I was almost ashamed of myself for being so happy, and yet it was a sober kind of happiness too. I did not forget my father, and I missed Allan with an intensity that surprised myself; but, in spite of hard work and the few daily vexations that hamper every one's lot, I continued to extract a great deal of enjoyment out of my life. To sum it up with a word, it was life—not mere existence—a life brimming over with duties and responsibilities and untried work, too busy for vacuum. Every corner and interstice of time filled up—heart, and head, and hands always fully employed; and youth and health, those two grand gifts of God, making all such work a delight.

Now I am older, and the sap of life does not run so freely in my veins, I almost marvel at the remembrance of those days, at my youthful exuberance and energy, and those words, "As thy day, so shall thy strength be," come to me with a strange force and illumination, for truly I needed it all then, and it was given to me. Time was a treasure trove, and I husbanded every minute with a miser's zeal. I had always been an early riser, and now I reaped the benefit of this habit. Jack used to murmur discontentedly in her sleep when I set the window open soon after six, and the fresh summer air fanned her hot face. But how cool and dewy the garden looked at that hour!

It was so bright and still, with the thrushes and blackbirds hopping over the wet lawn, and the leaves looking so fresh and green in the morning sun; such twitterings and chirpings came from the lilac trees, where the little brown sparrows twittered and plumed themselves. The bird music used to chime in in a sort of refrain to my morning prayers—a diminutive chorus of praise—the choral before the day's service commenced.

I always gave Jack a word of warning before I left the room (the reprimand used to find her in the middle of a dream), and then I went to Dot. I used to help him to dress and hear him repeat his prayers, and talk cheerfully to him when he was languid and fretful, and the small duties of life were too heavy for his feeble energies. Dot always took a large portion of my time; his movements were slow and full of tiny perversities; he liked to stand and philosophize in an infantile way when I wanted to be downstairs helping Deborah. Dot's fidgets, as I called them, were part of the day's work.

When he was ready to hobble downstairs with his crutch, I used to fly back to Jack, and put a few finishing touches to her toilet, for I knew by experience that she would make her appearance downstairs with a crooked parting and a collar awry, and be grievously plaintive when Carrie found fault with her. Talking never mended matters; Jack was at the hoiden age, and had to grow into tidiness and womanhood by-and-by.

After that I helped Deborah, and took up mother's breakfast. I always found her lying with her face to the window, and her open Bible beside her. Carrie had always been in before me and arranged the room. Mother slept badly, and at that early hour her face had a white, pining look, as though she had lost her way in the night, or waked to miss something. She used to turn with a sweet troubled smile to me as I entered.

"Here comes my busy little woman," she would say, with a pretense at cheerfulness, and then she would ask after Dot. She never spoke much of her sadness to us; with an unselfishness that was most rare she refused to dim our young cheerfulness by holding an unhealed grief too plainly before our eyes. Dear mother, I realize now what that silence must have cost her!

When breakfast was over, and Uncle Geoffrey busily engrossed with his paper, I used to steal into the kitchen and have a long confab with Deborah, and then Jack and I made our bed and dusted our room to save Martha, and by that time I was ready to start to the Cedars; but not until I had convoyed Jack to Miss Martin's, and left her and her books safely at the door.

Dot used to kiss me rather wistfully when I left him with his lesson-books and paint-box, waiting for mother to come down and keep him company. Poor little fellow, he had rather a dull life of it, for even Jumbles refused to stay with him, and Smudge was out in the garden, lazily watching the sparrows. Poor little lonely boy, deprived of the usual pleasures of boyhood, and looking out on our busy lives from a sort of sad twilight of pain and weakness, but keeping such a brave heart and silent tongue over it all.

How I enjoyed my little walk up High street and across the wide, sunshiny square! When I reached the Cedars, and the butler admitted me, I used to run up the old oak staircase and tap at the nursery door.

Nurse used to courtesy and withdraw; Flurry and I had it all to ourselves. I never saw Miss Lucas until luncheon-time; she was more of an invalid than I knew at that time, and rarely left her room before noon. Flurry and I soon grew intimate; after a few days were over we were the best of friends. She was a clever child and fond of her lessons, but she was full of droll fancies. She always insisted on her dolls joining our studies. It used to be a little embarrassing to me at first to see myself surrounded by the vacant waxen faces staring at us, with every variety of smirk and bland fatuous expression: the flaxen heads nid-nodded over open lesson-books, propped up in limp, leathery arms. When Flossy grew impatient for a game of play, he would drag two or three of them down with a vicious snap and a stroke of his feathery paws. Flurry would shake her head at him disapprovingly, as she picked them up and shook out their smart frocks. The best behaved of the dolls always accompanied us in our walk before luncheon.

