[Transcriber's note: Susan Warner, A red wallflower, (1884), Nisbet 1913 edition]
A RED WALLFLOWER
BY SUSAN WARNER AUTHOR OF 'THE WIDE, WIDE WORLD,' 'QUEECHY,' ETC.
LONDON JAMES NISBET & CO. LIMITED 21 BERNERS STREET W
NOTE TO THE READER.
The story following is again in its whole chain of skeleton facts a true story. I beg to observe, in particular, that the denominational feeling described in both families, with the ways it showed itself, is part of the truth of the story, and no invention of mine.
MARTLAER'S ROCK, June 25, 1884.
I. AFTER DANDELIONS II. AT HOME III. THE BOX OF COINS IV. LEARNING V. CONTAMINATION VI. GOING TO COLLEGE VII. COMING HOME VIII. A NOSEGAY IX. WANT OF COMFORT X. THE BLESSING XI. DISSENT XII. THE VACATION XIII. LETTERS XIV. STRUGGLES XV. COMFORT XVI. REST AND UNREST XVII. MOVING XVIII. A NEIGHBOUR XIX. HAPPY PEOPLE XX. SCHOOL XXI. THE COLONEL'S TOAST XXII. A QUESTION XXIII. A DEBATE XXIV. DISAPPOINTMENT XXV. A HEAD OF LETTUCE XXVI. WAYS AND MEANS XXVII. ONIONS XXVIII. STRAWBERRIES XXIX. HAY AND OATS XXX. A HOUSE XXXI. MAJOR STREET XXXII. MOVING XXXIII. BETTY XXXIV. HOLIDAYS XXXV. ANTIQUITIES XXXVI. INTERPRETATIONS XXXVII. A STAND XXXVIII. LIFE PLANS XXXIX. SKIRMISHING XL. LONDON XLI. AN OLD HOUSE XLII. THE TOWER XLIII. MARTIN'S COURT XLIV. THE DUKE OF TREFOIL XLV. THE ABBEY XLVI. A VISIT XLVII. A TALK XLVIII. A SETTLEMENT
A RED WALLFLOWER.
It is now a good many years ago that an English family came over from the old country and established itself in one of the small villages that are scattered along the shore of Connecticut. Why they came was not clearly understood, neither was it at all to be gathered from their way of life or business. Business properly they had none; and their way of life seemed one of placid contentment and unenterprising domestic pleasure. The head of the family was a retired army officer, now past the prime of his years; tall, thin, grey, and grave; but a gentleman through and through. Everybody liked Colonel Gainsborough, although nobody could account for a man of his age leading what seemed such a profitless life. He was doing really nothing; staying at home with his wife and his books. Why had he come to Connecticut at all? If he lived for pleasure, surely his own country would have been a better place to seek it. Nobody could solve this riddle. That Colonel Gainsborough had anything to be ashamed of, or anything to be afraid of, entered nobody's head for a moment. Fear or shame were unknown to that grave, calm, refined face. The whisper got about, how, it is impossible to say, that his leaving home had been occasioned by a disagreement with his relations. It might be so. No one could ask him, and the colonel never volunteered to still curiosity on the subject.
The family was small. Only a wife and one little girl came with the colonel to America; and they were attended by only two old retainers, a man and a woman. They hired no other servants after their arrival, which, however, struck nobody as an admission of scantness of means. According to the views and habits of the countryside, two people were quite enough to look after three; the man outside and the woman inside the house. Christopher Bounder took care of the garden and the cow, and cut and made the hay from one or two little fields. And Mrs. Barker, his sister, was a very capable woman indeed, and quite equal to the combined duties of housekeeper, cook, lady's maid, and housemaid, which she fulfilled to everybody's satisfaction, including her own. However, after two or three years in Seaforth these duties were somewhat lessened; the duties of Mrs. Barker's hands, that is, for her head had more to do. Mrs. Gainsborough, who had been delicate and failing for some time, at last died, leaving an almost inconsolable husband and daughter behind her. I might with truth say quite inconsolable; for at the time I speak of, a year later than Mrs. Gainsborough's death, certainly comfort had come to neither father nor daughter.
It was one morning in spring-time. Mrs. Barker stood at the door of her kitchen, and called to her brother to come in to breakfast. Christopher slowly obeyed the summons, leaving his spade stuck upright in the bed he was digging, and casting loving looks as he came at the budding gooseberry bushes. He was a typical Englishman; ruddy, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, of very solid build, and showing the national tendency to flesh. He was a handsome man, and not without a sufficiency of self-consciousness, both as regarding that and other things. Mrs. Barker was a contrast; for she was very plain, some years older than her brother, and of rather spare habit though large frame. Both faces showed sense, and the manner of both indicated that they knew their own minds.
'Season's late,' observed Mrs. Barker, as she stepped back from the door and lifted her coffee-pot on the table.
'Uncommon late,' answered her brother. 'Buds on them gooseberry bushes only just showin' green. Now everything will be coming all together in a heap in two weeks more. That's the way o' this blessed climate! And then when everything's started, maybe a frost will come and slap down on us.'
'Peas in a fortnight ago. They'll be showin' their heads just now.'
'Christopher, can you get me some greens to day?'
'Greens for what?'
'Why, for dinner. Master likes a bit o' boiled beef now and again, which he used to, anyway; and I thought greens is kind o' seasonable at this time o' year, and I'd try him with 'em. But la! he don't care no more what he eats.'
'How is the old gentleman?'
'Doin' his best to kill hisself, I should say.'
'Looks like it,' said Christopher, going on with a good breakfast the while in a business manner. 'When a man don't care no more what he eats, the next thing'll be that he'll stop it; and then there's only one thing more he will do.'
'Die, to be sure!'
'He ain't dyin' yet,' said Mrs. Barker thoughtfully, 'but he ain't doin' the best he can wi's life, for certain. Can ye get me some greens, Christopher?'
'Nothing in my department. I can take a knife and a basket and find you some dandelions.'
'Will ye go fur to find 'em?'
'No furder'n I can help, you may make your affidavit, with all there is to do in the garden yet. What's about it?'
'If you're goin' a walk, I'd let Missie go along. She don't get no chance for no diversion whatsomever when young Mr. Dallas don't come along. She just mopes, she do; and it's on my mind, and master he don't see it. I wish he would.'
'The little one does wear an uncommon solemn countenance,' said the gardener, who was in his way quite an educated man, and used language above his station.
'It do vex me,' repeated the housekeeper.
'But young Mr. Dallas comes along pretty often. If Miss Esther was a little older, now, we should see no more of her solemnity. What 'ud master say to that?'
'It's good things is as they be, and we've no need to ask. I don't want no more complications, for my part. It's hard enough to manage as it is.'
'But things won't stay as they be,' said the gardener, with a twinkle of his shrewd blue eye as he looked at his sister. 'Do you expect they will, Sarah? Miss Esther's growin' up fast, and she'll be an uncommon handsome girl too. Do you know that?'
'I shouldn't say she was what you'd go fur to call handsome,' returned the housekeeper.
'I doubt you haven't an eye for beauty. Perhaps one ought to have a bit of it oneself to be able to see it in others.'
'Well I haven't it,' said Mrs. Barker; 'and I never set up to have it. And I allays thought rosy cheeks went with beauty; and Missie has no more colour in her cheeks, poor child, than well—than I have myself.'
'She's got two eyes, though.'
'Who hasn't got two eyes?' said the other scornfully.
'Just the folks that haven't an eye,' said the gardener, with another twinkle of his own. 'But I tell you, there ain't two such eyes as Miss Esther's between here and Boston. Look out; other folk will find it out soon if you don't. There ain't but three years between twelve and fifteen; and then it don't take but two more to make seventeen.'
'Three and two's five, though,' said Mrs. Barker; 'and five years is a long time. And Miss Esther ain't twelve yet, neither. Then when'll ye be goin' after the greens, Christopher?'
'It'll be a bit yet. I'll let you know.'
The fair spring morning was an hour or two farther on its way, accordingly, when the gardener and the little girl set out on their quest after greens. Yet it was still early, for the kitchen breakfast was had betimes. The gardener carried a basket, and Esther too did the like; in hers there was a small trowel, for 'she might find something,' she said. Esther always said that, although hitherto her 'findings' had amounted to nothing of any account; unless, indeed, I correct that, and say, in any eyes but her own. For in Esther's eyes every insignificant growth of the woods or the fields had a value and a charm inexpressible. Nothing was 'common' to her, and hardly anything that grew was relegated to the despised community of 'weeds.'
'What are you going for now, Christopher?' she asked as they trudged on together.
'Well, miss, my old woman there has sent me for some greens. She has a wild tooth for greens, she has,' he added, half to himself.