I used to think of Carrie's words, sometimes, as I played with Flurry in the afternoon; she would not hear of lessons then. Sometimes I would coax her to sew a little, or draw; and she always had her half hour at the piano, but during the rest of the afternoon I am afraid there was nothing but play.

How I wish Dot could have joined us sometimes as we built our famous brick castles, or worked in Flurry's little garden, where she grew all sorts of wonderful things. When I was tired or lazy I used to bring out my needle-work to the seat under the cedar, and tell Flurry stories, or talk to her as she dressed her dolls; she was very good and tractable, and never teased me to play when I was disinclined.

I told her about Dot very soon, and she gave me no peace after that until I took her to see him; there was quite a childish friendship between them soon. Flurry used to send him little gifts, which she purchased with her pocket-money—pictures, and knives, and pencils. I often begged Miss Lucas to put a stop to it, but she only laughed and praised Flurry, and put by choice little portions of fruit and other dainties for Flurry's boy friend.

Flurry prattled a great deal about her father, but I never saw him. He had his luncheon at the bank. Once when we were playing battledore and shuttle-cock in the hall—for Miss Lucas liked to hear us all over the house; she said it made her feel cheerful—I heard a door open overhead, and caught a glimpse of a dark face watching us; but I thought it was Morgan the butler, until Flurry called out joyfully, "Father! Father!" and then it disappeared. Now and then I met him in the square, and he always knew me and took off his hat; but I did not exchange a word with him for months.

Flurry loved him, and seemed deep in his confidence. She always put on her best frock and little pearl necklace to go down and sit with her father, while he ate his dinner. She generally followed him into his study, and chatted to him, until nurse fetched her at bed-time. When she had asked me some puzzling question that it was impossible to answer, she would refer it to her father with implicit faith. She would make me rather uncomfortable at times respecting little speeches of his.

"Father can't understand why you are so fond of play," she said once to me; "he says so few grown-up girls deign to amuse themselves with a game: but you do like it, don't you, Miss Cameron?" making up a very coaxing face. Of course I confessed to a great fondness for games, but all the same I wished Mr. Lucas had not said that. Perhaps he thought me too hoidenish for his child's governess, and for a whole week after that I refused to play with Flurry, until she began to mope, and my heart misgave me. We played at hide and seek that day all over the house—Flurry and Flossy and I.

Then another time, covering me with dire confusion, "Father thinks that such a pretty story, Miss Cameron, the one about Gretchen. He said I ought to try and remember it, and write it down; and then he asked if you had really made it up in your head."

"Oh, Flurry, that silly little story?"

"Not silly at all," retorted Flurry, with a little heat; "father had a headache, and he could not talk to me, so I told him stories to send him to sleep, and I thought he would like dear little Gretchen. He never went to sleep after all, but his eyes were wide open, staring at the fire; and then he told me he had been thinking of dear mamma, and he thought I should be very like her some day. And then he thanked me for my pretty stories, and then tiresome old nursie fetched me to bed."

That stupid little tale! To think of Mr. Lucas listening to that. I was not a very inventive storyteller, though I could warm into eloquence on occasions, but Flurry's demand was so excessive that I hit on a capital plan at last.

I created a wonderful child heroine, and called her Juliet and told a little fresh piece of her history every day. Never was there such a child for impossible adventures and hairbreadth escapes; what that unfortunate little creature went through was known only to Flurry and me.

She grew to love Juliet like a make-believe sister of her own, and talked of her at last as a living child. What long moral conversations took place between Juliet and her mother, what admirable remarks did that excellent mother make, referring to sundry small sins of omission and commission on Juliet's part! When I saw Flurry wince and turn red I knew the remarks had struck home.

It was astonishing how Juliet's behavior varied with Flurry's. If Flurry were inattentive, Juliet was listless; if her history lessons were ill-learned, Juliet's mamma had always a great deal to say about the battle of Agincourt or any other event that it was necessary to impress on her memory. I am afraid Flurry at last took a great dislike to that well-meaning lady, and begged to hear more about Juliet's little brother and sister. When I came to a very uninteresting part she would propose a game of ball or a scamper with Flossy; but all the same next day we would be back at it again.

The luncheon hour was very pleasant to me. I grew to like Miss Lucas excessively; she talked so pleasantly and seemed so interested in all I had to tell her about myself and Flurry; a quiet atmosphere of refinement surrounded her—a certain fitness and harmony of thought. Sometimes she would invite us into the drawing-room after luncheon, saying she felt lonely and would be glad of our society for a little. I used to enjoy those half-hours, though I am afraid Flurry found them a little wearisome. Our talk went over her head, and she would listen to it with a droll, half-bored expression, and take refuge at last with Flossy.

Sometimes, but not often, Miss Lucas would take us to drive with her. I think, until she knew me well, that she liked better to be alone with her own thoughts. As our knowledge of each other grew, I was struck with the flower-like unfolding of her ideas; they would bud and break forth into all manner of quaint fancies—their freshness and originality used to charm me.

I think there is no interest in life compared to knowing people —finding them out, their tastes, character, and so forth. I had an inquisitive delight, I called it thirst, for human knowledge, in drawing out a stranger; no traveler exploring unknown tracts of country ever pursued his researches with greater zeal and interest. Reserve only attracts me.

Impulsive people, who let out their feelings the first moment, do not interest me half so much as silent folk. I like to sit down before an enclosed citadel and besiege it; with such ramparts of defense there must be precious store in the heart of the city, some hidden jewels, perhaps; at least, so I argue with myself.

But, happy as I was with Miss Lucas and Flurry, five o'clock no sooner struck than I was flying down the oak staircase, with Flurry peeping at me between the balustrades, and waving a mite of a hand in token of adieu; for was I not going home to mother and Dot? Oh, the dear, bright home scene that always awaited me! I wonder if Carrie loved it as I did! The homely, sunny little parlors; the cozy tea table, over which old Martha would be hovering with careful face and hands; mother in her low chair by the garden window; Uncle Geoffrey with his books and papers at the little round table; Dot and Jack hidden in some corner, out of which Dot would come stumping on his poor little crutches to kiss me, and ask after his little friend Flurry.

"Here comes our Dame Bustle," Uncle Geoffrey would say. It was his favorite name for me, and mother would look up and greet me with the same loving smile that was never wanting on her dear face.

On the stairs I generally came upon Carrie, coming down from her little room.

"How are the little Thornes?" I would ask her, cheerfully; but by-and-by I left off asking her about them. At first she used to shrug her shoulders and shake her head in a sort of disconsolate fashion, or answered indifferently: "Oh, much as usual, thank you." But once she returned, quite pettishly:

"Why do you ask after those odious children, Esther? Why cannot you let me forget them for a few hours? If we are brickmakers, we need not always be telling the tales of our bricks." She finished with a sort of weary tone in her tired voice, and after that I let the little Thornes alone.

What happy evenings those were! Not that we were idle, though—"the saints forbid," as old Biddy used to say. When tea was over, mother and I betook ourselves to the huge mending basket; sometimes Carrie joined us, when she was not engaged in district work, and then her clever fingers made the work light for us.

Then there were Jack's lessons to superintend, and sometimes I had to help Dot with his drawing, or copy out papers for Uncle Geoffrey: then by-and-by Dot had to be taken upstairs, and there were little things to do for mother when Carrie was too tired or busy to do them. Mother was Carrie's charge. As Dot and Jack were mine, it was a fair division of labor, only somehow Carrie had always so much to do.

Mother used to fret sometimes about it, and complain that Carrie sat up too late burning the midnight oil in her little room; but I never could find out what kept her up. I was much happier about Carrie now —she seemed brighter and in better spirits. If she loathed her daily drudgery, she said little about it, and complained less. All her interests were reserved for Nightingale lane and Rowley street. The hours spent in those unsavory neighborhoods were literally her times of refreshment. Her poor people were very close to her heart, and often she told us about them as we sat working together in the evening, until mother grew quite interested, and used to ask after them by name, which pleased Carrie, and made a bond of sympathy between them. At such times I somehow felt a little sad, though I would not have owned it for worlds, for it seemed to me as though my work were so trivial compared to Carrie's—as though I were a poor little Martha, "careful and troubled about many things" about, Deborah's crossness and Jack's reckless ways, occupied with small minor duties—dressing Dot, and tidying Jack's and Uncle Geoffrey's drawers; while Carrie was doing angel's work; reclaiming drunken women, and teaching miserable degraded children, and then coming home and playing sweet sacred fragments of Handel to soothe mother's worn spirits, or singing her the hymns she loved. Alas! I could not sing except in church, and my playing was a poor affair compared to Carrie's.

I felt it most on Sundays, when Carrie used to go off to the Sunday school morning and afternoon, and left me to the somewhat monotonous task of hearing Jack her catechism and giving Dot his Scripture lesson. Sunday was always a trial to Dot. He was not strong enough to go to church—the service would have wearied him too much—his few lessons were soon done, and then time used to hang heavily on his hands.