'What sort of greens can you get?'
'There's various sorts to be had, Miss Esther; a great variety of the herbs of the field are good for eating, at the different times o' the year; even here in this country; and I do suppose there ain't a poorer on the face o' the earth!'
'Than this country? than Seaforth? O Christopher!'
'Well, m'm, it beats all I ever knew for poorness. You should see England once, Miss Esther! That's the place for gardens; and the fields is allays green; and the flowers do be beautiful; and when the sun shines, it shines; here it burns.'
'Not to-day,' said Esther gleefully. 'How nice it is!'
She might say so, for if the spring is rough in New England, and there is no denying it, there do nevertheless come days of bewitching, entrancing, delicious beauty, in the midst of the rest. Days when the air and sky and sunlight are in a kind of poise of delight, and earth beneath them, is, as it were, still with pleasure. I suppose the spring may be more glorious in other lands,—more positively glorious; whether relatively, I do not know. With such contrasts before and behind them,—contrasts of raw, chill air, and rough, cutting winds, with skies of grey and gloom,—one of these perfect days of a lost Paradise stands in a singular setting. It was such a day when Esther and Christopher went after dandelions. Still, balmy air, a tender sky slightly veiled with spring mistiness, light and warmth so gentle that they were a blessing to a weary brain, yet so abundant that every bud and leaf and plant and flower was unfolding and out-springing and stretching upward and dispensing abroad all it had of sweetness. The air was filled with sweetness; not the heavy odours of the blossoms of summer, or the South, but a more delicate and searching fragrance from resinous buds and freshly-opened tree flowers and the young green of the shooting leaf. I don't know where spring gets it all, but she does fling abroad her handfuls of perfume such as summer has no skill to concoct, or perhaps she lacks the material. Esther drew in deep breaths for the mere pleasure of breathing, and looked on all the world of nature before her with an eye of quiet but intense content.
Christopher had been quite right in his hint about Esther's eyes. They were of uncommon character. Thoughtful, grave, beautiful eyes; large, and fine in contour and colour; too grave for the girl's years. But Esther had lived all her life so far almost exclusively with grown people, and very sober grown people too; for her mother's last years had been dulled with sickness, and her father's with care, even if he had not been—which he was—of a taciturn and sombre deportment in the best of times. And this last year past had been one heavy with mourning. So it was no wonder if the little girl's face showed undue thoughtfulness, and a shade of melancholy all premature. And Christopher was honestly glad to see the melancholy at least vanish under the influence of the open earth and sky. The thoughtfulness, he hoped, would go too some day.
The walk in itself offered nothing remarkable. Fields where the grass was very green and fast growing; other fields that were rocky and broken, and good for little except the sheep, and sometimes rose into bare ridges and heights where spare savins were mingled with a variety of deciduous trees; such was the ground the two went over this morning. This morning, however, glorified everything; the fields looked soft, the moss and lichens on the rocks were moist and fresh coloured, grey and green and brown; the buds and young leafage of the trees were of every lovely hue and shade that young vegetation can take; and here and there Esther found a wild flower. When she found one, it was very apt to be taken up by the roots with her little trowel, and bestowed in her basket for careful transport home; and on the so endangered beauties in her basket Esther looked down from time to time with fond and delighted eyes.
'Are you going for cresses, Christopher?'
'No, Miss Esther, not at this time. Sarah has set her mind that she must have boiled greens for dinner; and her will must be done. And here is the article—not boiled yet, however.'
He stopped and stooped, and with a sharp knife cut a bunch of stout-looking leaves growing in the grass; then made a step to another bunch, a yard off, and then to another.
'What are they, Christopher?'
'Just dandelions, Miss Esther. Leontodon taraxacum.'
'Dandelions! But the flowers are not out yet.'
'No, Miss Esther. If they was out, Sarah might whistle for her greens.'
'Why? You could tell better where they are.'
'They wouldn't be worth the finding, though.'
Christopher went on busily cutting. He did not seem to need the yellow blossoms to guide him.
'How can you be sure, Christopher, that you are always getting the right ones?'
'Know the look o' their faces, Miss Esther.'
'The flowers are their faces,' said the little girl.
Christopher laughed a little. 'Then what are the leaves?' said he.
'I don't know. The whole of them together show the form of the plant.'
'Well, Miss Esther, wouldn't you know your father, the colonel, as far off as you could see him, just by his figger?'
'But I know papa so well.'
'Not better than I know the Leontodon. See, Miss Esther, look at these runcinate leaves.'
'Toothed-pinnatifid. That's what it gets its name from; lion's tooth. Leontodon comes from two Greek words which mean a lion and a tooth. See—there ain't another leaf like that in the hull meadow.'
'There are a great many kinds of leaves!' said Esther musingly.
'Like men's human figgers,' said the gardener sagely. 'Ain't no two on 'em just alike.'
Talking and cutting, they had crossed the meadow and came to a rocky height which rose at one side of it; such as one is never very far from in New England. Here there were no dandelions, but Esther eagerly sought for something more ornamental. And she found it. With exclamations of deep delight she endeavoured to dig up a root of bloodroot which lifted its most delicate and dainty blossom a few inches above the dead leaves and moss with which the ground under the trees was thickly covered. Christopher came to her help.
'What are you goin' to do with this now, Miss Esther?'
'I want to plant it out in my garden. Won't it grow?'
Christopher answered evasively. 'These here purty little things is freaky,' said he. 'They has notions. Now the Sanguinaria likes just what it has got here; a little bit of rich soil, under shade of woods, and with covering of wet dead leaves for its roots. It's as dainty as a lady.'
'Sanguinaria?' said Esther. 'I call it bloodroot.'
'Sanguinaria canadensis. That's its name, Miss Esther.'
'Why isn't the other its name?'
'That's its nickname, you may say. Look here, Miss Esther,—here's the Hepatica for you.'
Esther sprang forward to where Christopher was softly pushing dead leaves and sticks from a little low bunch of purple flowers. She stretched out her hand with the trowel, then checked herself.
'Won't that grow either, Christopher?'
'It'll grow here, Miss Esther. See,—ain't that nice?' he said, as he bared the whole little tuft.
Esther's sigh came from the depths of her breast, as she looked at it lovingly.
'This is Hepatica acutiloba. I dare say we'd find the other, if we had time to go all over the other side of the hill.'
'The americana, Miss Esther. But I'm thinking, them greens must go in the pot.'
'But what is this lovely little thing? What's its name, I mean?'
'It's the Hepatica, Miss Esther; folks call it liverleaf. We ought to find the Aquilegia by this time; but I don't see it.'
'Have you got dandelions enough?'
'All I'll try for. Here's something for you, though,' said he, reaching up to the branches of a young tree, the red blossoms of which were not quite out of reach; 'here's something pretty for you; here's Acer rubrum.'
'And what is Acer rubrum?'
'Just soft maple, Miss Esther.'
'Oh, that is beautiful! Do you know everything that grows, Christopher?'
'No, Miss Esther; there's no man living that does that. They say it would take all one man's life to know just the orchids of South America; without mentioning all that grows in the rest of the world. There's an uncommon great number of plants on the earth, to be sure!'
'Ain't trees plants, mum?'
'Are they? Christopher, are those dandelions weeds?'
'No, Miss Esther; they're more respectable.'
'How do you know they're not weeds?'
Christopher laughed a little, partly at his questioner, partly at the question; nevertheless the answer was not so ready as usual.
'They ain't weeds, however, Miss Esther; that's all I can tell you.'
'What are weeds, then?'
'I don't know, mum,' said Christopher grimly. 'They're plants that has no manners.'
'But some good plants have no manners,' said Esther, amused. 'I know I've heard you say, they ran over everything, and wouldn't stay in their places. You said it of moss pink, and lily of the valley. Don't you remember?'
'Yes mum, I've cause to remember; by the same token I've been trimming the box. That thing grows whenever my back is turned!'
'But it isn't a weed?'
'No mum! No mum! The Buxus is a very distinguished family indeed, and holds a high rank, it does.'
'Then I don't see what is a weed, Christopher.'
Upon reaching home Esther sought to place her bloodroot in safety, giving it a soft and well-dug corner in her little plot of garden ground. She planted it with all care in the shadow of a rose-bush; and then went in to put her other flowers in water.