At last the grand idea came to me to set him to copy Scripture maps, and draw small illustrations of any Biblical scene that occurred in the lesson of the day. I have a book full of his childish fancies now, all elaborately colored on week-days—"Joseph and his Brethren" in gaudy turbans, and wonderfully inexpressive countenances, reminding me of Flurry's dolls; the queen of Sheba, coming before Solomon, in a marvelous green tiara and yellow garments; a headless Goliath, expressed with a painful degree of detail, more fit for the Wirtz Gallery than a child's scrap-book.

Dot used frequently to write letters to Allan, to which I often added copious postscripts. I never could coax Dot to write to Fred, though Fred sent him plenty of kind messages, and many a choice little parcel of scraps and odds and ends, such as Dot liked.

Fred was getting on tolerably, he always told us. He had rooms in St. John's Wood, which he shared with two other artists; he was working hard, and had some copying orders. Allan saw little of him; they had no friends in common, and no community of taste. Never were brothers less alike or with less sympathy.



CHAPTER X.

"I WISH I HAD A DOT OF MY OWN."

Months passed over, and found us the same busy, tranquil little household. I used to wonder how my letters could interest Allan so much as he said they did; I could find so little to narrate. And, talking of that, it strikes me that we are not sufficiently thankful for the monotony of life. I speak advisedly; I mean for the quiet uniformity and routine of our daily existence. In our youth we quarrel a little with its sameness and regularity; it is only when the storms of sudden crises and unlooked-for troubles break over our thankful heads that we look back with regret to those still days of old.

Nothing seemed to happen, nothing looked different. Mother grew a little stronger as the summer passed, and took a few more household duties on herself. Dot pined and pinched as the cold weather came on, as he always did, and looked a shivering, shabby Dot sometimes. Jack's legs grew longer, and her frocks shorter, and we had to tie her hair to keep it out of her eyes, and she stooped more, and grew round-shouldered, which added to her list of beauties; but no one expected grace from Jack.

At the Cedars things went on as usual, that Flurry left off calling me Miss Cameron, and took to Esther instead, somewhat scandalizing Miss Lucas, until she began taking to it herself. "For you are so young, and you are more Flurry's playfellow than her governess," she said apologetically; "it is no good being stiff when we are such old friends." And after that I always called her Miss Ruth.

"Don't you want see to Roseberry, Esther?" asked Flurry, one day —that was the name of the little seaside place where Mr. Lucas had a cottage. "Aunt Ruth says you must come down with us next summer; she declares she has quite set her heart on it."

"Oh, Flurry, that would be delightful!—but how could I leave mother and Dot?" I added in a regretful parenthesis. That was always the burden of my song—Mother and Dot.

"Dot must come, too," pronounced Flurry, decidedly; and she actually proposed to Miss Ruth at luncheon that "Esther's little brother should be invited to Roseberry." Miss Ruth looked at me with kindly amused eyes, as I grew crimson and tried to hush Flurry.

"We shall see," she returned, in her gentle voice; "if Esther will not go without Dot, Dot must come too." But though the bare idea was too delightful, I begged Miss Ruth not to entertain such an idea for a moment.

I think Flurry's little speech put a kind thought into Miss Ruth's head, for when she next invited us to drive with her, the gray horses stopped for an instant at Uncle Geoffrey's door, and the footman lifted Dot in his little fur-lined coat, and placed him at Miss Ruth's side. And seeing the little lad's rapture, and Flurry's childish delight, she often called for him, sometimes when she was alone, for she said Dot never troubled her; he could be as quiet as a little mouse when her head ached and she was disinclined to talk.

I said nothing happened; but one day I had a pleasant surprise, just when I did not deserve it; for it was one of my fractious days—days of moods and tenses I used to called them—when nothing seemed quite right, when I was beset by that sort of grown-up fractiousness that wants to be petted and put to bed, and bidden to lie still like a tired child.

Winter had set in in downright earnest, and in those cold dark mornings early rising seemed an affront to the understanding, and a snare to be avoided by all right-minded persons; yet notwithstanding all that, a perverse, fidgety notion of duty drove me with a scourge of mental thorns from my warm bed. For I was young and healthy, and why should I lie there while Deborah and Martha broke the ice in their pitchers, and came downstairs with rasped red faces and acidulated tempers? I was thankful not to do likewise, to know I should hear in a few minutes a surly tap at the door, with the little hot-water can put down with protesting evidence. Even then it was hard work to flesh and blood, with no dewy lawn, no bird music now to swell my morning's devotion with tiny chorus of praise; only a hard frozen up world, with a trickle of meager sunshine running through it.

But my hardest work was with Dot; he used to argue drowsily with me while I stood shivering and awaiting his pleasure. Why did I not go down to the fire if I were cold? He was not going to get up in the middle of the night to please any one; never mind the robins—of which I reminded him gently—he wished he were a robin too, and could get up and go to bed with a neat little feather bed tacked to his skin—nice, cosy little fellows; and then he would draw the bedclothes round his thin little shoulders, and try to maintain his position.

He quite whimpered on the morning in question, when I lifted him out bodily—such a miserable Dot, looking like a starved dove in his white plumage; but he cheered up at the sight of the fire and hot coffee in the snug parlor, and whispered a little entreaty for forgiveness as I stooped over him to make him comfortable.

"You are tired, Esther," said my mother tenderly, when she saw my face that morning; "you must not get up so early this cold weather, my dear." But I held my peace, for who would dress Dot, and what would become of Jack? And then came a little lump in my throat, for I was tired and fractious.

When I got to the Cedars a solemn stillness reigned in the nursery, and instead of an orderly room a perfect chaos of doll revelry prevailed. All the chairs were turned into extempore beds, and the twelve dolls, with bandaged heads and arms, were tucked up with the greatest care.

Flurry met me with an air of great importance and her finger on her lip.

"Hush, Esther, you must not make a noise. I am Florence Nightingale, and these are all the poor sick and wounded soldiers; look at this one, this is Corporal Trim, and he has had his two legs shot off."

I recognized Corporal Trim under his bandages; he was the very doll Flossy had so grievously maltreated and had robbed of an eye; the waxen tip of his nose was gone, and a great deal of his flaxen wig besides—quite a caricature of a mutilated veteran.

I called Flurry to account a little sternly, and insisted on her restoring order to the room. Flurry pouted and sulked; her heart was at Scutari, and her wits went wool-gathering, and refused dates and the multiplication table. To make matters worse, it commenced snowing, and there was no prospect of a walk before luncheon. Miss Ruth did not come down to that meal, and afterward I sat and knitted in grim silence. Discipline must be maintained, and as Flurry would not work, neither would I play with her; but I do not know which of us was punished the most.

"Oh, how cross you are, Esther, and it is Christmas eve!" cried Flurry at last, on the verge of crying. It was growing dusk, and already shadows lurked in the corner of the room, Flurry looked at me so wistfully that I am afraid I should have relented and gone on a little with Juliet, only at that moment she sprang up joyfully at the sound of her aunt's voice calling her, and ran out to the top of the dark staircase.

"We are to go down, you and I; Aunt Ruth wants us," she exclaimed, laying violent hands on my work. I felt rather surprised at the summons, for Miss Ruth never called us at this hour, and it would soon be time for me to go home.

The drawing-room looked the picture of warm comfort as we entered it; some glorious pine logs were crackling and spluttering in the grate, sending out showers of colored sparks.

Miss Ruth was half-buried in her easy-chair, with her feet on the white fleecy rug, and the little square tea-table stood near her, with its silver kettle and the tiny blue teacups.

"You have sent for us, Miss Ruth," I said, as I crossed the room to her; but at that instant another figure I had not seen started up from a dark corner, and caught hold of me in rough, boyish fashion.

"Allan! oh Allan! Allan!" my voice rising into a perfect crescendo of ecstasy at the sight of his dear dark face. Could anything be more deliciously unexpected? And there was Miss Ruth laughing very softly to herself at my pleasure.

"Oh, Allan, what does this mean," I demanded, "when you told us there was no chance of your spending Christmas with us? Have you been home? Have you seen mother and Dot? Have you come here to fetch me home?"

Allan held up his hands as he took a seat near me.

"One question at a time, Esther. I had unexpected leave of absence for a week, and that is why you see me; and as I wanted to surprise you all, I said nothing about it. I arrived about three hours ago, and as mother thought I might come and fetch you, why I thought I would, and that you would be pleased to see me; that is all my story," finished Allan, exchanging an amused glance with Miss Ruth. They had never met before, and yet they seemed already on excellent terms. All an made no sort of demur when Miss Ruth insisted that we should both have some tea to warm us before we went. I think he felt at home with her at once.

Flurry seemed astonished at our proceeding. She regarded Allan for a long time very solemnly, until he won her heart by admiring Flossy; then she condescended to converse with him.

"Are you Esther's brother, really?"

"Yes, Miss Florence—I believe that is your name."

"Florence Emmeline Lucas," she repeated glibly. "I'm Flurry for short; nobody calls me Florence except father sometimes. It was dear mamma's name, and he always sighs when he says it."

"Indeed," returned Allan in an embarrassed tone; and then he took Flossy on his knee and began to play with him.

"Esther is rich," went on Flurry, rather sadly. "She has three brothers; there's Fred, and you, and Dot. I think she likes Dot best, and so do I. What a pity I haven't a Dot of my own! No brothers; only father and Aunt Ruth."