The sitting-room, whither she went, was a large, low, pleasant place; very simply furnished, yet having a cheerful, cosy look, as places do where people live who know how to live. The room, and the house, no doubt, owed its character to the rule and influence of Mrs. Gainsborough, who was there no longer, and to a family life that had passed away. The traces abode still. The chintz hangings and the carpet were of soft colours and in good harmony; chairs and lounges were comfortable; a great many books lined the walls, so many indeed that the room might have been styled the library. A portfolio with engravings was in one place; Mrs. Gainsborough's work-table in another; some excellent bronzes on the bookcases; one or two family portraits, by good hands; and an embroidery frame. A fine English mastiff was sleeping on the rug before the fire; for the weather was still cold enough within doors to make a fire pleasant, and Colonel Gainsborough was a chilly man.
He lay on the couch when Esther came in with her flowers; a book in his hand, but not held before his eyes. He was a handsome man, of a severe, grave type; though less well-looking at this time because of the spiritless, weary, depressed air which had become his habit; there was a want of spring and life and hope in the features and in the manner also of the occupant of the sofa. He looked at Esther languidly, as she came in and busied herself with arranging her maple blossoms, her Hepatica and one or two delicate stems of the bloodroot in a little vase. Her father looked at the flowers and at her, in silence.
'Papa, aren't those beautiful?' she asked with emphasis, bringing the vase, when she had finished, to his side.
'What have you got there, Esther?'
'Just some anemones, and liverleaf, and bloodroot, and maple blossoms, papa; but Christopher calls them all sorts of big names.'
'They are very fragile blossoms,' the colonel remarked.
'Are they? They won't do in the garden, Christopher says, but they grow nicely out there in the wood. Papa, what is the difference between a weed and a flower?'
'I should think you were old enough to know.'
'I know them by sight—sometimes. But what is the difference?'
'Your eyes tell you, do they not?'
'No, papa. They tell me, sometimes, which is which; but I mean, why isn't a flower a weed? I asked Christopher, but he couldn't tell me.'
'I do not understand the question. It seems to me you are talking nonsense.'
The colonel raised his book again, and Esther took the hint, and went back to the table with her flowers. She sat down and looked at them. Fair they were, and fresh, and pure; and they bore spring's messages, to all that could hear the message. If Esther could, it was in a half-unconscious way, that somehow awakened by degrees almost as much pain as pleasure. Or else, it was simply that the glow and stir of her walk was fading away, and allowing the old wonted train of thought to come in again. The bright expression passed from her face; the features settled into a melancholy dulness, most unfit for a child and painful to see; there was a droop of the corners of the mouth, and a lax fall of the eyelids, and a settled gloom in the face, that covered it and changed it like a mask. The very features seemed to grow heavy, in the utter heaviness of the spirit.
She sat so for a while, musing, no longer busy with such pleasant things as flowers and weeds; then roused herself. The weariness of inaction was becoming intolerable. She went to a corner of the room, where a large mahogany box was half-concealed beneath a table covered with a cloth; with a good deal of effort she lugged the box forth. It was locked, and she went to the sofa.
'Papa, may I look at the casts?'
'You have got the key, papa.'
The key was fished out of the colonel's waistcoat pocket, and Esther sat down on the floor and unlocked the box. It was filled with casts in plaster of Paris, of old medals and bas-reliefs; and it had long been a great amusement of Esther's to take them all out and look at them, and then carefully pack them all away again between their layers of soft paper and cotton batting. In the nature of the case, this was an amusement that would pall if too often repeated; so it rarely happened that Esther got them out more than three or four times a year. This time she had hardly begun to take them out and place them carefully on the table, when Mrs. Barker came in to lay the cloth for dinner. Esther must put the casts back, and defer her amusement till another time in the day.
Meals were served now for the colonel and his daughter in this same room, which served for sitting-room and library. The dining-room was disused. Things had come by degrees to this irregularity, Mrs. Barker finding that it made her less work, and the colonel in his sorrowful abstraction hardly knowing and not at all caring where he took his dinner. The dinner was carefully served, however, and delicately prepared; for there Barker's pride came in to her help; and besides, little as Colonel Gainsborough attended now to the food he ate, it is quite possible that he would have rebelled against any disorder in that department of the household economy.
The meal times were sorrowful occasions to both the solitary personages who now sat down to the table. Neither of them had become accustomed yet to the empty place at the board. The colonel ate little and talked none at all; and only Esther's honest childish appetite saved these times from being seasons of intolerable gloom. Even so, she was always glad when dinner was done.
By the time that it was over to-day, and the table cleared, Esther's mood had changed; and she no longer found the box of casts attractive. She had seen what was in it so often before, and she knew just what she should find. At the same time she was in desperate want of something to amuse her, or at least to pass away the time, which went so slowly if unaided. She bethought her of trying another box, or series of boxes, over which she had seen her father and mother spend hours together; but the contents hitherto had not seemed to her interesting. The key was on the same chain with the key of the casts; Esther sat down on the floor by one of the windows, having shoved one of the boxes into that neighbourhood, turned the key, and opened the cover. Her father was lying on the couch again and gave her no attention, and Esther made no call upon him for help.
An hour or two had passed. Esther had not changed her place, and the box, which contained a quantity of coins, was still open; but the child's hands lay idly in her lap, and her eyes were gazing into vacancy. Looking back, perhaps, at the images of former days; smiling images of light and love, in scenes where her mother's figure filled all the foreground. Colonel Gainsborough did not see how the child sat there, nor what an expression of dull, hopeless sorrow lay upon her features. All the life and variety of which her face was abundantly capable had disappeared; the corners of the mouth drawn down, the brow rigid, the eyes rayless, she sat an image of childish desolation. She looked even stupid, if that were possible to Esther's features and character.
What the father did not see was revealed to another person, who came in noiselessly at the open door. This new-comer was a young man, hardly yet arrived at the dignity of young manhood; he might have been eighteen, but he was really older than his years. His figure was well developed, with broad shoulders and slim hips, showing great muscular power and the symmetry of beauty as well. The face matched the figure; it was strong and fine, full of intelligence and life, and bearing no trace of boyish wilfulness. If wilfulness was there, which I think, it was rather the considered and consistent wilfulness of a man. As he came in at the open door, Esther's position and look struck him; he paused half a minute. Then he came forward, came to the colonel's sofa, and standing there bowed respectfully.
The colonel's book went down. 'Ah, William,' said he, in a tone of indifferent recognition.
'How do you do, sir, to-day?'
'Not very well! my strength seems to be giving way, I think, by degrees.'
'We shall have warm weather for you soon again, sir; that will do you good.'
'I don't know,' said the colonel. 'I doubt it; I doubt it. Unless it could give me the power of eating, which it cannot.
'You have no appetite?'
'That does not express it.'
There was an almost imperceptible flash in the eyes that were looking down at him, the features, however, retaining their composed gravity.
'Perhaps shad will tempt you. We shall have them very soon now. Can't you eat shad?'
'Shad,' repeated the colonel. 'That's your New England piscatory dainty? I have never found out why it is so reckoned.'
'You cannot have eaten them, sir; that's all. That is, not cooked properly. Take one broiled over a fire of corn cobs.'
'A fire of corn cobs!'
'Yes, sir; over the coals of such a fire, of course, I mean.'
'Ah! What's the supposed advantage?'
'Flavour, sir; gusto; a spicy delicacy, which from being the spirit of the fire comes to be the spirit of the fish. It is difficult to put anything so ethereal into words.' This was spoken with the utmost seriousness.
'Ah!' said the colonel. 'Possibly. Barker manages those things.'
'You do not feel well enough to read to-day, sir?'
'Yes,' said the colonel, 'yes. One must do something. As long as one lives, one must try to do something. Bring your book here, William, if you please. I can listen, lying here.'
The hour that followed was an hour of steady work. The colonel liked his young neighbour, who belonged to a family also of English extraction, though not quite so recently moved over as the colonel's own. Still, to all intents and purposes, the Dallases were English; had English connections and English sympathies; and had not so long mingled their blood with American that the colour of it was materially altered. It was natural that the two families should have drawn near together in social and friendly relations; which relations, however, would have been closer if in church matters there had not been a diverging power, which kept them from any extravagance of neighbourliness. This young fellow, however, whom the colonel called 'William,' showed a carelessness as to church matters which gave him some of the advantages of a neutral ground; and latterly, since his wife's death, Colonel Gainsborough had taken earnestly to the fine, spirited young man; welcomed his presence when he came; and at last, partly out of sympathy, partly out of sheer loneliness and emptiness of life, he had offered to read the classics with him, in preparation for college. And this for several months now they had been doing; so that William was a daily visitor in the colonel's house.
THE BOX OF COINS.
The reading went on for a good hour. Then the colonel rose from his sofa and went out, and young Dallas turned to Esther. During this hour Esther had been sitting still in her corner by her boxes; not doing anything; and her face, which had brightened at William's first coming in, had fallen back very nearly to its former heavy expression. Now it lighted up again, as the visitor left his seat and came over to her. He had not been so taken up with his reading but he had noticed her from time to time; observed the drooping brow and the dull eye, and the sad lines of the lips, and the still, spiritless attitude. He was touched with pity for the child, whom he had once been accustomed to see very different from this. He came and threw himself down on the floor by her side.
'Well, Queen Esther!' said he. 'What have you got there?'
'Coins! What are you doing with them?'
'So it seems. What do you want to do?'
'I wanted to amuse myself.'
'And don't succeed? Naturally. What made you think you would? Numismatology isn't what one would call a lively study. What were you going to do with these old things, eh?'
'Nothing,' said Esther hopelessly. 'I used to hear papa talk about them; and I liked to hear him.'
'Why don't you get him to talk to you about them again?'
'Oh, he was not talking to me.'
'To whom, then?'
Esther hesitated; the young man saw a veil of moisture suddenly dim the grave eyes, and the lips that answered him were a little unsteady.
'It was mamma,' she breathed rather than spoke.
'And you liked to hear?' he went on purposely.
'Oh, yes. But now I can't understand anything by myself.'
'You can understand by yourself as much as most people I know. Let us see what you have got here. May I look?'
He lifted a small piece of metal out of its nest, in a shallow tray which was made by transverse slips of wood to be full of such nests, or little square compartments. The trays were beautifully arranged, one fitting close upon another till they filled the box to its utmost capacity.
'What have we here? This piece has seen service. Here is a tree, Queen Esther,—a flourishing, spreading tree,—and below it the letters, R. E. P. F., if I read aright, and then the word "Reich." What is that, now? "R. E. P. F. Reich." And here is a motto above, I am sorry to say, so far worn that my reading it is a matter of question. "Er,"—that is plain,—then a worn word, then, "das Land." Do you understand German?'
'No; I don't know anything.'
'Too sweeping, Queen Esther. But I wish I could read that word! Let us try the other side. Ha! here we have it. "Lud. xvi."—two letters I can't make out—then "Fr. and Nav. Rex." Louis the Sixteenth, king of France and Navarre.'
'I know him, I believe,' said Esther. 'He was beheaded, wasn't he, in the great French revolution?'
'Just that. He was not a wise man, you know.'
'If he had been a wise man, could he have kept his life?'
'Well, I don't know, Queen Esther, whether any wisdom would have been wise enough for that. You see, the people of France were mad; and when a people get mad, they don't listen to reason, naturally. Here's another, now; what's this? "Zeelandia, 1792," not so very old. On the other side—here's a shield, peculiar too; with the motto plain enough,—"Luctor et emergo." A good motto that.'
'What does it mean?'
'It means, something like—"Struggle and come out," or "come through,"—literally, "emerge." Our English word comes from it. Colonel Gainsborough does not teach you Latin, then?'
'No,' said Esther, sighing. 'He doesn't teach me much lately, of anything.'
Dallas cast a quick look at the girl, and saw again the expression of quiet hopelessness that had moved him. He went on turning over the coins.
'Do you want to learn Latin?'
'Why do you want to learn it, Pitt?'
'Well, you see, it is different. I must, you know. But queens are not expected to know the dead languages—not Queen Esther, at any rate.'
'Do you learn them because it is expected of you?'
The young man laughed a little.
'Well, there are other reasons. Now here's a device. Two lions rampant—shield surmounted by a crown; motto, "Sp. nos in Deo." Let us hope in God.'
'Whose motto was that?'
'Just what I can't make out. I don't know the shield—which I ought to know; and the reverse of the coin has only some unintelligible letters: D. Gelriae, 1752. Let us try another, Queen Esther. Ha! here's a coin of William and Mary—both their blessed heads and names; and on the reverse a figure three, and the inscription claiming that over Great Britain, France and Ireland, they were "Rex and Regina." Why, this box of coins is a capital place to study history.'
'I don't know history,' Esther said.
'But you are going to know it.'
'Am I? How can I?'
'I don't know what to read. I have just read a little history of England—that's all. Mother gave me that. But when I read, there are so many things I don't know and want to ask about.'
'Ask the colonel.'
'Oh, he doesn't care to be troubled,' the little girl said sadly.
'You! But you are not here to ask.'
'True; well, we must see. Ah, here's a pretty thing! See, Esther, here's an elegant crown, really beautiful, with the fleurs de lys of France, and the name of the luckless Louis XVI. "Roi de France and de Navarre" but no date. On the other side, "Isles de France and de Bourbon." These coins seem to belong to European history.'
'There's another box with Greek and Roman coins, and, the names of Roman emperors; but I know them even less still than I do these,' said Esther.
'Your want of knowledge seems to weigh upon your mind, Queen Esther.'
'I can't help it,' said the little girl resignedly.
'Are you sure of that? I am not. Well, I wish I knew who this is.'
He had taken up a very small coin, much less than a three-cent piece, and with the help of a magnifying glass was studying it eagerly.
'Why?' said Esther.
'It is such a beautiful head! Wonderfully beautiful, and old. Crowned, and with a small peaked beard; but the name is so worn off. On the other side "Justitia." Queen Esther, this box is a first-rate place to study history.'
'It is. What do you say? Suppose you let me come here and study history with you over these old coins; and then you come over to my house and learn Latin with me. Hey?'
He glanced up, and Esther looked at him with a wondering, grave, inquiring face. He nodded in answer and smiled, a little quizzically.
'What do you mean, Pitt?'
'There was a wise man once, who said, the use of language is to conceal one's thoughts. I hope you are not labouring under the impression that such is my practice and belief?'
'But would you teach me?' said the girl gravely.
'If your majesty approves.'
'I think it would be very troublesome to you?'
'I, on the contrary, think it would not.'
'But it would after a little while?' said Esther.
'When I want to stop, I'll let you know.'
'Will you? Would you?'
'Both would and will.'
The girl's face grew intense with life, yet without losing its gravity.
'When, Pitt? When would you teach me, I mean?'
'I should say, every day; wouldn't you?'
'And you'll come here to study the coins?'
'And teach you what I learn.'
'Oh! And you'll give me Latin lessons? Lessons to study?'
'And we will study history over the coins?'
'Don't you think it will be a good way? Here's a coin of Maria Theresa, now: 1745, Hungary and Boehmen, that is Bohemia. This old piece of copper went through the Seven Years' war.'
'What war was that?'
'Oh, we'll read about it, Queen Esther. "Ad usum," "Belgae, Austria." These coins are delightful. See here—don't you want to go for a walk?'
'Oh yes! I've had one walk to-day already, and it just makes me want another. Did you see my flowers?'
She jumped up and brought them to him.
'Here's the liverleaf, and anemone, and bloodroot; and we couldn't find the columbine, but it must be out. Christopher calls them all sorts of hard names, that I can't remember.'
'Anemone is anemone, at any rate. These two, Esther, this and the Hepatica, belong to one great family, the family of the Crowfoots—Ranunculaceae.'
'Oh, but that is harder and harder!'
'No it isn't; it is easier and easier. See, these belong to one family; so you learn to know them as relations, and then you can remember them.'
'How do you know they are of the same family?'
'Well, they have the family features. They all have an acrid sap or juice, exogenous plants, with many stamens. These are the stamens, do you know? They have calyx and corolla both, and the corolla has separate petals, see; and the Ranunculaceae have the petals and sepals deciduous, and the leaves generally cut, as you see these are. They are what you may call a bitter family; it runs in the blood, that is to say, in the juice of them; and a good many of the members of the family are downright wicked, that is, poisonous.'
'Pitt, you talk very queerly?'
'Not a bit more queer than the things are I am talking of. Now this Sanguinaria belongs to the Papaveraceae—the poppy family.'
'Does it! But it does not look like them, like poppies.'
'This coloured juice that you see when you break the stem, is one of the family marks of this family. I won't trouble you with the others. But you must learn to know them, Queen Esther. King Solomon knew every plant from the royal cedar to the hyssop on the wall; and I am sure a queen ought to know as much. Now the blood of the Papaveraceae has a taint also; it is apt to have a narcotic quality.'
'What is narcotic?'
'Putting to sleep.'
'That's a good quality.'
'Hm!' said Dallas; 'that's as you take it. It isn't healthy to go so fast asleep that you never can wake up again.'
'Can people do that?' asked Esther in astonishment.
'Yes. Did you never hear of people killing themselves with laudanum, or opium?'
'I wonder why the poppy family was made so?'
'That's when people take too much of them. They are very good for medicine sometimes, Queen Esther.'