"Poor little dear," observed Allan compassionately—he was always fond of children. His hearty tone made Flurry look up in his face. "He is a nice man," she said to me afterward; "he likes Flossy and me, and he was pleased when I kissed him."

I did not tell Flurry that Allan had been very much astonished at her friendship.

"That is a droll little creature," he said, as we left the house together; "but there is something very attractive about her. You have a nice berth there, Esther. Miss Lucas seems a delightful person," an opinion in which I heartily agreed. Then he asked me about Mr. Lucas; but I had only Flurry's opinion to offer him on that subject, and he questioned me in his old way about my daily duties. "Mother thinks you are overworked, and you are certainly looking a little thin, Esther. Does not Carrie help you enough? And what is this I have just heard about the night school?"

Our last grievance, which I had hitherto kept from Allan; but of course mother had told him. It was so nice to be walking there by his side, with the crisp white snow beneath our feet, and the dark sky over our heads; no more fractiousness now, when I could pour out all my worries to Allan.

Such a long story I told him; but the gist of it was this; Carrie had been very imprudent; she would not let well alone, or be content with a sufficient round of duties. She worked hard with her pupils all day, and besides that she had a district and Sunday school; and now Mrs. Smedley had persuaded her to devote two evenings of her scanty leisure to the night school.

"I think it is very hard and unjust to us," I continued rather excitedly. "We have so little of Carrie—only just the odds and ends of time she can spare us. Mrs. Smedley has no right to dictate to us all, and to work Carrie in the way she does. She has got an influence over her, and she uses it for her own purposes, and Carrie is weak to yield so entirely to her judgment; she coaxes her and flatters her, and talks about her high standard and unselfish zeal for the work; but I can't understand it, and I don't think it right for Carrie to be Mrs. Smedley's parochial drudge."

"I will talk to Carrie," returned Allan, grimly; and he would not say another word on the subject. But I forgot all my grievances during the happy evening that followed.

Allan was in such spirits! As frolicsome as a boy, he would not let us be dull, and so his talk never flagged for a moment. Dot laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks when Allan kicked over the mending basket, and finally ordered Martha to take it away. When Carrie returned from the night school, she found us all gathered round the fire in peaceful idleness, listening to Allan's stories, with Dot on the rug, basking in the heat like a youthful salamander.

I think Allan must have followed her up to her room, for just as I was laying my head on the pillow there was a knock at the door, and Carrie entered with her candle, fully dressed, and with a dark circle round her eyes.

She put down the light, so as not to wake Jack, and sat down by my side with a weary sigh.

"Why did you all set Allan to talk to me?" she began reproachfully. "Why should I listen to him more than to you or mother? I begin to see that a man's foes are indeed of his own household."

I bit my lips to keep in a torrent of angry words. I was out of patience with Carrie, even a saint ought to have common sense, I thought, and I was so tired and sleepy, and to-morrow was Christmas Day.

"I could not sleep until I came and told you what I thought about it," she went on in her serious monotone. I don't think she even noticed my exasperated silence. "It is of no use for Allan to come and preach his wordly wisdom to me; we do not measure things by the same standard, he and I. You are better, Esther, but your hard matter-of-fact reasoning shocks me sometimes."

"Oh, Carrie! why don't you create a world of your own," I demanded, scornfully, "if we none of us please you—not even Allan?"

"Now you are angry without cause," she returned, gently, for Carrie rarely lost her temper in an argument; she was so meekly obstinate that we could do nothing with her. "We cannot create our own world, Esther; we can only do the best we can with this. When I am working so hard to do a little good in Milnthorpe, why do you all try to hinder and drag me back?"

"Because you are overdoing it, and wearing yourself out," I returned, determined to have my say; but she stopped me with quiet peremptoriness.

"No more of that, Esther; I have heard it all from Allan. I am not afraid of wearing out; I hope to die in harness. Why, child, how can you be so faint-hearted? We cannot die until our time comes."

"But when we court death it is suicide," I answered, stubbornly; but Carrie only gave one of her sweet little laughs.

"You foolish Esther! who means to die, I should like to know? Why, the child is actually crying. Listen to me, you dear goosie. I was never so happy or well in my life." I shook my head sorrowfully, but she persisted in her statement. "Mrs. Smedley has given me new life. How I do love that woman! She is a perfect example to us—of unselfishness and energy. She says I am her right hand, and I do believe she means it, Esther." But I only groaned in answer. "She is doing a magnificent work in Milnthrope," she continued, "and I feel so proud that I am allowed to assist her. Do you know, I had twenty boys in my class this evening; they would come to me, though Miss Miles' class was nearly empty." And so she went on, until I felt all over prickles of suppressed nervousness. "Well, good-night," she said, at last, when I could not he roused into any semblance of interest; "we shall see which of us be right by-and-by."