The girl's appearance by this time had totally changed. All the dull, weary, depressed air and expression were gone; she was alert and erect, the beautiful eyes filled with life and eagerness, a dawning of colour in the cheeks, the brow busy with stirring thoughts. Esther's face was a grave face still, for a child of her years; but now it was a noble gravity, showing intelligence and power and purpose; indicating capacity, and also an eager sympathy with whatever is great and worthy to take and hold the attention. Whether it were history that Dallas touched upon, or natural science; the divisions of nations or the harmonies of plants; Esther was ready, with her thoughtful, intent eyes, taking in all he could give her; and not merely as a snatch-bite of curiosity, but as the satisfaction of a good healthy mental appetite for mental food.
Until to-day the young man had never concerned himself much about Esther. Good nature had moved him to-day, when he saw the dullness that had come over the child and recognised her forlorn solitude; and now he began to be interested in the development of a nature he had never known before. Young Dallas was a student of everything natural that came in his way, but this was the first bit of human nature that had consciously interested him. He thought it quite worth investigating a little more.
They had a most delightful walk. It was not quite the first they had taken together; however, they had had none like this. They roved through the meadows and over the low rocky heights and among the copsewood, searching everywhere for flowers, and finding a good variety of the dainty and delicate spring beauties. Columbine, most elegant, stood in groups upon the rocks; Hepatica hid under beds of dead leaves; the slender Uvularia was met with here and there; anemone and bloodroot and wild geranium, and many another. And as they were gathered, Dallas made Esther observe their various features and family characteristics, and brought her away from Christopher's technical phraseology to introduce her instead to the living and everlasting relations of things. To this teaching the little girl presently lent a very delighted ear, and brought, he could see, a quick wit and a keen power of discrimination. It was one thing to call a delicate little plant arbitrarily Sanguinaria canadensis; it was another thing to find it its place among the floral tribes, and recognise its kindred and associations and family character.
On their way home, Dallas proposed that Esther should stop at his house for a minute, and become a little familiar with the place where she was to come to study Latin; and he led her in as he spoke.
The Dallases' house was the best in the village. Not handsome in its exterior, which bore the same plain and somewhat clumsy character as all the other buildings in its neighbourhood; but inside it was spacious, and had a certain homely elegance. Rooms were large and exceedingly comfortable, and furnished evidently with everything desired by the hearts of its possessors. That fact has perhaps more to do with the pleasant, liveable air of a house than aesthetic tastes or artistic combinations apart from it. There was a roomy verandah, with settees and cane chairs, and roses climbing up the pillars and draping the balustrade. The hall, which was entered next, was wide and homelike, furnished with settees also, and one or two tables, for summer occupation, when doors could be set open front and back and the wind play through. Nobody was there to-day, and Dallas turned to a door at the right and opened it. This let them into a large room where a fire was burning, and a soft genial warmth met them, along with a certain odour, which Esther noticed and felt without knowing what it was. It was very faint, yet unmistakeable; and was a compound probably made up from the old wood of the house, burning coals in the chimney, great cleanliness, and a distant, hidden, secret store of all manner of delicate good things, fruits and sweets and spices, of which Mrs. Dallas's store closet held undoubtedly a great stock and variety. The brass of the old-fashioned grate glittered in the sunlight, it was so beautifully kept; between the windows hung a circular mirror, to the frame of which were appended a number of spiral, slim, curling branches, like vine tendrils, each sustaining a socket for a candle. The rest of the furniture was good; dark and old and comfortable; painted vases were on the mantelpiece, and an old portrait hung over it. The place made a peculiar agreeable impression upon any one entering it; ease and comfort and good living were so at home in it, and so invited one to take part in its advantages. Esther had hardly been in the house since the death of her mother, and it struck her almost as a stranger. So did the lady sitting there, in state, as it seemed to the girl.
For Mrs. Dallas was a stately person. Handsome, tall, of somewhat large and full figure and very upright carriage; handsomely dressed; and with a calm, superior air of confidence, which perhaps had more effect than all the other good properties mentioned. She was sitting in an easy-chair, with some work in her hands, by a little work-table on which lay one or two handsomely bound books. She looked up and reviewed Esther as her son and she came in.
'I have brought Esther Gainsborough, mother; you know her, don't you?'
'I know her, certainly,' Mrs. Dallas answered, holding out her hand to the child, who touched it as somewhat embodying a condescension rather than a kindness. 'How is your father, my dear?'
'He does not feel very well,' said Esther; 'but he never does.'
'Pity!' said the lady; but Esther could not tell what she meant. It was a pity, of course, that her father did not feel well. 'Where have you been all this while?' the lady went on, addressing her son.
'Where?—well, in reality, walking over half the country. See our flowers! In imagination, over half the world. Do you know what a collection of coins Colonel Gainsborough has?'
'No,' said the lady coldly.
'He has a very fine collection.'
'I see no good in coins that are not current.'
'Difference of opinion, you see, there, mother. An old piece, which when it was current was worth only perhaps a farthing or two, now when its currency is long past would sell maybe for fifty or a hundred pounds.'
'That is very absurd, Pitt!'
'Those old coins are history.'
'You don't want them for history. You have the history in books.'
'Come away, Esther,' he said. 'Come and let me show you where you are to find me when you want me.'
'Find you for what?' asked the lady, before they could quit the room.
'Esther is coming to take lessons from me,' he said, throwing his head back laughingly as he went.
'Lessons! In what?'
'Anything she wants to learn, that I can teach her. We have been studying history and botany to-day. Come along, Esther. We shall not take our lessons here.'
He led the way, going out into the hall and at the further end of it passing into a verandah which there too extended along the back of the house. The house on this side had a long offset, or wing, running back at right angles with the main building. The verandah also made an angle and followed the side of this wing, which on the ground floor contained the kitchen and offices. Half way of its length a stairway ran up, on the outside, to a door nearer the end of the building. Up this stair young Dallas went, and introduced Esther to a large room, which seemed to her presently the oddest and also the most interesting that she had ever in her life seen. Its owner had got together, apparently, the old bits of furniture that his mother did not want any longer; there was an old table, devoid of all varnish, in the floor, covered, however, with a nice green cloth; two or three chairs were the table's contemporaries, to judge by their style, and nothing harder or less accommodating to the love of ease ever entered surely a cabinetmaker's brain. The wood of which they were made had, however, come to be of a soft brown colour, through the influence of time, and the form was not inelegant. The floor was bare and painted, and upon it lay here an old rug and there a great thick bearskin; and on the walls there were several heads of animals, which seemed to Esther very remarkable and extremely ornamental. One beautiful deer's head, with elegant horns; and one elk head, the horns of which in their sweep and extent were simply enormous; then there were one or two fox heads, and a raccoon; and besides all these, the room was adorned with two or three birds, very well mounted. The birds, as the animals, were unknown to Esther, and fascinated her greatly. Books were in this room too, though not in large numbers; a flower press was in one place, a microscope on the table, a kind of etagere was loaded with papers; and there were boxes, and glasses, and cases; and a general air of a place where a good deal of business was done, and where a variety of tastes found at least attempted gratification. It was a pleasant room, though the description may not sound like it; the heterogeneous articles were in nice order; plenty of light blazed in at the windows, and the bearskin on the floor looked eminently comfortable. If that were luxurious, it was the only bit of luxury in the room.
'Where will you sit?' asked its owner, looking round. 'There isn't anything nice enough for you. I must look up a special chair for you to occupy when you come here. How do you like my room?'
'I like it—very much,' said Esther slowly, turning her eyes from one strange object to another.
'Nobody comes here but me, so we shall have no interruption to fear. When you come to see me, Queen Esther, you will just go straight through the house, out on the piazza, and up these stairs, with out asking anybody; and then you will turn the handle of the door and come in, without knocking. If I am here, well and good; if I am not here, wait for me. You like my deer's horns? I got them up in Canada, where I have been on hunting expeditions with my father.'
'Did you kill them?'
'Some of them. But that great elk head I bought.'
'What big bird is that?'
'That? That is the white-headed eagle—the American eagle.'
'Did that come from Canada too?'
'No; I shot him not far from here, one day, by great luck.'
'Are they difficult to shoot?'
'Rather. I sat half a day in a booth made with branches, to get the chance. There were several of them about that day, so I lay in wait. They are not very plenty just about here. That other fellow is the great European lammergeyer.'
Esther had placed herself on one of the hard wooden chairs, but now she rose and went nearer the birds, standing before them in great admiration. Slowly then she went from one thing in the room to another, pausing to contemplate each. A beautiful white owl, very large and admirably mounted, held her eyes for some time.
'That is the Great Northern Owl,' observed her companion. 'They are found far up in the regions around the North Pole, and only now and then come so far south as this.'
'What claws!' said Esther.
'Talons. Yes, they would carry off a rabbit very easily.'
'Do they!' cried Esther, horrified.
'I don't doubt that fellow has carried off many a one, as well as hosts of smaller fry—squirrels, mice, and birds.'
'He looks cruel,' observed Esther, with an abhorrent motion of her shoulders.
'He does, rather. But he is no more cruel than all the rest.'
'The rest of what?' said Esther, turning towards him.
'The rest of creation—all the carnivorous portion of it, I mean.'
'Are they all like that? they don't look so. The eyes of pigeons, for instance, are quite different.'
'Pigeons are not flesh-eaters.'
'Oh!' said Esther wonderingly. 'No, I know; they eat bread and grain; and canary birds eat seeds. Are there many birds that live on flesh?'
'A great many, Queen Esther. All creation, nearly, preys on some other part of creation—except that respectable number that are granivorous, and herbivorous, and graminivorous.'
Esther stood before the owl, musing; and Dallas, who was studying the child now, watched her.
'But what I want to know, is,' began Esther, as if she were carrying on an argument, 'why those that eat flesh look so much more wicked than the others that eat other things?'
'Do they?' said Dallas. 'That is the first question.'
'Why, yes,' said Esther, 'they do, Pitt. If you will think. There are sheep and cows and rabbits, and doves and chickens'—
'Halt there!' cried Dallas. 'Chickens are as good flesh-eaters as anybody, and as cruel about it, too. See two chickens pulling at the two ends of one earthworm.'
'Oh, don't!' said Esther. 'I remember they do; and they haven't nice eyes either, Pitt. But little turkeys have.'
Dallas burst out laughing.
'Well, just think,' Esther persisted. 'Think of horses' beautiful eyes; and then think of a tiger.'
'Or a cat,' said Dallas.
'But why is it, Pitt?'
'Queen Esther, my knowledge, such as it is, is all at your majesty's service; but the information required lies not therein.'
'Well, isn't it true, what I said?'
'I am inclined to think, and will frankly admit, that there is something in it.'
'Then don't you think there must be a real difference, to make them look so different? and that I wasn't wrong when I called the owl cruel!'
'The study of animal psychology, so far as I know, has never been carried into a system. Meanwhile, suppose we come from what I cannot teach, to what I can? Here's a Latin grammar for you.'
Esther came to his side immediately, and listened with grave attention to his explanations and directions.
'And you want me to learn these declensions?'
'It is a necessary preliminary to learning Latin.'
Esther took the book with a very awakened and contented face; then put a sudden irrelevant question. 'Pitt, why didn't you tell Mrs. Dallas what you were going to teach me?'
The young man looked at her, somewhat amused, but not immediately ready with an answer.
'Wouldn't she like you to give me lessons?'
'I never asked her,' he answered gravely.
Esther looked at him, inquiring and uncertain.
'I never asked her whether I might take lessons from your father, either.'
'No, of course not; but'—
'I don't know. I don't want to do it if she would not like it.'
'Why shouldn't she like it? She has nothing to do with it. It is I who am going to give you the lessons, not she. And now for a lesson in botany.'
He brought out a quantity of his dried flowers, beautifully preserved and arranged; and showed Esther one or two groups of plants, giving her various initiatory instruction by the way. It was a most delightful half hour to the little girl; and she went home after it, with her Latin grammar in her hands, very much aroused and wakened up and cheered from her dull condition of despondency; just what Pitt had intended.
The lessons went on, and the interest on both sides knew no flagging. Dallas had begun by way of experiment, and he was quite contented with his success. In his room, over Latin and botany, at her own home, over history and the boxes of coins, he and Esther daily spent a good deal of time together. They were pleasant enough hours to him; but to her they were sources of life-giving nourishment and delight. The girl had been leading a forlorn existence; mentally in a desert and alone; and, added to that, with an unappeased longing for her departed mother, and silent, quiet, wearing grief for the loss of her. Even now, her features often settled into the dulness which had so struck Dallas; but gradually there was a lightening and lifting of the cloud: when studying she was wholly intent on her business, and when talking or reciting or examining flowers there was a play of life and thought and feeling in her face which was a constant study to her young teacher, as well as pleasure, for the change was his work. He read indications of strong capacity; he saw the tokens of rare sensitiveness and delicacy; he saw there was a power of feeling as well as a capacity for suffering covered by the quiet composure and reserve of manner and habit which, he knew, were rather signs of the depth of that which they covered. Esther interested him. And then, she was so simply upright and honest, and so noble in all her thoughts, so high-bred by nature as well as education, that her young teacher's estimation constantly grew, and to interest was soon added liking. He had half expected that when the novelty was off the pleasure of study would be found to falter; but it was no such matter. Esther studied as honestly as if she had been a fifth form boy at a good school; with a delight in it which boys at school, in any form, rarely bring to their work. She studied absorbedly, eagerly, persistently; whatever pleasure she might get by the way, she was plainly bent on learning; and she learned of course fast. And in the botanical studies they carried on together, and in the historical studies which had the coins for an illumination, the child showed as keen enjoyment as other girls of her age are wont to feel in a story-book or in games and plays. Of games and plays Esther knew nothing; she had no young companions, and never had known any; her intercourse had been almost solely with father and mother, and now only the father was left to her. She would have been in danger of growing morbid in her sorrow and loneliness, and her whole nature might have been permanently and without remedy dwarfed, if at this time of her life she had been left to grow like the wild things in the woods, without sympathy or care. For some human plants need a good deal of both to develop them to their full richness and fragrance; and Esther was one of these. The loss of her mother had threatened to be an irreparable injury to her. Colonel Gainsborough was a tenderly affectionate father: still, like a good many men, he did not understand child nature, could not adapt himself to it, had no sort of notion of its wants, and no comprehension that it either needed or could receive and return his sympathy. So he did not give sympathy to his child, nor dreamed that she was in danger of starving for want of it. Indeed, he had never in his life given much sympathy to anybody, except his wife; and in the loss of his wife, Colonel Gainsborough thought so much of himself was lost that the remainder probably would not last long. He thought himself wounded to death. That it might be desirable, and that it might be duty to live for his daughter's sake, was an idea that had never entered his very masculine heart. Yet Colonel Gainsborough was a good man, and even had the power of being a tender one; he had been that towards his wife; but when she died he felt that life had gone from him.
All this, more or less, young Dallas came to discern and understand in the course of his associations with the father and daughter. And now it was with a little pardonable pride and a good deal of growing tenderness for the child, that he saw the change going on in Esther. She was always, now as before, quiet as a mouse in her father's presence; truly she was quiet as a mouse everywhere; but under the outward quiet Dallas could see now the impulse and throb of the strong and sensitive life within; the stir of interest and purpose and hope; the waking up of the whole nature; and he saw that it was a nature of great power and beauty. It was no wonder that the face through which this nature shone was one of rare power and beauty too. Others could see that, besides him.
'What a handsome little girl that is!' remarked the elder Dallas one evening. Esther had just left the house, and his son come into the room.
'It seems to me she is here a great deal,' Mrs. Dallas said, after a pause. The remark about Esther's good looks called forth no response. 'I see her coming and going pretty nearly every day.'
'Quite every day,' her son answered.
'And you go there every day!'
'I do. About that.'
'Very warm intercourse!'
'I don't know; not necessarily,' said young Dallas. 'The classics are rather cool—and Numismatics refreshing and composing.'
'Numismatics! You are not teaching that child Numismatics, I suppose?'
'She is teaching me.'
Mrs. Dallas was silent now, with a dissatisfied expression. Her husband repeated his former remark.
'She's a handsome little maid. Are you teaching her, Pitt?'
'A little, sir.'
'What, pray? if I may ask.'
'Teaching her to support existence. It about comes to that.'
'I do not understand you, I confess. You are oracular.'
'I did not understand her, until lately. It is what nobody else does, by the way.'
'Why should not anybody else understand her?' Mrs. Dallas asked.
'Should,—but they do not. That's a common case, you know, mother.'
'She has her father; what's the matter with him?'
'He thinks a good deal is the matter with him.'
'Regularly hipped,' said the elder Dallas. 'He has never held up his head since his wife died. He fancies he is going after her as fast as he can go. Perhaps he is; such fancies are often fatal.'
'It would do him good to look after his child,' Mrs. Dallas said.
'I wish you would put that in his head, mother.'
'Does he not look after her?'
'In a sort of way. He knows where she is and where she goes; he has a sort of outward care of her, and so far it is very particular care; but there it stops.'
'She ought to be sent to school.'
'There is no school here fit for her.'
'Then she should be sent away, where there is a school fit for her.'
'Tell the colonel so.'
'I shall not meddle in Colonel Gainsborough's affairs,' said Mrs. Dallas, bridling a little; 'he is able to manage them himself; or he thinks he is, which comes to the same thing. But I should say, that child might better be in any other hands than his.'
'Well, she is not shut up to them,' said young Dallas, 'since I have taken her in hand.'
He strolled out of the room as he spoke, and the two elder people were left together. Silence reigned between them till the sound of his steps had quite ceased to be heard.
Mrs. Dallas was working at some wool embroidery, and taking her stitches with a thoughtful brow; her husband in his easy-chair was carelessly turning over the pages of a newspaper. They were a contrast. She had a tall, commanding figure, a gracious but dignified manner, and a very handsome, stately face. There was nothing commanding, and nothing gracious, about Mr. Dallas. His figure was rather small, and his manner insignificant. He was not a handsome man, either, although he may be said to have but just missed it, for his features were certainly good; but he did miss it. Nobody spoke in praise of Mr. Dallas's appearance. Yet his face showed sense; his eyes were shrewd, if they were also cold; and the mouth was good; but the man's whole air was unsympathetic. It was courteous enough; and he was careful and particular in his dress. Indeed, Mr. Dallas was careful of all that belonged to him. He wore long English whiskers of sandy hair, the head crop being very thin and kept very close.
'Hildebrand,' said Mrs. Dallas when the sound of her son's footsteps had died away, 'when are you going to send Pitt to college?'
Mr. Dallas turned another page of his newspaper, and did not hurry his answer.
'And where are you going to send him?'
'Really,' said Mr. Dallas, without ceasing his contemplation of the page before him, 'I do not know. I have not considered the matter lately.'
'Do you remember he is eighteen?'
'I thought you were not ready to let him go yet?'
Mrs. Dallas stopped her embroidery and sighed.
'But he must go, husband.'
Mr. Dallas made no answer. He seemed not to find the question pressing. Mrs. Dallas sat looking at him now, neglecting her work.
'You have got to make up your mind to it, and so have I,' she went on presently. 'He is ready for college. All this pottering over the classics with Colonel Gainsborough doesn't amount to anything. It keeps him out of idleness,—if Pitt ever could be idle,—but he has got to go to college after all, sooner or later. He must go!' she repeated with another sigh.
'No special hurry, that I see.'
'What's gained by delay? He's eighteen. That's long enough for him to have lived in a place like this. If I had my way, Hildebrand, I should send him to England.'
'England!' Mr. Dallas put down his paper now and looked at his wife. What had got into her head?
'Oxford is better than the things they call colleges in this country.'
'Yes; but it is farther off.'
'That's not a bad thing, in some respects. Hildebrand, you don't want Pitt to be formed upon the model of things in this country. You would not have him get radical ideas, or Puritanical.'
'Not much danger!'
'I don't know.'
'Who's to put them in his head? Gainsborough is not a bit of a radical.'
'He is not one of us,' said Mrs. Dallas. 'And Pitt is very independent, and takes his own views from nobody or from anybody. See his educating this girl, now.'
'Yes, he is with her and her father a great piece of every day; reading and talking and walking and drying flowers and giving lessons. I don't know what all they are doing. But in my opinion Pitt might be better employed.'
'That won't last,' said the father with a half laugh.
'What ought not to last, had better not be begun,' Mrs. Dallas said sententiously.
There was a pause.
'What are you afraid of, wife?'
'I am afraid of Pitt's wasting his time.'
'You have never been willing to have him go until now. I thought you stood in the way.'
'He was not wasting his time until lately. He was as well at home. But there must come an end to that,' the mother said, with another slight sigh. She was not a woman given to sighing; it meant much from her.
'But England?' said Mr. Dallas. 'What's your notion about England? Oxford is very well, but the ocean lies between.'
'Where would you send him?'
'I'd send him to the best there is on this side.'
'That's not Oxford. I believe it would be good for him to be out of this country for a while; forget some of his American notions, and get right English ones. Pitt is a little too independent.'
The elder Dallas caressed his whiskers and pondered. If the truth were told, he had been about as unwilling to let his son go away from home as ever his mother could be. Pitt was simply the delight and pride of both their hearts; the one thing they lived for; the centre of all hopes, and the end of all undertakings. No doubt he must go to college; but the evil day had been pushed far off, as far as possible. Pitt was a son for parents to be proud of. He had the good qualities of both father and mother, with some added of his own which they did not share, and which perhaps therefore increased their interest in him.
'I expect he will have a word to say about the matter himself,' the father remarked. 'Oh, well! there's no raging hurry, wife.'
'Husband, it would be a good thing for him to see the English Church as it is in England, before he gets much older.'
'He would learn to value it. The cathedrals, and the noble services in them, and the bishops; and the feeling that everybody around him goes the same way; there's a great deal of power in that. Pitt would be impressed by it.'
'By the feeling that everybody around him goes that way? Not he. That's quite as likely to stir him up to go another way.'
'It don't work so, Hildebrand.'
'You think he's a likely fellow to be talked over into anything?'
'No; but he would be influenced. Nobody would try to talk him over, and without knowing it he would feel the influence. He couldn't help it. All the influence at Oxford would be the right way.'
'Afraid of the colonel? I don't think you need. He hasn't spirit enough left in him for proselyting.'
'I am not speaking of anybody in particular. I am afraid of the air here.'
Mr. Dallas laughed a little, but his face took a shade of gravity it had not worn. Must he send his son away? What would the house be without him?
GOING TO COLLEGE.
Whatever thoughts were harboured in the elder heads, nothing was spoken openly, and no steps were taken for some time. All through the summer the pleasant intercourse went on, and the lessons, and the botanizing, and the study of coins. And much real work was done; but for Esther one invaluable and abiding effect of a more general character was gained. She was lifted out of her dull despondency, which had threatened to become stagnation, and restored to her natural life and energy and the fresh spring of youthful spirits. So, when her friend really went away to college in the fall, Esther did not slip back to the condition from which he had delivered her.
But the loss of him was a dreadful loss to the child, although Pitt was not going over the sea, and would be home at Christmas. He tried to comfort her with this prospect. Esther took no comfort. She sat silent, tearless, pale, in a kind of despair. Pitt looked at her, half amused, half deeply concerned.
'And you must go on with all your studies, Esther, you know,' he was saying. 'I will show you what to do, and when I come home I shall go into a very searching examination to see whether you have done it all thoroughly.'
'Will you?' she said, lifting her eyes to him with a gleam of sudden hope.
'Certainly! I shall give you lessons just as usual whenever I come home; indeed, I expect I shall do it all your life. I think I shall always be teaching and you always be learning. Don't you think that is how it will be, Queen Esther?' he said kindly.
'You cannot give me lessons when you are away.'
'But when I come back!'
There was a very faint yet distinct lightening of the gloom in her face. Yet it was plain Esther was not cheated out of her perception of the truth. She was going to lose her friend; and his absence would be very different from his presence; and the bits of vacation time would not help, or help only by anticipation, the long stretches of months in which there would be neither sight nor sound of him. Esther's looks had brightened for a moment, but then her countenance fell again and her face grew visibly pale. Pitt saw it with dismay.
'But Esther!' he said, 'this is nothing. Every man must go to college, you know, just as he must learn swimming and boating; and so I must go; but it will not last for ever.'
'How long?' said she, lifting her eyes to him again, heavy with their burden of sorrow.
'Well, perhaps three years; unless I enter Junior, and then it would be only two. That isn't much.'
'What will you do then?'
'Then? I don't know. Look after you, at any rate. Let us see. How old will you be in two years?'
'Fourteen. Well, you see you will have a great deal to do before you can afford to be fourteen years old; so much that you will not have time to miss me.'
Esther made no answer.
'I'll be back at Christmas anyhow, you know; and that's only three months away, or a little more.'
'For how long?'
'Never mind; we will make a little do the work of a great deal. It will seem a long time, it will be so good.'
'No,' said Esther; 'that will make it only the shorter.'
'Why, Esther,' said he, half laughing, 'I didn't know you cared so much about me. I don't deserve all that.'
'I am not crying,' said the girl, rising with a sort of childish dignity; 'but I shall be alone.'
They had been sitting on a rock, resting and talking, and now set out again to go home. Esther spoke no more; and Pitt was silent, not knowing what to say; but he watched her, and saw that if she had not been crying at the time she had made that declaration, the tears had taken their revenge and were coming now. Yet only in a calm, repressed way; now and then he saw a drop fall, or caught a motion of Esther's hand which could only have been made to prevent a drop from falling. She walked along steadily, turning neither to the right hand nor the left; she who ordinarily watched every hedgerow and ran to explore every group of plants in the corner of a field, and was keen to see everything that was to be seen in earth or heaven. Pitt walked along silently too. He was at a careless age, but he was a generous-minded fellow; and to a mind of that sort there is something exceedingly attractive and an influence exceedingly powerful in the fact of being trusted and depended on.
'Mother,' he said when he got home, 'I wish you would look after that little girl now and then.'
'What little girl?'
'You must know whom I mean; the colonel's daughter.'
'The colonel is sufficient for that, I should say.'
'But you know what sort of a man he is. And she has no mother, nor anybody else, except servants.'
'Isn't he fond of her?'
'Very fond; but then he isn't well, and he is a reserved, silent man; the child is left to herself in a way that is bad for her.'
'What do you suppose I can do?'
'A great deal; if you once knew her and got fond of her, mother.'
Mrs. Dallas made no promise; however, she did go to see Esther. It was about a week after Pitt's departure. She found father and daughter very much as her son had found them the day he was introduced to the box of coins. Esther was on the floor, beside the same box, and the colonel was on his sofa. Mrs. Dallas did take the effect of the picture for that moment before the colonel sprang up to receive her. Then she had to do with a somewhat formal but courtly host, and the picture was lost. The lady sat there, stately in her silks and laces, carrying on a stiff conversation; for she and Colonel Gainsborough had few points of sympathy or mutual understanding; and for a while she forgot Esther. Then her eye again fell upon the child in her corner, sitting by her box with a sad, uninterested air.
'And how is Esther?' she said, turning herself a little towards that end of the room. 'Really I came to see Esther, colonel. How does she do?'
'She is much obliged to you, and quite well, madam, I believe.'
'But she must want playmates, colonel. Why don't you send her to school?'
'I would, if there were a good school at hand.'
'There are schools at New Haven, and Hartford, and Boston,—plenty of schools that would suit you.'
'Only that, as you observe, they are at New Haven, and Hartford, and Boston; out of my reach.'
'You couldn't do without her for a while?'
'I hardly think it; nor she without me. We are all, each of us, that the other has.'
'Pitt used to give you lessons, didn't he?' the lady went on, turning more decidedly to Esther. Esther rose and came near.
'What did he teach you?'
Now Esther felt no more congeniality than her father did with this handsome, stately, commanding woman. Yet it would have been impossible to the girl to say why she had an instant unwillingness to answer this simple question. She did not answer it, except under protest.
'It began with the coins,' she said vaguely. 'He said we would study history with them.'
'And did you?'
'How did you manage it? or how did he? He has original ways of doing things.'
'Yes, ma'am. We used to take only one or two of the coins at once, and then Pitt told me what to read.'
'What did he tell you to read?'
'A great many different books, at different times.'
'But tell Mrs. Dallas what books, Esther,' her father put in.
'There were so many, papa. Gibbon's History, and Plutarch's Lives, and Rollin, and Vertot and Hume, and I—forget some of them.'
'How much of all these did you really read, Esther?'
'I don't know, ma'am. I read what he told me.'
The lady turned to Colonel Gainsborough with a peculiar smile. 'Sounds rather heterogeneous!' she said.
It was on Esther's lips to justify her teacher, and say how far from heterogeneous, how connected, and how thorough, and how methodical, the reading and the study had been; and how enriched with talk and explanations and descriptions and discussions. How delightful those conversations were, both to herself and Pitt; how living the truth had been made; how had names and facts taken on them the shape and colouring of nature and reality. It rushed back upon Esther, and her lips opened; and then, an inexplicable feeling of something like caution came down upon her, and she shut her lips again.
'It was harmless amusement,' remarked the colonel carelessly.
Whether the mother thought that, may be questioned. She looked again at the child standing before her; a child truly, with childlike innocence and ignorance in her large eyes and pure lips. But the eyes were eyes of beauty; and the lips would soon and readily take to themselves the sweetness and the consciousness of womanhood, and a new bloom would come upon the cheek. The colonel had never yet looked forward to all that; but the wise eyes of the matron saw it as well as if already before her. This little girl might well by and by be dangerous. If Mrs. Dallas had come as a friend, she went away, in a sort, as an enemy, in so far, at least, as Esther's further and future relations with her son were concerned.
The colonel went back to his sofa. Esther sat down again by the coins. She was not quite old enough to reflect much upon the developments of human nature as they came before her; but she was conscious of a disagreeable, troubled sensation left by this visit of Mrs. Dallas. It had not been pleasant. It ought to have been pleasant: she was Pitt's mother; she came on a kind errand; but Esther felt at once repelled and put at a distance.
The child had not gone back to the dull despondency of the time before Pitt busied himself with her; she was striving to fulfil all his wishes, and working hard in order to accomplish more than he expected of her. With the cherished secret hope of doing this, Esther was driving at her books early and late. She went from the coins to the histories Pitt had told her would illustrate them; she fagged away at the dry details of her Latin grammar; she even tried to push her knowledge of plants and see further into their relations with each other, though in this department she felt the want of her teacher particularly. From day to day it was the one pressing desire and purpose in Esther's mind, to do more, and if possible much more, than Pitt wanted her to do; so that she might surprise him and win his respect and approbation. She thought, too, that she was in a fair way to do this, for she was gaining knowledge fast, she knew; and it was a great help towards keeping up spirit and hope and healthy action in her mind. Nevertheless, she missed her companion and friend, with an intense longing want of him which nobody even guessed. All the more keen it was, perhaps, because she could speak of it to nobody. It consumed the girl in secret, and was only saved from being disastrous to her by the transformation of it into working energy, which transformation daily went on anew. It did not help her much, or she thought so, to remember that Pitt was coming home at the end of December. He would not stay; and Esther was one of those thoughtful natures that look all round a subject, and are not deceived by a first fair show. He could not stay; and what would his coming and the delight of it do, after all, but renew this terrible sense of want and make it worse than ever? When he went away again, it would be for a long, long time,—an absence of months; how was it going to be borne?
The problem of life was beginning early for Esther. And the child was alone. Nobody knew what went on in her; she had nobody to whom she could open her heart and tell her trouble; and the troubles we can tell to nobody else somehow weigh very heavy, especially in young years. The colonel loved his child with all of his heart that was not buried in his wife's grave; still, he was a man, and like most men had little understanding of the workings of a child's mind, above all of a girl's. He saw Esther pale, thoughtful, silent, grave, for ever busy with her books; and it never crossed his thoughts that such is not the natural condition and wholesome manner of life for twelve years old. He knew nothing for himself so good as books; why should not the same be true for Esther? She was a studious child; he was glad to see her so sensible.
As for Pitt, he had fallen upon a new world, and was busily finding his feet, as it were. Finding his own place, among all these other aspirants for human distinction; testing his own strength, among the combatants in this wrestling school of human life; earning his laurels in the race for learning; making good his standing and trying his power amid the waves and currents of human influence. Pitt found his standing good, and his strength quite equal to the call for it, and his power dominating. At least it would have been dominating, if he had cared to rule; all he cared for, as it happened, in that line, was to be independent and keep his own course. He had done that always at home, and he found no difficulty in doing it at college. For the rest, his abilities were unquestioned, and put him at once at the head of his fellows.
Without being at all an unfaithful friend, it must be confessed Pitt's mind during this time was full of the things pertaining to his own new life, and he thought little of Esther. He thought little of anybody; he was not at a sentimental age, nor at all of a sentimental disposition, and he had enough else to occupy him. It was not till he had put the college behind him, and was on his journey home, that Esther's image rose before his mental vision; the first time perhaps for months. It smote him then with a little feeling of compunction. He recollected the child's sensitive nature, her clinging to him, her lonely condition; and the grave, sad eyes seemed to reproach him with having forgotten her. He had not forgotten her; he had only not remembered. He might have taken time to write her one little letter; but he had not thought of it. Had she ceased to think of him in any corresponding way? Pitt was very sure she had not. Somehow his fancy was very busy with Esther during this journey home. He was making amends for months of neglect. Her delicate, tender, faithful image seemed to stand before him;—forgetfulness would never be charged upon Esther, nor carelessness of anything she ought to care for;—of that he was sure. He was quite ashamed of himself, that he had sent her never a little token of remembrance in all this time. He recalled the girl's eagerness in study, her delight in learning, her modest, well-bred manner; her evident though unconscious loving devotion to himself, and her profound grief at his going away. There were very noble qualities in that young girl that would develop—into what might they develop? and how would those beautiful thoughtful eyes look from a woman's soul by and by? Had his mother complied with his request and shown any kindness to the child? Pitt had no special encouragement to think so. And what a life it must be for such a creature, at twelve years old, to be alone with that taciturn, reserved, hypochondriac colonel?