"Yes, we shall see," I answered, drowsily; but long after she left I muttered the words over and over to myself, "We shall see."

Yes, by-and-by the light of Divine truth would flash over our actions, and in that pure radiance every unworthy work would wither up to naught—every unblessed deed retreat into outer darkness. Which would be right, she or I?

I know only too well that, taking the world as a whole, we ought to encourage Christian parochial work, because too many girls who possess the golden opportunity of leisure allow it to be wasted, and so commit the "sin of omission;" but there would have been quite as much good done had Carrie dutifully helped in our invalid home and cheered us all to health by her bright presence. And besides, I myself could then perhaps have taken a class at me night school if the stocking-mending and the other multitudinous domestic matters could have allowed it.

The chimes of St. Barnabas were pealing through the midnight air before I slept. Above was the soft light of countless stars, sown broadcast over the dark skies. Christmas was come, and the angel's song sounding over the sleeping earth.

"Peace and goodwill to men"—peace from weary arguments and fruitless regret, peace on mourning hearts, on divided homes, on mariners tossing afar on wintry seas, and peace surely on one troubled girlish heart that waited for the breaking of a more perfect day.



CHAPTER XI.

MISS RUTH'S NURSE.

Miss Ruth insisted on giving me a week's holiday, that I might avail myself of Allan's society; and as dear mother still persisted that I looked pale and in need of change, Allan gave me a course of bracing exercise in the shape of long country walks with him and Jack, when we plowed our way over half-frozen fields and down deep, muddy lanes, scrambling over gates and through hedges, and returning home laden with holly berries and bright red hips and haws.

On Allan's last evening we were invited to dine at the Cedars—just Uncle Geoffrey, Allan, and I. Miss Ruth wrote such a pretty letter. She said that her brother thought it was a long time since he had seen his old friend Dr. Cameron, and that he was anxious to make acquaintance with his nephew and Flurry's playfellow—this was Miss Ruth's name for me, for we had quite dropped the governess between us.

Allan looked quite pleased, and scouted my dubious looks; he had taken a fancy to Miss Ruth, and wanted to see her again. He laughed when I said regretfully that it was his last evening, and that I would rather have spent it quietly at home with him. I was shy at the notion of my first dinner-party; Mr. Lucas' presence would make it a formal affair.

And then mother fretted a little that I had no evening-dress ready. I could not wear white, so all my pretty gowns were useless; but I cheered her up by my assuring her that such things did not matter in our deep mourning. And when I had dressed myself in my black cashmere, with soft white ruffles and a little knot of Christmas roses and ferns which Carrie had arranged in my dress, mother gave a relieved sigh, and thought I should do nicely, and Allan twisted me round, and declared I was not half so bad after all, and that, though I was no beauty, I should pass, with which dubious compliment I was obliged to content myself.

"I wish you were going in my stead, Carrie," I whispered, as she wrapped me in mother's warm fleecy shawl, for the night was piercingly cold.

"I would rather stay with mother," she answered quietly. And then she kissed me, and told me to be a good child, and not to be frightened of any one, in her gentle, elder sisterly way. It never occurred to her to envy me my party or my pleasant position at the Cedars, or to compare her own uncongenial work with mine. These sorts of petty jealousies and small oppositions were impossible to her; her nature was large and slightly raised, and took in wider vistas of life than ours.

My heart sank a little when I heard the sharp vibrating sound of Mrs. Smedley's voice as we were announced. I had no idea that the vicar and his wife were to be invited, but they were the only guests beside ourselves. I never could like Mrs. Smedley and to the very last I never changed my girlish opinion of her. I have a curious instinctive repugnance to people who rustle through life; whose entrances and exits are environed with noise; who announce their intentions with the blast of the trumpet. Mrs. Smedley was a wordy woman. She talked much and well, but her voice was loud and jarring. She was not a bad-looking woman. I daresay in her younger days she had been handsome, for her features were very regular and her complexion good; but I always said that she had worn herself thin with talking. She was terribly straight and angular (I am afraid I called it bony); she had sharp high cheek bones, and her hands were long and lean. On this evening she wore a rich brown brocade, that creaked and rustled with every movement, and some Indian bangles that jingled every time she raised her arm. I could not help comparing her to Miss Ruth, who sat beside her, looking lovely in a black velvet gown, and as soft and noiseless as a little mouse. I am afraid Mrs. Smedley's clacking voice made her head ache terribly for she grew paler and paler before the long dinner was over. As Miss Ruth greeted me, I saw Mr. Lucas cross the room with Flurry holding his hand.

"Flurry must introduce me to her playfellow," he said, with a kind glance at us both, as the child ran up to me and clasped me close.

"Oh, Esther, how I have wanted you and Juliet," she whispered; but her father heard her.

"I am afraid Flurry has had a dull week of it," he said, taking a seat beside us, and lifting the little creature to his knee. How pretty Flurry looked in her dainty white frock, all embroidery and lace, with knots of black ribbons against her dimpled shoulders, and her hair flowing round her like a golden veil! Such a little fairy queen she looked!

"Father has been telling me stories," she observed, confidently; "they were very pretty ones, but I think I like Juliet best. And, oh! Esther, Flossy has broken Clementina's arm—that is your favorite doll, you know."

"Has Miss Cameron a doll, too?" asked Mr. Lucas, and I thought he looked a little quizzical.

"I always call it Esther's," returned Flurry, seriously. "She is quite fond of it, and nurses it sometimes at lessons."

But I could bear no more. Mrs. Smedley was listening, I was sure, and it did sound so silly and babyish, and yet I only did it to please Flurry.

"I am afraid you think me very childish," I stammered, for I remembered that game of battledore and shuttlecock, and how excited I had been when I had achieved two hundred. But as I commenced my little speech, with burning cheeks and a lip that would quiver with nervousness, he quietly stopped me.

"I think nothing to your discredit, Miss Cameron. I am too grateful to you for making my little girl's life less lonely. I feel much happier about her now, and so does my sister." And then, as dinner was announced, he turned away and offered his arm to Mrs. Smedley.

Mr. Smedley took me in and sat by me, but after a few cursory observations he left me to my own devices and talked to Miss Ruth. I was a little disappointed at this, for I preferred him infinitely to his wife, and I had always found his sermons very helpful; but I heard afterward that he never liked talking to young ladies, and did not know what to say to them. Carrie was an exception. She was too great a favorite with them both ever to be neglected. Mr. Lucas' attention was fully occupied by his voluble neighbor. Now and then he addressed a word to me, that I might not feel myself slighted, but Mrs. Smedley never seconded his efforts.

Ever since I had refused to teach in the Sunday school she had regarded me with much head-shaking and severity. To her I was simply a frivolous, uninteresting young person, too headstrong to be guided. She always spoke pityingly of "your poor sister Esther" to Carrie, as though I were in a lamentable condition. I know she had heard of Flurry's doll, her look was so utterly contemptuous.

To my dismay she commenced talking to Mr. Lucas about Carrie. It was very bad taste, I thought, with her sister sitting opposite to her; but Carrie was Mrs. Smedley's present hobby, and she always rode her hobby to death. No one else heard her, for they were all engaged with Miss Ruth.

"Such an admirable creature," she was saying, when my attention was attracted to the conversation; "a most lovely person and mind, and yet so truly humble. I confess I love her as though she were a daughter of my own." Fancy being Mrs. Smedley's daughter! Happily, for their own sakes, she had no children. "Augustus feels just the same; he thinks so highly of her. Would you believe it, Mr. Lucas, that though she is a daily governess like her sister," with a sharp glance at poor little miserable me, "that that dear devoted girl takes house to house visitation in that dreadful Nightingale lane and Rowley street?" Was it my fancy, or did Mr. Lucas shrug his shoulders dubiously at this? As Mrs. Smedley paused here a moment, as though she expected an answer, he muttered, "Very praiseworthy, I am sure," in a slightly bored tone.

"She has a class in the Sunday-school besides, and now she gives two evenings a week to Mr. Smedley's night school. She is a pattern to all the young ladies of the place, as I do not fail to tell them."

Why Mr. Lucas looked at me at that moment I do not know, but something in my face seemed to strike him, for he said, in a curious sort of tone, that meant a great deal, if I had only understood it:

"You do not follow in your sister's footsteps, then, Miss Cameron?"

"No, I do not," I answered abruptly, far too abruptly, I am afraid; "human beings cannot be like sheep jumping through a hedge—if one jumps, they all jump, you know."

"And you do not like that," with a little laugh, as though he were amused.

"No, I must be sure it is a safe gap first, and not a short cut to nowhere," was my inexplicable response. I do not know if Mr. Lucas understood me, for just then Miss Ruth gave the signal for the ladies to rise. The rest of the evening was rather a tedious affair. I played a little, but no one seemed specially impressed, and I could hear Mrs. Smedley's voice talking loudly all the time.

Mr. Lucas did not address me again; he and Uncle Geoffrey talked politics on the rug. The Smedleys went early, and just as we were about to follow their example a strange thing happened; poor Miss Ruth was taken with one of her bad attacks.

I was very frightened, for she looked to me as though she were dying; but Uncle Geoffrey was her doctor, and understood all about it, and Allan quietly stood by and helped him.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse