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MISTRESS AND MAID. A Household Story.
MISS MULOCH, AUTHOR OF "JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN," "OLIVE," "THE OGILVIES," "THE HEAD OF THE FAMILY," "NOTHING NEW," "AGATHA'S HUSBAND," &c,, &c.
RICHMOND: WEST & JOHNSTON, PUBLISHERS. 1864. Printed at the Lynchburg "Virginian" Book and Job Office.
MISTRESS AND MAID.
She was a rather tall, awkward, and strongly-built girl of about fifteen. This was the first impression the "maid" gave to her "mistresses," the Misses Leaf, when she entered their kitchen, accompanied by her mother, a widow and washer-woman, by name Mrs. Hand. I must confess, when they saw the damsel, the ladies felt a certain twinge of doubt as to whether they had not been rash in offering to take her; whether it would not have been wiser to have gone on in their old way—now, alas! grown into a very old way, so as almost to make them forget they had ever had any other—and done without a servant still.
Many consultations had the three sisters held before such a revolutionary extravagance was determined on. But Miss Leaf was beginning both to look and to feel "not so young as she had been;" Miss Selina ditto; though, being still under forty, she would not have acknowledged it for the world. And Miss Hilary young, bright, and active as she was, could by no possibility do every thing that was to be done in the little establishment: be, for instance, in three places at once—in the school-room, teaching little boys and girls, in the kitchen cooking dinner, and in the rooms up stairs busy at house-maid's work. Besides, much of her time was spent in waiting upon "poor Selina," who frequently was, or fancied her self, too ill to take any part in either the school or house duties.
Though, the thing being inevitable, she said little about it, Miss Leaf's heart was often sore to see Hilary's pretty hands smeared with blacking of grates, and roughened with scouring of floors. To herself this sort of thing had become natural—but Hilary!
All the time of Hilary's childhood, the youngest of the family had of course, been spared all house-work; and afterward her studies had left no time for it. For she was a clever girl, with a genuine love of knowledge Latin, Greek, and even the higher branches of arithmetic and mathematics, were not beyond her range; and this she found much more interesting than washing dishes or sweeping floors. True, she always did whatever domestic duty she was told to do; but her bent was not in the household line. She had only lately learned to "see dust," to make a pudding, to iron a shirt; and, moreover, to reflect, as she woke up to the knowledge of how these things should be done, and how necessary they were, what must have been her eldest sister's lot during all these twenty years! What pains, what weariness, what eternal toil must Johanna have silently endured in order to do all those things which till now had seemed to do themselves!
Therefore, after much cogitation as to the best and most prudent way to amend matters, and perceiving with her clear common sense that, willing as she might be to work in the kitchen, her own time would be much more valuably spent in teaching their growing school. It was Hilary who these Christmas holidays, first started the bold idea, "We must have a servant;" and therefore, it being necessary to begin with a very small servant on very low wages, (3 per annum was, I fear the maximum), did they take this Elizabeth Hand. So, hanging behind her parent, an anxious-eyed, and rather sad-voiced woman, did Elizabeth enter the kitchen of the Misses Leaf.
The ladies were all there. Johanna arranging the table for their early tea: Selina lying on the sofa trying to cut bread and butter: Hilary on her knees before the fire, making the bit of toast, her eldest sister's one luxury. This was the picture that her three mistresses presented to Elizabeth's eyes: which, though they seemed to notice nothing, must, in reality, have noticed every thing.
"I've brought my daughter, ma'am, as you sent word you'd take on trial," said Mrs. Hand, addressing herself to Selina, who, as the tallest, the best dressed, and the most imposing, was usually regarded by strangers as the head of the family.
"Oh. Joanna, my dear."
Miss Leaf came forward, rather uncertainly, for she was of a shy nature, and had been so long accustomed to do the servant's work of the household, that she felt quite awkward in the character of mistress. Instinctively she hid her poor hands, that would at once have betrayed her to the sharp eyes of the working-woman, and then, ashamed of her momentary false pride, laid them outside her apron and sat down.
"Will you take a chair, Mrs. Hand? My sister told you. I believe all our requirements We only want a good, intelligent girl. We are willing to teach her every thing."
"Thank you, kindly; and I be willing and glad for her to learn, ma'am," replied the mother, her sharp and rather free tone subdued in spite of herself by the gentle voice of Miss Leaf. Of course, living in the same country town, she knew all about the three school-mistresses, and how till now they had kept no servant. "It's her first place, and her'll be awk'ard at first, most like. Hold up your head, Lizabeth."
"Is her name Elizabeth?"
"Far too long and too fine," observed Selina from the sofa. "Call her Betty."
"Any thing you please, Miss; but I call her Lizabeth. It wor my young missis' name in my first place, and I never had a second."
"We will call her Elizabeth," said Miss Leaf, with the gentle decision she could use on occasion.
There was a little more discussion between the mother and the future mistress as to holidays, Sundays, and so on, during which time the new servant stood silent and impassive in the door-way between the back kitchen and the kitchen, or, as it is called in those regions, the house-place.
As before said, Elizabeth was by no means, a personable girl, and her clothes did not set her off to advantage. Her cotton frock hung in straight lines down to her ankles, displaying her clumsily shod feet and woolen stockings; above it was a pinafore—a regular child's pinafore, of the cheap, strong, blue-speckled print which in those days was generally worn. A little shabby shawl, pinned at the throat, and pinned very carelessly and crookedly, with an old black bonnet, much too small for her large head and her quantities of ill kept hair, completed the costume. It did not impress favorably a lady who, being, or rather having been very handsome herself, was as much alive to appearances as the second Miss Leaf.
She made several rather depreciatory observations, and insisted strongly that the new servant should only be taken "on trial," with no obligation to keep her a day longer than they wished. Her feeling on the matter communicated itself to Johanna, who closed the negotiation with Mrs. Hand, by saying.
"Well, let us hope your daughter will suit us. We will give her a fair chance at all events."
"Which is all I can ax for, Miss Leaf. Her bean't much to look at, but her's willin' sharp, and her's never told me a lie in her life. Courtesy to thy missis, and say thee'lt do thy best, Lizabeth."
Pulled forward Elizabeth did courtesy, but she never offered to speak. And Miss Leaf, feeling that for all parties the interview had better be shortened, rose from her chair.
Mrs. Hand took the hint and departed, saying only, "Good-by, Lizabeth," with a nod, half-encouraging, half-admonitory, which Elizabeth silently returned. That was all the parting between mother and daughter; they neither kissed nor shook hands, which undemonstrative farewell somewhat surprised Hilary.
Now, Miss Hilary Leaf had all this while gone on toasting. Luckily for her bread the fire was low and black; meantime, from behind her long drooping curls (which Johanna would not let her "turn up," though she was twenty), she was making her observations on the new servant. It might be that, possessing more head than the one and more heart than the other, Hilary was gifted with deeper perception of character than either of her sisters, but certainly her expression, as she watched Elizabeth, was rather amused and kindly that dissatisfied.
"Now, girl, take off your bonnet," said Selina, to whom Johanna had silently appealed in her perplexity as to the next proceeding with regard to the new member of the household.
Elizabeth obeyed, and then stood, irresolute, awkward, and wretched to the last degree, at the furthest end of the house-place.
"Shall I show you where to hang up your things?" said Hilary, speaking for the first time; and at the new voice, so quick, cheerful, and pleasant, Elizabeth visibly started.
Miss Hilary rose from her knees, crossed the kitchen, took from the girl's unresisting hands the old black bonnet and shawl, and hung them up carefully on a nail behind the great eight-day clock. It was a simple action, done quite without intention, and accepted without acknowledgment, except one quick glance of that keen, yet soft grey eye; but years and years after Elizabeth reminded Hilary of it.
And now Elizabeth stood forth in her own proper likeness, unconcealed by bonnet or shawl, or maternal protection. The pinafore scarcely covered her gaunt neck and long arms; that tremendous head of rough, dusky hair was evidently for the first time gathered into a comb. Thence elf locks escaped in all directions, and were forever being pushed behind her ears, or rubbed (not smoothed; there was nothing smooth about her) back from her forehead, which, Hilary noticed, was low, broad, and full. The rest of her face, except the before-mentioned eyes was absolutely and undeniably plain. Her figure, so far as the pinafore exhibited it, was undeveloped and ungainly, the chest being contracted and the shoulders rounded, as if with carrying children or other weights while still a growing girl. In fact, nature and circumstances had apparently united in dealing unkindly with Elizabeth Hand.
Still here she was; and what was to be done with her?
Having sent her with the small burden, which was apparently all her luggage, to the little room—formerly a box-closet—where she was to sleep, the Misses Leaf—or as facetious neighbors called them, the Miss Leaves—took serious counsel together over their tea.
Tea itself suggested the first difficulty. They were always in the habit of taking that meal, and indeed every other, in the kitchen. It saved time, trouble, and fire, besides leaving the parlor always tidy for callers, chiefly pupils' parents, and preventing these latter from discovering that the three orphan daughters of Henry Leaf, Esq., solicitor, and sisters of Henry Leaf, Junior, Esq., also solicitor, but whose sole mission in life seemed to have been to spend every thing, make every body miserably, marry, and die, that these three ladies did always wait upon themselves at meal-time, and did sometimes breakfast without butter, and dine without meat. Now this system would not do any longer.
"Besides, there is no need for it," said Hilary, cheerfully. "I am sure we can well afford both to keep and to feed a servant, and to have a fire in the parlor every day. Why not take our meals there, and sit there regularly of evenings?"
"We must," added Selina, decidedly. "For my part, I couldn't eat, or sew, or do any thing with that great hulking girl sitting starting opposite, or standing; for how could we ask her to sit with us? Already, what must she have thought of us—people who take tea in the kitchen?"
"I do not think that matters," said the eldest sister, gently, after a moment's silence. "Every body in the town knows who and what we are, or might, if they chose to inquire. We cannot conceal our poverty if we tried; and I don't think any body looks down upon us for it. Not even since we began to keep school, which you thought was such a terrible thing, Selina."
"And it was. I have never reconciled myself to teaching the baker's two boys and the grocer's little girl. You were wrong, Johanna, you ought to have drawn the line somewhere, and it ought to have excluded trades-people."
"Beggars can not be choosers," began Hilary.
"Beggars!" echoed Selina.
"No, my dear, we were never that," said Miss Leaf, interposing against one of the sudden storms that were often breaking out between these two. "You know well we have never begged or borrowed from any body, and hardly ever been indebted to any body, except for the extra lessons that Mr. Lyon would insist upon giving to Ascott at home."
Here Johanna suddenly stopped, and Hilary, with a slight color rising in her face, said—
"I think, sisters, we are forgetting that the staircase is quite open, and though I am sure she has an honest look and not that of a listener, still Elizabeth might hear. Shall I call her down stairs, and tell her to light a fire in the parlor?"
While she is doing it, and in spite of Selina's forebodings to the contrary, the small maiden did it quickly and well, especially after a hint or two from Hilary—let me take the opportunity of making a little picture of this same Hilary.
Little it should be, for she was a decidedly little woman: small altogether, hands, feet, and figure being in satisfactory proportion. Her movements, like those of most little women, were light and quick rather than elegant; yet every thing she did was done with a neatness and delicacy which gave an involuntary sense of grace and harmony. She was, in brief, one of those people who are best described by the word "harmonious;" people who never set your teeth on edge, or rub you up the wrong way, as very excellent people occasionally do. Yet she was not over-meek or unpleasantly amiable; there was a liveliness and even briskness about her, as if the every day wine of her life had a spice of Champagniness, not frothiness but natural effervescence of spirit, meant to "cheer but not inebriate" a household.
And in her own household this gift was most displayed. No centre of a brilliant, admiring circle could be more charming, more witty, more irresistibly amusing than was Hilary sitting by the kitchen fire, with the cat on her knee, between her two sisters, and the school-boy Ascott Leaf, their nephew—which four individuals, the cat being not the least important of them, constituted the family.
In the family, Hilary shone supreme. All recognized her as the light of the house, and so she had been, ever since she was born, ever since her
"Dying mother mild, Said, with accents undefiled, 'Child, be mother to this child.'"
It was said to Johanna Leaf—who was not Mrs. Leaf's own child. But the good step-mother, who had once taken the little motherless girl to her bosom, and never since made the slightest difference between her and her own children, knew well whom she was trusting.
From that solemn hour, in the middle of the night, when she lifted the hour-old baby out of its dead mother's bed into her own, it became Johanna's one object in life. Through a sickly infancy, for it was a child born amidst trouble, her sole hands washed, dressed, fed it; night and day it "lay in her bosom, and was unto her as a daughter."
She was then just thirty: not too old to look forward to woman's natural destiny, a husband and children of her own. But years slipped by, and she was Miss Leaf still. What matter! Hilary was her daughter.
Johanna's pride in her knew no bounds. Not that she showed it much; indeed she deemed it a sacred duty not to show it; but to make believe her "child" was just like other children. But she was not. Nobody ever thought she was—even in externals.—Fate gave her all those gifts which are sometimes sent to make up for the lack of worldly prosperity. Her brown eyes were as soft a doves' eyes, yet could dance with fun and mischief if they chose; her hair, brown also, with a dark-red shade in it, crisped itself in two wavy lines over her forehead, and then turn bled down in two glorious masses, which Johanna, ignorant, alas! of art, called very "untidy," and labored in vain to quell under combs, or to arrange in proper, regular curls Her features—well, they too, were good; better than those unartistic people had any idea of—better even than Selina's, who in her youth had been the belle of the town. But whether artistically correct or not, Johanna, though she would on no account have acknowledged it, believed solemnly that there was not such a face in the whole world as little Hillary's.
Possibly a similar idea dawned upon the apparently dull mind of Elizabeth Hand, for she watched her youngest mistress intently, from kitchen to parlor, and from parlor back to kitchen; and once when Miss Hilary stood giving information as to the proper abode of broom, bellows, etc., the little maid gazed at her with such admiring observation that the scuttle she carried was titled, and the coals were strewn all over the kitchen floor. At which catastrophe Miss Leaf looked miserable. Miss Selina spoke crossly, and Ascott, who just then came in to his tea, late as usual, burst into a shut of laughter.
It was as much as Hilary could do to help laughing herself, she being too near her nephew's own age always to maintain a dignified aunt-like attitude, but nevertheless, when, having disposed of her sisters in the parlor, she coaxed Ascott into the school-room, and insisted upon his Latin being done—she helping him, Aunt Hilary scolded him well, and bound him over to keep the peace toward the new servant.
"But she is such a queer one. Exactly like a South Sea Islander. When she stood with her grim, stolid countenance, contemplating the coals oh, Aunt Hilary, how killing she was!"
And the regular, rollicking, irresistible boy-laugh broke out again.
"She will be great fun. Is she really to stay?"
"I hope so," said Hilary, trying to be grave. "I hope never again to see Aunt Johanna cleaning the stairs, and getting up to light the kitchen fire of winter mornings, as she will do if we have not a servant to do it for her. Don't you see, Ascott?"
"Oh, I see," answered the boy, carelessly, "But don't bother me, please. Domestic affairs are for women, not men."
Ascott was eighteen, and just about to pass out of his caterpillar state as a doctor's apprentice-lad into the chrysalis condition of a medical student in London. "But," with sudden reflection, "I hope she won't be in my way. Don't let her meddle with any of my books and things."
"No; you need not be afraid. I have put them all into your room. I myself cleared your rubbish out of the box closet."
"The box-closet! Now, really, I can't stand—"
"She is to sleep in the box-closet; where else could she sleep?" said Hilary, resolutely, though inly quaking a little; for somehow, the merry, handsome, rather exacting lad bad acquired considerable influence in this household of women. "You must put up with the loss of your 'den.' Ascott; it would be a great shame if you did not, for the sake of Aunt Johanna and the rest of us."
"Um!" grumbled the boy, who, though he was not a bad fellow at heart, had a boy's dislike to "putting up" with the slightest inconvenience.
"Well, it won't last long. I shall be off shortly. What a jolly life I'll have in London, Aunt Hilary! I'll see Mr. Lyon there too."
"Yes," said Aunt Hilary, briefly, returning to Dido and neas; humble and easy Latinity for a student of eighteen; but Ascott was not a brilliant boy, and, being apprenticed early, his education had been much neglected, till Mr. Lyon came as usher to the Stowbury grammar-school, and happening to meet and take an interest in him, taught him and his Aunt Hilary Latin, Greek, and mathematics together, of evenings.
I shall make no mysteries here. Human nature is human nature all the world over. A tale without love in it would be unnatural, unreal—in fact, a simple lie; for there are no histories and no lives without love in them: if there could be, Heaven pity and pardon them, for they would be mere abortions of humanity.
Thank Heaven, we, most of us, do not philosophize: we only live. We like one another, we hardly know why; we love one another, we still less know why. If on the day she first saw—in church it was—Mr. Lyon's grave, heavy-browed, somewhat severe face—for he was a Scotsman, and his sharp, strong Scotch features did look "hard" beside the soft, rosy, well conditioned youth of Stowbury—if on that Sunday any one had told Hilary Leaf that the face of this stranger was to be the one face of her life, stamped upon brain and heart, and soul with a vividness that no other impressions were strong enough to efface, and retained there with a tenacity that no vicissitudes of time, or place, or fortunes had power to alter, Hilary would—yes, I think she would—have quietly kept looking on. She would have accepted her lot, such as it was, with its shine and shade, its joy and its anguish; it came to her without her seeking, as most of the solemn things in life do; and whatever it brought with it, it could have come from no other source than that from which all high, and holy, and pure loves ever must come—the will and permission of GOD.
Mr. Lyon himself requires no long description. In his first visit he had told Miss Leaf all about himself that there was to be known; that he was, as they were, a poor teacher, who had altogether "made himself," as so many Scotch students do. His father, whom he scarcely remembered, had been a small Ayrshire farmer; his mother was dead, and he had never had either brother or sister.
Seeing how clever Miss Hilary was, and how much as a schoolmistress she would need all the education she could get, he had offered to teach her along with her nephew; and she and Johanna were only too thankful for the advantage. But during the teaching he had also taught her another thing, which neither had contemplated at the time—to respect him with her whole soul, and to love him with her whole heart.
Over this simple fact let no more be now said. Hilary said nothing. She recognized it herself as soon as he was gone; a plain, sad, solemn truth, which there was no deceiving herself did not exist, even had she wished its non-existence. Perhaps Johanna also found it out, in her darling's extreme paleness and unusual quietness for a while; but she too said nothing. Mr. Lyon wrote regularly to Ascott, and once or twice to her, Miss Leaf; but though every one knew that Hilary was his particular friend in the whole family, he did not write to Hilary. He had departed rather suddenly, on account of some plan which he said, affected his future very considerably; but which, though he was in the habit of telling them his affairs, he did not further explain. Still Johanna knew he was a good man, and though no man could be quite good enough for her darling, she liked him, she trusted him.
What Hilary felt none knew. But she was very girlish in some things; and her life was all before her, full of infinite hope. By-and-by her color returned, and her merry voice and laugh were heard about the house just as usual.
This being the position of affairs, it was not surprising that after Ascott's last speech Hilary's mind wandered from Dido and neas to vague listening, as the lad began talking of his grand future—the future of a medical student, all expenses being paid by his godfather, Mr. Ascott, the merchant, of Russell Square, once a shop boy of Stowbury.
Nor was it unnatural that all Ascott's anticipations of London resolved themselves, in his aunt's eyes, into the one fact that he would "see Mr. Lyon."
But in telling thus much about her mistresses, I have for the time being lost sight of Elizabeth Hand.
Left to herself, the girl stood for a minute or two looking around her in a confused manner, then, rousing her faculties, began mechanically to obey the order with which her mistress had quitted the kitchen, and to wash up the tea-things. She did it in a fashion that, if seen, would have made Miss Leaf thankful that the ware was only the common set, and not the cherished china belonging to former days: still she did it, noisily it is true, but actively, as if her heart were in her work. Then she took a candle and peered about her new domains.
These were small enough; at least they would have seemed so to other eyes than Elizabeth's; for, until the school-room and box-closet above had been kindly added by the landlord, who would have done any thing to show his respect for the Misses Leaf, it had been merely a six-roomed cottage—parlor kitchen, back kitchen, and three upper chambers. It was a very cozy house notwithstanding, and it seemed to Elizabeth's eyes a perfect palace.
For several minutes more she stood and contemplated her kitchen, with the fire shining on the round oaken stand in the centre, and the large wooden-bottomed chairs, and the loud-ticking clock, with its tall case, the inside of which, with its pendulum and weights, had been a perpetual mystery and delight, first to Hilary's and then to Ascott's childhood. Then there was the sofa, large and ugly, but, oh! so comfortable, with its faded, flowered chintz, washed and worn for certainly twenty years. And, overall, Elizabeth's keen observation was attracted by a queer machine apparently made of thin rope and bits of wood, which hung up to the hooks on the ceiling—an old-fashioned baby's swing. Finally, her eye dwelt with content on the blue and red diamond tiled floor, so easily swept and mopped, and (only Elizabeth did not think of that, for her hard childhood had been all work and no play) so beautiful to whip tops upon! Hilary and Ascott, condoling together over the new servant, congratulated themselves that their delight in this occupation had somewhat failed, though it was really not so many years ago since one of the former's pupils, coming suddenly out of the school-room, had caught her in the act of whipping a meditative top round this same kitchen floor.
Meantime Elizabeth penetrated farther, investigating the back kitchen, with its various conveniences; especially the pantry, every shelf of which was so neatly arranged and beautifully clean. Apparently this neatness impressed the girl with a sense of novelty and curiosity; and though she could hardly be said to meditate—her mind was not sufficiently awakened for that—still, as she stood at the kitchen fire, a slight thoughtfulness deepened the expression of her face, and made it less dull and heavy than it had at first appeared.
"I wonder which on 'em does it all. They must work pretty hard, I reckon; and two o' them's such little uns."
She stood a while longer; for sitting down appeared to be to Elizabeth as new a proceeding as thinking; then she went up stairs, still literally obeying orders, to shut windows and pull down blinds at nightfall. The bedrooms were small, and insufficiently, nay, shabbily furnished; but the floors were spotless—ah! poor Johanna!—and the sheets, though patched and darned to the last extremity, were white and whole. Nothing was dirty, nothing untidy. There was no attempt at picturesque poverty—for whatever novelists may say, poverty can not be picturesque; but all things were decent and in order. The house, poor as it was, gave the impression of belonging to "real ladies;" ladies who thought no manner of work beneath them, and who, whatever they had to do, took the pains to do it as well as possible.
Mrs. Hand's roughly-brought-up daughter had never been in such a house before, and her examination of every new corner of it seemed quite a revelation. Her own little sleeping nook was fully as tidy and comfortable as the rest, which fact was not lost upon Elizabeth. That bright look of mingled softness and intelligence—the only thing which beautified her rugged face—came into the girl's eyes as she "turned down" the truckle-bed, and felt the warm blankets and sheets, new and rather coarse, but neatly sewed.
"Her's made 'em hersel', I reckon. La!" Which of her mistresses the "her" referred to remained unspecified; but Elizabeth, spurred to action by some new idea, went briskly back into the bedrooms, and looked about to see if there was any thing she could find to do. At last, with a sudden inspiration, she peered into a wash-stand, and found there an empty ewer. Taking it in one hand and the candle in the other, she ran down stairs.
Fatal activity! Hilary's pet cat, startled from sleep on the kitchen hearth, at the same instant ran wildly up stairs; there was a start—a stumble—and then down came the candle, the ewer, Elizabeth, and all.
It was an awful crash. It brought every member of the family to see what was the matter.
"What has the girl broken?" cried Selina.
"Where has she hurt herself?" anxiously added Johanna.
Hilary said nothing, but ran for a light, and then picked up first the servant, then the candle, and then the fragments of crockery.
"Why, it's my ewer, my favorite ewer, and it's all smashed to bits, and I never can match it again. You careless, clumsy, good-for-nothing creature!"
"Please, Selma," whispered her eldest sister.
"Very well, Johanna. You are the mistress, I suppose; why don't you speak to your servant?"
Miss Leaf, in an humbled, alarmed way, first satisfied herself that no bodily injury had been sustained by Elizabeth, and then asked her how this disaster had happened? For a serious disaster she felt it was. Not only was the present loss annoying, but a servant with a talent for crockery breaking would be a far too expensive luxury for them to think of retaining. And she had been listening in the solitude of the parlor to a long lecture from her always dissatisfied younger sister, on the great doubts Selina had about Elizabeth's "suiting."
"Come, now," seeing the girl hesitated, "tell me the plain truth. How was it?"
"It was the cat," sobbed Elizabeth.
"What a barefaced falsehood." exclaimed Selina. "You wicked girl, how could it possibly be the cat? Do you know that you are telling a lie, and that lies are hateful, and that all liars go to—"
"Nonsense, hush!" interrupted Hilary, rather sharply; for Selina's "tongue," the terror of her childhood, now merely annoyed her. Selina's temper was a long understood household fact—they did not much mind it, knowing that her bark was worse than her bite—but it was provoking that she should exhibit herself so soon before the new servant.
The latter first looked up at the lady with simple surprise; then, as in spite of the other two, Miss Selina worked herself up into a downright passion, and unlimited abuse fell upon the victim's devoted head, Elizabeth's manner changed. After one dogged repetition of, "It was the cat!" not another word could be got out of her. She stood, her eyes fixed on the kitchen floor, her brows knitted, and her under lip pushed out—the very picture of sullenness. Young as she was, Elizabeth evidently had, like her unfortunate mistress, "a temper of her own"—a spiritual deformity that some people are born with, as others with hare-lip or club-foot; only, unlike these, it may be conquered, though the battle is long and sore, sometimes ending only with life.
It had plainly never commenced with poor Elizabeth Hand. Her appearance, as she stood under the flood of sharp words poured out upon her, was absolutely repulsive. Even Miss Hilary turned away, and began to think it would have been easier to teach all day and do house work half the night, than have the infliction of a servant—to say nothing of the disgrace of seeing Selina's "peculiarities" so exposed before a stranger.
She knew of old that to stop the torrent was impracticable. The only chance was to let Selina expend her wrath and retire, and then to take some quiet opportunity of explaining to Elizabeth that sharp language was only "her way," and must be put up with. Humiliating as this was, and fatal to domestic authority that the first thing to be taught a new servant was to "put up" with one of her mistresses, still there was no alternative.—Hilary had already foreboded and made up her mind to such a possibility, but she had hoped it would not occur the very first evening.
It did, however, and its climax was worse even than she anticipated. Whether, irritated by the intense sullenness of the girl. Selina's temper was worse than usual, or whether, as is always the case with people like her, something else had vexed her, and she vented it upon the first cause of annoyance that occurred, certain it is that her tongue went on unchecked till it failed from sheer exhaustion. And then, as she flung herself on the sofa—oh, sad mischance!—she caught sight of her nephew standing at the school-room door, grinning with intense delight, and making faces at her behind her back.
It was too much. The poor lady had no more words left to scold with; but she rushed up to Ascott, and big lad as he was, she soundly boxed his ears.
On this terrible climax let the curtain fall.
Common as were the small fends between Ascott and his Aunt Selina, they seldom reached such a catastrophe as that described in my last chapter. Hilary had to fly to the rescue, and literally drag the furious lad back into the school-room; while Johanna, pale and trembling, persuaded Selina to quit the field and go and lie down. This was not difficult; for the instant she saw what she had done, how she had disgraced herself and insulted her nephew. Selina felt sorry. Her passion ended in a gush of "nervous" tears under the influence of which she was led up stairs and put to bed, almost like a child—the usual termination of these pitiful outbreaks.
For the time nobody thought of Elizabeth. The hapless cause of all stood "spectatress of the fray" beside her kitchen fire. What she thought history saith not. Whether in her own rough home she was used to see brothers and sisters quarrelling, and mothers boxing their childrens' ears, can not be known; whether she was or was not surprised to see the same proceedings among ladies and gentlemen, she never betrayed, but certain it is that the little servant became uncommonly serious; yes, serious rather than sulky, for her "black" looks vanished gradually, as soon as Miss Selina left the kitchen.
On the reappearance of Miss Hilary it had quite gone. But Hilary took no notice of her; she was in search of Johanna, who, shaking and cold with agitation, came slowly down stairs.
"Is she gone to bed?"
"Yes, my dear. It was the best thing for her; she is not at all well to-day."
Hilary's lip curled a little, but she replied not a word. She had not the patience with Selina that Johanna had. She drew her elder sister into the little parlor, placed her in the arm-chair, shut the door, came and sat beside her, and took her hand. Johanna pressed it, shed a quiet tear or two, and wiped them away. Then the two sisters remained silent, with hearts sad and sore.
Every family has its skeleton in the house: this was theirs. Whether they acknowledged it or not, they knew quite well that every discomfort they had, every slight jar which disturbed the current of household peace, somehow or other originated with "poor Selina." They often called her "poor" with a sort of pity—not unneeded. Heaven knows! for if the unhappy are to be pitied, ten times more so are those who make others miserable.
This was Selina's case, and had been all her life. And, sometimes, she herself knew it. Sometimes, after an especially bad outbreak, her compunction and remorse would be almost as terrible as her passion; forcing her sisters to make every excuse for her; she "did not mean it," it was only "ill health," or "nerves," or her "unfortunate way of taking things."
But they knew in their hearts that not all their poverty and the toils it entailed, not all the hardships and humiliation of their changed estate, were half so bitter to bear as this something—no moral crime, and yet in its results as fatal as crime—which they called Selina's "way."
Ascott was the only one who did not attempt to mince matters. When a little boy he had openly declared he hated Aunt Salina; when he grew up he as openly defied her, and it was a most difficult matter to keep even decent peace between them. Hilary's wrath had never gone further than wishing Selina was married, that appearing the easiest way of getting rid of her. Latterly she had ceased this earnest aspiration; it might be, because, learning to think more seriously of marriage, she felt that a woman who is no blessing in her own household, is never likely much to bless a husband's; and that, looking still farther forward, it was, on the whole, a mercy of Providence, which made Selina not the mother of children.
Yet her not marrying had been somewhat a surprise; for she had been attractive in her day, handsome and agreeable in society. But perhaps, for all that, the sharp eye of the opposite sex had discovered the cloven foot; since, though she had received various promising attentions, poor Selina had never had an offer. Nor, fortunately, had she ever been known to care for any body; she was one of those women who would have married as a matter of course, but who never would have been guilty of the weakness of falling in love. There seemed small probability of shipping her off, to carry into a new household the restlessness, the fretfulness, the captious fault-finding with others, the readiness to take offence at what was done and said to herself, which made poor Selina Leaf the unacknowledged grief and torment of her own.
Her two sisters sat silent. What was the use of talking? It would be only going ever and over again the old thing; trying to ease and shift a little the long familiar burden which they knew must be borne. Nearly every household has, near or remote, some such burden, which Heaven only can lift off or help to bear. And sometimes, looking round the world outside, these two congratulated themselves, in a half sort of way, that theirs was as light as it was; that Selina was after all, a well-meaning well-principled woman, and, in spite of her little tempers, really fond of her family, as she truly was, at least as fond as a nature which has its centre in self can manage to be.
Only when Hilary looked, as to-night, into her eldest sister's pale face, where year by year the lines were deepening, and saw how every agitation such as the present shook her more and more—she who ought to have a quiet life and a cheerful home, after so many hard years—then Hilary, fierce in the resistance of her youth, felt as if what she could have borne for herself she could not bear for Johanna, and at the moment, sympathized with Ascott in actually "hating" Aunt Selina.
"Where is that boy? He ought to be spoken to," Johanna said, at length, rising wearily.
"I have spoken to him; I gave him a good scolding. He is sorry, and promises never to be so rude again."
"Oh no; not till the next time," replied Miss Leaf. hopelessly. "But Hilary." with a sudden consternation, "what are we to do about Elizabeth?"
The younger sister had thought of that. She had turned over in her mind all the pros and cons, the inevitable "worries" that would result from the presence of an additional member of the family, especially one from whom the family skeleton could not be hid, to whom it was already only too fatally revealed.
But Hilary was a clear headed girl, and she had the rare faculty of seeing things as they really were, undistorted by her own likings or dislikings—in fact, without reference to herself at all. She perceived plainly that Johanna ought not to do the housework, that Selina would not, and that she could not: ergo, they must keep a servant. Better, perhaps, a small servant, over whom they could have the same influence as over a child, than one older and more independent, who would irritate her mistresses at home, and chatter of them abroad. Besides, they had promised Mrs. Hand to give her daughter a fair trial. For a month, then, Elizabeth was bound to stay; afterward, time would show. It was best not to meet troubles half way.
This explained, in Hilary's cheerful voice, seemed greatly to reassure and comfort her sister.
"Yes, love, you are right; she must remain her month out, unless she does something very wrong. Do you think that really was a lie she told?"
"About the cat? I don't quite know what to think. Let us call her, and put the question once more. Do you put it, Johanna. I don't think she could look at you and tell you a story."
Other people, at sight of that sweet, grave face, its bloom faded, and hairs silvered long before their time, yet beautiful, with an almost childlike simplicity and childlike peace—most other people would have been of Hilary's opinion.
"Sit down; I'll call her. Dear me, Johanna, we shall have to set up a bell as well as a servant, unless we had managed to combine the two."
But Hilary's harmless little joke failed to make her sister smile; and the entrance of the girl seemed to excite positive apprehension. How was it possible to make excuse to a servant for her mistress's shortcomings? how scold for ill-doing this young girl, to whom, ere she had been a night in the house, so bad an example had been set? Johanna half expected Elizabeth to take a leaf out of Selina's book and begin abusing herself and Hilary.
No: she stood very sheepish, very uncomfortable, but not in the least bold or sulky—on the whole, looking rather penitent and humble.
Her mistress took courage.
"Elizabeth I want you to tell me the truth about that unfortunate breakage. Don't be afraid. I had rather you broke every thing in the house than have told me what was not true."
"It was true; it was the cat."
"How could that be possible? You were coming down stairs with the ewer in your hand."
"Her got under my feet, and throwed me down, and so I tumbled, and smashed the thing agin the floor."
The Misses Leaf glanced at each other. This version of the momentous event was probable enough, and the girl's eager, honest manner gave internal confirmatory evidence pretty strong.
"I am sure she is telling the truth." said Hilary. "And remember what her mother said about her word being always reliable."
This reference was too much for Elizabeth. She burst out, not into actual crying, but into a smothered choke.
"If you donnot believe me, missus, I'd rather go home to mother."
"I do believe you," said Miss Leaf, kindly then waited till the pinafore, used as a pocket handkerchief, had dried up grief and restored composure.
"I can quite well understand the accident now; and I am sure if you had put it as plainly at first, my sister would have understood it too. She was very much annoyed, and no wonder. She will be equally glad to find she was mistaken."
Here Miss Leaf paused, somewhat puzzled how to express what she felt it her duty to say, so as to be comprehended by the servant, and yet not let down the dignity of the family Hilary came to her aid.
"Miss Selina is sometimes hasty; but she means kindly always. You must take care not to vex her, Elizabeth; and you must never answer her back again, however sharply she speaks. It is not your business; you are only a child, and she is your mistress."
"Is her? I thought it was this 'un."
The subdued clouding of Elizabeth's face, and her blunt pointing to Miss Leaf as "this 'un." were too much for Hilary's gravity She was obliged to retreat to the press, and begin an imaginary search for a book.
"Yes, I am the eldest, and I suppose you may consider me specially as your mistress," said Johanna, simply."
"Remember always to come to me in any difficulty; and above all, to tell me every thing outright, as soon as it happens. I can forgive you almost any fault, if you are truthful and honest; but there is one thing I never could forgive, and that is deception. Now go with Miss Hilary, and she will teach you how to make the porridge for supper."
Elizabeth obeyed silently; she had apparently a great gift for silence. And she was certainly both obedient and willing; not stupid, either, though a nervousness of temperament which Hilary was surprised to find in so big and coarse-looking a girl, made her rather awkward at first. However, she succeeded in pouring out and carrying into the parlor, without accident, three platefuls of that excellent condiment which formed the frugal supper of the family; but which they ate, I grieve to say, in an orthodox southern fashion, with sugar or treacle, until Mr. Lyon—greatly horrified thereby—had instituted his national custom of "supping" porridge with milk.
It may be a very unsentimental thing to confess, but Hilary, who even at twenty was rather practical than poetical, never made the porridge without thinking of Robert Lyon, and the day when he first staid to supper, and ate it, or as he said and was very much laughed at, ate "them" with such infinite relish Since then, whenever he came, he always asked for his porridge, saying it carried him back to his childish days. And Hilary, with that curious pleasure that women take in waiting upon any one unto whom the heart is ignorantly beginning to own the allegiance, humble yet proud, of Miranda to Ferdinand:
"To be your fellow You may deny me; but I'll be your servant Whether you will or no."
Hilary always contrived to make his supper herself.
Those pleasant days were now over. Mr. Lyon was gone. As she stool alone over the kitchen fire, she thought—as now and then she let herself think for a minute or two in her busy prosaic life—of that August night, standing at the front door, of his last "good-by," and last hand-clasp, tight, warm, and firm; and somehow she, like Johanna, trusted in him.
Not exactly in his love; it seemed almost impossible that he should love her, at least till she grew much more worthy of him than now; but in himself, that he would never be less himself, less thoroughly good and true than now. That, some time, he would be sure to come back again, and take up his old relations with them, brightening their dull life with his cheerfulness; infusing in their feminine household the new element of a clear, strong, energetic, manly will, which sometimes made Johanna say that instead of twenty-five the young man might be forty; and, above all, bringing into their poverty the silent sympathy of one who had fought his own battle with the world—a hard one, too, as his face sometimes showed—though he never said much about it.
Of the results of this pleasant relation—whether she being the only truly marriageable person in the house. Robert Lyon intended to marry her, or was expected to do so, or that society would think it a very odd thing if he did not do so—this unsophisticated Hilary never thought at all. If he had said to her that the present state of things was to go on forever; she to remain always Hilary Leaf, and he Robert Lyon, the faithful friend of the family, she would have smiled in his face and been perfectly satisfied.
True, she had never had any thing to drive away the smile from that innocent face; no vague jealousies aroused; no maddening rumors afloat in the small world that was his and theirs. Mr. Lyon was grave and sedate in all his ways; he never paid the slightest attention to, or expressed the slightest interest in, any woman whatsoever.
And so this hapless girl loved, him—just himself; without the slightest reference to his "connections," for he had none; or his "prospects," which, if he had any, she did not know of. Alas! to practical and prudent people I can offer no excuse for her; except, perhaps what Shakspeare gives in the creation of the poor Miranda.
When the small servant re-entered the kitchen, Hilary, with a half sigh, shook off her dreams, called Ascott out of the school-room, and returned to the work-a-day world and the family supper.
This being ended, seasoned with a few quiet words administered to Ascott, and which on the whole he took pretty well, it was nearly ten o'clock.
"Far too late to have kept up such a child as Elizabeth; we must not do it again," said Miss Leaf, taking down the large Bible with which she was accustomed to conclude the day—Ascott's early hours at school and their own house-work making it difficult of mornings. Very brief the reading was, sometimes not more than half a dozen verses, with no comment thereon; she thought the Word of God might safely be left to expound itself Being a very humble-minded woman, she did not feel qualified to lead long devotional "exercises," and she disliked formal written prayers. So she merely read the Bible to the family, and said after it the Lord's Prayer.
But, constitutionally shy as Miss Leaf was to do even this in presence of a stranger cost her some effort; and it was only a sense of duty that made her say "yes" to Hilary's suggestion, "I suppose we ought to call in Elizabeth?"
"Sit down," said her mistress: and she sat down, staring uneasily round about her, as if wondering what was going to befall her next. Very silent was the little parlor; so small, that it was almost filled up by its large square piano, its six cane-bottomed chairs, and one easy chair, in which sat Miss Leaf with the great Book in her lap.
"Can you read, Elizabeth?"
"Hilary, give her a bible."
And so Elizabeth followed, guided by her not too clean finger, the words, read in that soft, low voice, somewhere out of the New Testament; words simple enough for the comprehension of a child or a heathen. The "South Sea Islander," as Ascott persisted in calling her, then, doing as the family did, turned round to kneel down; but in her confusion she knocked over a chair, causing Miss Leaf to wait a minute till reverent silence was restored. Elizabeth knelt, with her eyes fixed on the wall: it was a green paper, patterned with bunches of nuts. How far she listened, or how much she understood, it was impossible to say; but her manner was decent and decorous.
"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us." Unconsciously Miss Leaf's gentle voice rested on these words, so needed in the daily life of every human being, and especially of every family. Was she the only one who thought of "poor Selina?"
They all rose from their knees, and Hilary out the Bible away. The little servant "hung about," apparently uncertain what was next to be done, or what was expected of her to do. Hilary touched her sister.
"Yes," said Miss Leaf. recollecting herself, and assuming the due authority, "it is quite time for all the family to be in bed. Take care of your candle, and mind and be up at six tomorrow morning."
This was addressed to the new maiden, who dropped a courtesy, and said, almost cheerfully, "Yes, ma'am."
"Very well, Good night. Elizabeth."
And following Miss Leaf's example, the other two, even Ascott, said civilly and kindly, "Good night, Elizabeth."
The Christmas holidays ended, and Ascott left for London. It was the greatest household change the Misses Leaf had known for years, and they missed him sorely. Ascott was not exactly a lovable boy, and yet, after the fashion of womankind, his aunts were both fond and proud of him; fond, in their childless old maidenhood, of any sort of nephew, and proud, unconsciously, that the said nephew was a big fellow, who could look over all their heads, besides being handsome and pleasant mannered, and though not clever enough to set the Thames on fire, still sufficiently bright to make them hope that in his future the family star might again rise.
There was something pathetic in these three women's idealization of him—even Selina's who though quarrelling with him to his face always praised him behind his back,—that great, good-looking, lazy lad; who, every body else saw clearly enough, thought more of his own noble self than of all his aunts put together.
The only person he stood in awe of was Mr. Lyon—for whom he always protested unbounded respect and admiration. How far Robert Lyon liked Ascott even Hilary could never quite find out; but he was always very kind to him.
There was one person in the house who, strange to say, did not succumb to the all-dominating youth. From the very first there was a smouldering feud between him and Elizabeth. Whether she overheard, and slowly began to comprehend his mocking gibes about the "South Sea Islander," or whether her sullen and dogged spirit resisted the first attempts the lad made to "put upon her"—as he did upon his aunts, in small daily tyrannies—was never found out; but certainly Ascott, the general favorite, found little favor with the new servant. She never answered when he "hollo'd" for her; she resisted blacking his boots more than once a day; and she obstinately cleared the kitchen fire-place of his "messes," as she ignominiously termed various pots and pans belonging to what he called his "medical studies."
Although the war was passive rather than aggressive, and sometimes a source of private amusement to the aunts, still, on the whole, it was a relief when the exciting cause of it departed; his new and most gentlemanly port manteau being carried down stairs by Elizabeth herself, of her own accord, with an air of cheerful alacrity, foreign to her mien for some weeks past, and which, even in the midst of the dolorous parting, amused Hilary extremely.
"I think that girl is a character," she said afterward to Johanna. "Any how she has curiously strong likes and dislikes."
"You may say that, my dear; for she brightens up whenever she looks at you."
"Does she? Oh, that must be because I have most to do with her. It is wonderful how friendly one gets over sauce pans and brooms; and what reverence one inspires in the domestic mind when one really knows how to make a bed or a pudding."
"How I wish you had to do neither!" sighed Johanna, looking fondly at the bright face and light little figure that was flitting about putting the school-room to rights before the pupils came in.
"Nonsense—I don't wish any such thing. Doing it makes me not a whit less charming and lovely." She often applied these adjectives to herself, with the most perfect conviction that she was uttering a fiction patent to every body. I must be very juvenile also, for I'm certain the fellow-passenger at the station to-day took me for Ascott's sweetheart. When we were saying good by an old gentleman who sat next him was particularly sympathetic, and you should have seen how indignantly Ascott replied, "It's only my aunt!"
Miss Leaf laughed, and the shadow vanished from her face, as Hilary had meant it should. She only said, caressing her, "Well, my pet, never mind. I hope you will have a real sweetheart some day."
"I'm in no hurry, thank you, Johanna."
But now was heard the knock after knock of the little boys and girls, and there began that monotonous daily round of school labor, rising from the simplicities of c, a, t, cat, and d, o, g, dog—to the sublime heights of Pinnock and Lennie, Telemaque and Latin Delectus. No loftier; Stowbury being well supplied with first class schools, and having a vague impression that the Misses Leaf, born ladies and not brought up as governesses, were not competent educators except of very small children.
Which was true enough until lately. So Miss Leaf kept contentedly to the c, a, t, cat, and d, o, g, dog, of the little butchers and bakers, as Miss Selina, who taught only sewing, and came into the school-room but little during the day, scornfully termed them. The higher branches such as they were, she left gradually to Hilary, who, of late, possibly out of sympathy with a friend of hers, had begun to show an actual gift for teaching school.
It is a gift—all will allow; and chiefly those who have it not, among which was poor Johanna Leaf. The admiring envy with which she watched Hilary, moving briskly about from class to class, with a word of praise to one and rebuke to another, keeping every one's attention alive, spurring on the dull, controlling the unruly, and exercising over every member in this little world that influence, at once the strongest and most intangible and inexplicable—personal influence—was only equaled by the way in which, at pauses in the day's work, when it grew dull and monotonous or when the stupidity of the children ruffled her own quick temper beyond endurance, Hilary watched Johanna.
The time I am telling of now is long ago.
The Stowbury children, who were then little boys and girls, are now fathers and mothers—doubtless a large proportion being decent tradesfolk in Stowbury still; though, in this locomotive quarter, many must have drifted elsewhere—where, Heaven knows. But not a few of them may still call to mind Miss Leaf, who first taught them their letters—sitting in her corner between the fire and the window, while the blind was drawn down to keep out, first the light from her own fading eyes, and, secondly, the distracting view of green fields and trees from the youthful eyes by her side. They may remember still her dark plain dress and her white apron, on which the primers, torn and dirty, looked half ashamed to lie; and above all, her sweet face and sweeter voice, never heard in any thing sharper than that grieved tone which signified their being "naughty children." They may recall her unwearied patience with the very dullest and most wayward of them; her unfailing sympathy with every infantile pleasure and pain. And I think they will acknowledge that whether she taught them much or little—in this advancing age it might be thought little—Miss Leaf taught them one thing—to love her. Which, as Ben Johnson said of the Countess of Pembroke, was in itself a "liberal education."
Hilary, too. Often when Hilary's younger and more restless spirit chafed against the monotony of her life; when, instead of wasting her days in teaching small children, she would have liked to be learning, learning—every day growing wiser and cleverer, and stretching out into that busy, bright, active world of which Robert Lyon had told her—then the sight of Johanna's meek face bent over those dirty spelling books would at once rebuke and comfort her. She felt, after all, that she would not mind working on forever, so long as Johanna still sat there.
Nevertheless, that winter seemed to her very long—especially after Ascott was gone. For Johanna, partly for money, and partly for kindness, had added to her day's work four evenings a week when a half educated mother of one of her little pupils came to be taught to write a decent hand, and to keep the accounts of her shop. Upon which Selina, highly indignant, had taken to spending her evenings in the school room, interrupting Hilary's solitary studies there by many a lamentation over the peaceful days when they all sat in the kitchen together and kept no servant. For Selina was one of those who never saw the bright side of any thing till it had gone by.
"I'm sure I don't know how we are to manage with Elizabeth. That greedy—"
"And growing," suggested Hilary.
"I say that greedy girl eats as much as any two of us. And as for her clothes—her mother does not keep her even decent."
"She would find it difficult upon three pounds a year."
"Hilary, how dare you contradict me! I am only stating a plain fact."
"And I another. But, indeed, I don't want to talk Selina."
"You never do except when you are wished to be silent; and then your tongue goes like any race horse."
"Does it? Well, like Gilpin's,
'It carries weight: it rides a race, 'Tis for a thousand pound?'
—and I only wish it were. Heigh ho! if I could but earn a thousand pounds!"
Selina was too vexed to reply and for five quiet minutes Hilary bent over her Homer which Mr. Lyon had taken such pleasure in teaching her, because he said, she learned it faster than any of his grammar school boys. She had forgotten all domestic grievances in a vision of Thetis and the water nymphs; and was repeating to herself, first in the sonorous Greek and then in Pope's small but sweet English, that catalogue of oceanic beauties ending with
"Black Janira and Janassa fair, And Amatheia with her amber hair."
"Black, did you say? I'm sure she was as black as a chimney sweep all to-day. And her pinafore"
"Her what? Oh, Elizabeth, you mean—"
"Her pinafore had three rents in it, which she never thinks of mending though I gave her needles and thread myself a week ago. But she does not know how to use them any more than a baby."
"Possibly, nobody ever taught her."
"Yes; she went for a year to the National School, she says, and learned both marking and sewing."
"Perhaps she has never practiced them since. She could hardly have had time, with all the little Hands to look after, as her mother says she did. All the better for us. It makes her wonderfully patient with our troublesome brats. It was only to day, when that horrid little Jacky Smith hurt himself so, that I saw Elizabeth take him into the kitchen, wash his face and hands, and cuddle him up and comfort him, quite motherly. Her forte is certainly children."
"You always find something to say for her."
"I should be ashamed if I could not find something to say for any body who is always abused."
Another pause—and then Selina returned to the charge.
"Have you ever observed, my dear, the extraordinary way she has of fastening, or rather, not fastening her gown behind? She just hooks it together at the top and at the waist, while between there is a—"
"Hiatus valde deflendus. Oh dear me! what shall I do? Selina, how can I help it if a girl of fifteen years old is not a paragon of perfection? as of course we all are, if we only could find it out."
And Hilary, in despair, rose to carry her candle and books into the chilly but quiet bedroom, biting her lips the while lest she should be tempted to say something which Selina called "impertinent," which perhaps it was, from a younger sister to an elder. I do not set Hilary up as a perfect character. Through sorrow only do people go on to perfection; and sorrow, in its true meaning, the cherished girl had never known.
But that night, talking to Johanna before they went to sleep—they had always slept together since the time when the elder sister used to walk the room of nights with that pulling, motherless infant in her arms—Hilary anxiously started the question of the little servant.
"I am afraid I vexed Selina greatly about her to-night, and yet what can one do? Selina is so very unjust—always expecting impossibilities. She would like to have Elizabeth at once a first rate cook, a finished house-maid, and an attentive lady's maid, and all without being taught! She gives her things to do, neither waiting to see if they are comprehended by her, nor showing her how to do them. Of course the girl stands gaping and staring and does not do them, or does them so badly, that she gets a thorough scolding."
"Is she very stupid, do you think?" asked Johanna, in unconscious appeal to her pet's stronger judgment.
"No, I don't. Far from stupid; only very ignorant, and—you would hardly believe it—very nervous. Selina frightens her. She gets on extremely well with me."
"Any one would, my dear. That is," added the conscientious elder sister, still afraid of making the "child" vain, "any one whom you took pain with. But do you think you can ever make any thing out of Elizabeth? Her month ends to-morrow. Shall we let her go?"
"And perhaps get in her place a story-teller—a tale-bearer—even a thief. No, no; let us
'Rather bear the ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of;'
and a thief would be worse than even a South Sea Islander."
"Oh yes, my dear," said Johanna, with a shiver.
"By-the-by, the first step in the civilization of the Polynesians was giving them clothes. And I have heard say that crime and rags often go together; that a man unconsciously feels that he owes something to himself and society in the way of virtue when he has a clean face and clean shirt, and a decent coat on. Suppose we try the experiment of dressing Elizabeth. How many old gowns have we?"
The number was few. Nothing in the Leaf family was ever cast off till its very last extremity of decay; the talent that
"Gars auld claes look amaist as gude's the new"
being specially possessed by Hilary. She counted over her own wardrobe and Johanna's but found nothing that could be spared.
"Yes, my love, there is one thing. You certainly shall never put on that old brown merino again; though you have laid it so carefully by, as if you meant it to come out as fresh as ever next winter. No, Hilary, you must have a new gown, and you must give Elizabeth your brown merino."
Hilary laughed, and replied not.
Now it might be a pathetic indication of a girl who had very few clothes, but Hilary had a superstitious weakness concerning hers.—Every dress had its own peculiar chronicle of the scenes where it had been, the enjoyments she had shared in it. Particular dresses were special memorials of her loves, her pleasures, her little passing pains; as long as a bit remained of the poor old fabric the sight of it recalled them all.
This brown merino—in which she had sat two whole winters over her Greek and Latin by Robert Lyon's side, which he had once stopped to touch and notice, saying what a pretty color it was, and how he liked soft-feeling dresses for women—to cut up this old brown merino seemed to hurt her so she could almost have cried.
Yet what would Johanna think if the refused? And there was Elizabeth absolutely in want of clothes. "I must be growing very wicked," thought poor Hilary.
She lay a good while silent in the dark, while Johanna planned and replanned—calculating how, even with the addition of an old cape of her own, which was out of the same piece, this hapless gown could be made to fit the gaunt frame of Elizabeth Hand.—Her poor kindly brain was in the last extremity of muddle, when Hilary, with a desperate effort, dashed in to the rescue, and soon made all clear, contriving body, skirt, sleeves and all.
"You have the best head in the world, my love. I don't know whatever I should do without you."
"Luckily you are never likely to be tried. So give me a kiss; and good night, Johanna."
I misdoubt many will say I am writing about small, ridiculously small, things. Yet is not the whole of life made up of infinitesimally small things? And in its strange and solemn mosaic, the full pattern of which we never see clearly till looking back on it from far away, dare we say of any thing which the hand of Eternal Wisdom has put together, that it is too common or too small?
While her anxious mistresses were thus talking her over the servant lay on her humble bed and slept. They knew she did, for they heard her heavy breathing through the thin partition wall. Whether, as Hilary suggested, she was too ignorant to notice the days of the week, or month, or, as Selina thought, too stupid to care for any thing beyond eating, drinking, and sleeping. Elizabeth manifested no anxiety about herself or her destiny.
She went about her work just as usual; a little quicker and readier, now she was becoming familiarized to it; but she said nothing. She was undoubtedly a girl of silent and undemonstrative nature.
"Sometimes still waters run deep," said Miss Hilary.
"Nevertheless. there are such things as canals," replied Johanna. "When do you mean to have your little talk with her?"
Hilary did not know. She was sitting, rather more tired than usual, by the school-room fire, the little people having just departed for their Saturday half-holiday. Before clearing off the debris which they always left behind, she stood a minute at the window, refreshing her eyes with the green field opposite, and the far-away wood, crowned by a dim white monument, visible in fair weather, on which those bright brown eyes had a trick of lingering, even in the middle of school hours. For the wood and the hill beyond belonged to a nobleman's "show" estate, five miles off—the only bit of real landscape beauty that Hilary had ever beheld. There, during the last holidays but one, she, her sisters, her nephew, and, by his own special request, Mr. Lyon, had spent a whole long, merry, midsummer day. She wondered whether such a day would ever come again!
But spring was coming again, any how; the field looked smiling and green, specked here and there with white dots which, she opined. might possibly be daisies. She half wished she was not too old and dignified to dart across the road, leap the sunk fence, and run to see.
"I think, Johanna—Hark, what can that be?"
For at this instant somebody came tearing down the stairs, opened the front door, and did—exactly what Hilary had just been wishing to do.
"It's Elizabeth, without her bonnet or shawl, with something white flying behind her. How she is dashing across the field! What can she be after? Just look."
But loud screams from Selina's room, the front, one, where she had been lying in bed all morning, quite obliterated the little servant from their minds. The two sisters ran hastily up stairs.
Selina was sitting up, in undisguised terror and agitation.
"Stop her! Hold her! I'm sure she has gone mad. Lock the door, or she'll come back and murder us all."
"Who? Elizabeth! Was she here? What has been the matter?"
But it was some time before they could make out any thing. At last they gathered that Elizabeth had been waiting upon Miss Selina, putting vinegar cloths on her head, and doing various things about the room. "She is very handy when one is ill." even Selina allowed.
"And I assure you I was talking most kindly to her; about the duties of her position, and how she ought to dress better, and be more civil behaved, or else she never could except to keep any place. And she stood in her usual sulky way of listening, never answering a word—with her back to me, staring right out of window. And I had just said, Elizabeth, my girl'—indeed, Hilary, I was talking to her in my very kindest way—"
"I've no doubt of it—but do get on."
"When she suddenly turned round, snatched a clean towel from a chair back, and another from my head—actually from my very head, Johanna—and out she ran. I called after her, but she took no more notice than if I had been a stone. And she left the door wide open—blowing upon me. Oh, dear; she has given me my death of cold." And Selina broke out into piteous complainings.
Her elder sister soothed her as well as she could, while Hilary ran down to the front door and looked, and enquired every where for Elizabeth. She was not to be seen on field or road; and along that quiet terrace not a soul had even perceived her quit the house.
"It's a very odd thing." said Hilary, returning. "What can have come over the girl? You are sure, Selina, that you said nothing which—"
"Now I know what you are going to say, You are going to blame me. Whatever happens in this house you always blame me. And perhaps you're right. Perhaps I am a nuisance—a burden—would be far better dead and buried. I wish I were!"
When Selina took this tack, of course her sisters were silenced. They quited her a little, and then went down and searched the house all over.
All was in order; at least in as much order as was to be expected the hour before dinner. The bowl of half-peeled potatoes stood on the back kitchen "sink;" the roast was down before the fire; the knives were ready for cleaning. Evidently Elizabeth flight had not been premeditated.
"It's all nonsense about her going mad. She has as sound a head as I have," said Hilary to Johanna, who began to look seriously uneasy. "She might have run away in a fit of passion, certainly; and yet that is improbable; her temper is more sullen than furious. And having no lack of common sense she must know that doing a thing like this is enough to make her lose her place at once."
"Yes," said Johanna, mournfully, "I'm afraid after this she must go."
"Wait and see what she has to say for herself." pleaded Hilary. "She will surely be back in two or three minutes."
But she was not, nor even in two or three hours.
Her mistresses' annoyance became displeasure, and that again subsided into serious apprehension. Even Selina ceased talking over and over the incident which gave the sole information to be arrived at; rose, dressed, and came down to the kitchen. There, after long and anxious consultation, Hilary, observing that "Somebody had better do something," began to prepare the dinner as in pre-Elizabethan days; but the three ladies' appetites were small.
About three in the afternoon, Hilary, giving utterance to the hidden alarm of all, said—
"I think, sisters, I had better go down as quickly as I can to Mrs. Hand's."
This agreed, she stood consulting with Johanna as to what could possibly be said to the mother in case that unfortunate child had not gone home, when the kitchen door opened, and the culprit appeared.
Not, however, with the least look of a culprit. Hot she was, and breathless; and with her hair down about her ears, and her apron rolled up round her waist, presented a most forlorn and untidy aspect; but her eyes were bright, and her countenance glowing.
She took a towel from under her arm.—"There's one on 'em—and you'll get back—the other—when it's washed."
Having blurted out this, she leaned against the wall, trying to recover her breath.
"Elizabeth! Where have you been? How dared you go? Your behavior is disgraceful—most disgraceful, I say. Johanna, why don't you speak to your servant?" (When, for remissness in reproving others, the elder sister herself fell under reproof, it was always emphatically "your sister—"your nephew"—"your servant.")
But, for once, Miss Selina's sharp voice failed to bring the customary sullen look to Elizabeth's face, and when Miss Leaf, in her milder tones, asked where she had been, she answered unhesitatingly—
"I've been down the town."
"Down the town!" the three ladies cried, in one chorus of astonishment.
"I've been as quick as I could, missis. I runned all the way there and back; but it was a good step, and he was some'at heavy, though he is but a little'un,"
"He! who on earth is he?"
"Deary me! I never thought of axing; but his mother lives in Hall street. Somebody saw me carrying him to the doctor, and went and told her. Oh! he was welly killed, Miss Leaf—the doctor said so; but he'll do now, and you'll get your towel clean washed tomorrow."
While Elizabeth spoke so incoherently, and with such unwonted energy and excitement, Johanna looked as if she thought her sister's fears were true, and the girl had really gone mad; but Hilary's quicker perceptions jumped at a different conclusion.
"Quiet yourself, Elizabeth," said she, taking a firm hold of her shoulder, and making her sit down, when the rolled-up apron dropped, and showed itself all covered with blood spots. Selina screamed outright.
Then Elizabeth seemed to become half conscious that she had done something blamable, or was at least a suspected character. Her warmth of manner faded; the sullen cloud of dogged resistance to authority was rising in her poor dirty face, when Hilary, beginning with, "Now, we are not going to scold you; but we must hear the reason of this," contrived by adroit questions, and not a few of them, to elicit the whole story.
It appeared that, while standing at Miss Selina's window, Elizabeth had watched three little boys, apparently engaged in a very favorite amusement of little boys in that field, going quickly behind a horse, and pulling out the longest and handsomest hairs in his tail to make fishing lines of. She saw the animal give a kick, and two of the boys ran away; the other did not stir. For a minute or so she noticed a black lump lying in the grass; then, with the quick instinct for which nobody had ever given her credit, she guessed what had happened, and did immediately the wisest and only thing possible under the circumstances, namely, to snatch up a towel, run across the field, bind up the child's head as well as she could, and carry it, bleeding and insensible, to the nearest doctor, who lived nearly a mile off.
She did not tell—and they only found it out afterward—how she had held the boy while under the doctor's hands, the skull being so badly fractured that the frightened mother fainted at the sight; how she had finally carried him home, and left him comfortably settled in bed, his senses returned, and his life saved.
"Ay, my arms do ache above a bit," she said, in answer to Miss Leaf's questions. "He wasn't quite a baby—nigh upon twelve, I reckon; but then he was very small of his age. And he looked just as if he was dead—and he bled so."
Here, just for a second or two, the color left the big girl's lips, and she trembled a little. Miss Leaf went to the kitchen cupboard, and took out their only bottle of wine—administered in rare doses, exclusively as medicine.
"Drink this, Elizabeth; and then go and wash your face and eat your dinner. We will talk to you by-and-by."
Elizabeth looked up with a long, wistfull stare of intense surprise, and then added, "Have I done any thing wrong, missis?"
"I did not say so. But drink this; and don't talk, child."
She was obeyed. By-and-by Elizabeth disappeared into the back kitchen, emerged thence with a clean face, hands, and apron; and went about her afternoon business as if nothing had happened.
Her mistresses' threatened "talk" with her never came about. What, indeed, could they say? No doubt the little servant had broken the strict letter of domestic law by running off in that highly eccentric and inconvenient way; but, as Hilary tried to explain by a series of most ingenious ratiocinations, she had fulfilled, in the spirit of it, the very highest law—that of charity. She had also shown prompt courage, decision, practical and prudent forethought, and above all, entire self-forgetfulness.
"And I should like to know," said Miss Hilary, warming with her subject, "if those are not the very qualities that go to constitute a hero."
"But we don't want a hero; we want a maid-of-all-work."
"I'll tell you what we want, Selina. We want a woman; that is, a girl with the making of a good woman in her. If we can find that, all the rest will follow. For my part, I would rather take this child, rough as she is, but with her truthfulness, conscientiousness, kindliness of heart, and evident capability of both self-control and self-devotedness, than the most finished servant we could find. My advice is—keep her."
This settled the matter, since it was a curious fact that the "advice" of the youngest Miss Leaf was, whether they knew it or not, almost equivalent to a family ukase.
When Elizabeth had brought in the tea-things, which she did with especial care, apparently wishing to blot out the memory of the morning's escapade by astonishingly good behavior for the rest of the day, Miss Leaf called her, and asked if she knew that her month of trial ended this day?
"Yes, ma'am," with the strict normal courtesy, something between that of the old-world family domestic—as her mother might have been to the Miss Elizabeth Something she was named after—and the abrupt "dip" of the modern National school girl; which constituted Elizabeth Hand's sole experience of manners.
"If you had not been absent I should have gone to speak with your mother to-day. Indeed Miss Hilary was going when you came in; but it would have been with a very different intention from what we had in the morning. However, that is not likely to happen again."
"Eh?" said Elizabeth, inquiringly.
Miss Leaf hesitated, and looked uneasily at her two sisters. It was always a trial to her shy nature to find herself the mouth-piece of the family; and this same shyness made it still more difficult to break through the stiff barriers which seemed to rise up between her, a gentlewoman well on in years, and this coarse working girl. She felt, as she often complained, that with the-kindest intentions, she did not quite know how to talk to Elizabeth.
"My sister means," said Hilary, "that as we are not likely to have little boys half killed in the field every day, she trusts you will not be running away again as you did this morning. She feels sure that you would not do such a thing, putting us all to so great annoyance and uneasiness, for any less cause than such as happened to-day. You promise that?"
"Yes, Miss Hilary."
"Then we quite forgive you as regards ourselves. Nay"—feeling in spite of Selina's warning nudge, that she had hardly been kind enough—"we rather praise than blame you, Elizabeth. And if you like to stay with us and will do your best to improve, we are willing to keep you as our servant."
"Thank you ma'am. Thank you, Miss Hilary. Yes, I'll stop."
She said no more—but sighed a great sigh, as if her mind were relieved—("So," thought Hilary, "she was not so indifferent to us as we imagined")—and bustled back into her kitchen.
"Now for the clothing of her," observed Miss Leaf, also looking much relieved that the decision was over. "You know what we agreed upon; and there is certainly no time to be lost. Hilary, my dear, suppose you bring down your brown merino?" Hilary went without a word.
People who inhabit the same house, eat, sit, and sleep together—loving one another and sympathizing with one another, ever so deeply and dearly—nevertheless inevitably have momentary seasons when the intense solitude in which we all live, and must expect ever to live, at the depth of our being, forces itself painfully upon the heart. Johanna must have had many such seasons when Hilary was a child; Hilary had one now.
She unfolded the old frock, and took out of its pocket, a hiding place at once little likely to be searched, and harmless if discovered, a poor little memento of that happy midsummer day.
"Dear Miss Hilary. To-morrow, then, I shall come. Yours truly, Robert Lyon."
The only scrap of note she had ever received; he always wrote to Johanna; as regularly as ever, or more so, now Ascott was gone; but only to Johanna. She read over the two lines, wondered where she should keep them now that Johanna might not notice them; and then recoiled, as if the secret were a wrong to that dear sister who loved her so well.
"But nothing makes me love her less; nothing ever could. She thinks me quite happy, as I am; and yet—oh, if I did not miss him so!"
And the aching, aching want which sometimes came over began again. Let us not blame her. God made all our human needs. God made love. Not merely affection but actual love—the necessity to seek and find out some other being, not another but the complement of one's self—the "other half," who brings rest and strength for weakness, sympathy in aspiration, and tenderness for tenderness, as no other person ever can. Perhaps, even in marriage, this love is seldom found, and it is possible in all lives to do without it. Johanna had done so. But then she had been young, and was now growing old; and Hilary was only twenty, with a long life before her. Poor child, let us not blame her!
She was not in the least sentimental, her natural disposition inclining her to be more than cheerful, actually gay. She soon recovered herself, and when, a short time after, she stood, scissors in hand, demonstrating how very easy it was to make something out of nothing, her sisters never suspected how very near tears had lately been to those bright eyes, which were always the sunshine of the house.
"You are giving yourself a world of trouble," said Selina. "If I were you, I would just make over the dress to Elizabeth, and let her do what she could with it."
"My dear, I always find I give myself twice the trouble by expecting people to do what they can't do. I have to do it myself afterward. Prove how a child who can't even handle a needle and thread is competent to make a gown for herself, and I shall be most happy to secede in her favor."
"Nay," put in the eldest sister, afraid of a collision of words, "Selina is right; if you do not teach Elizabeth to make her own gowns how can she learn?"
"Johanna, you are the brilliantest of women! and you know you don't like the parlor littered with rags and cuttings. You wish to get rid of me for the evening? Well, I'll go! Hand me the work basket and the bundle, and I'll give my first lesson in dress making to our South Sea Islander."
But Fate stood in the way of Miss Hilary's good intentions.
She found Elizabeth not as was her wont, always busy, over the perpetual toil of those who have not yet learned the mysterious art of arrangement and order, nor, as sometimes, hanging sleepily over the kitchen fire, waiting for bedtime; but actually sitting, sitting down at the table. Her candle was flaring on one side of her; on the other was the school room inkstand, a scrap of waste paper, and a pen But she was not writing; she sat with her head on her hands, in an attitude of disconsolate idleness, so absorbed that she seemed not to hear Hilary's approach.
"I did not know you could write, Elizabeth."
"No more I can," was the answer, in the most doleful of voices. "It bean't no good. I've forgotten all about it. T' letters wonna join."
"Let me look at them." And Hilary tried to contemplate gravely the scrawled and blotted page, which looked very much as if a large spider had walked into the ink bottle, and then walked out again on a tour of investigation. "What did you want to write?" asked she, suddenly.
Elizabeth blushed violently. "It was the woman, Mrs. Cliffe, t' little lad's mother, you know; she wanted somebody to write to her husband as is at work at Birmingham, and I said I would. I'd learned at the National, but I've forgotten it all. I'm just as Miss Selina says—I'm good for nowt."
"Come, come, never fret;" for there was a sort of choke in the girl's voice. "There's many a good person who never learned to write. But I don't see why you should not learn. Shall I teach you?"
Utter amazement, beaming gratitude, succeeded one another, plain as light, in Elizabeth's eyes, but she only said, "Thank you, Miss Hilary."
"Very well. I have brought you an old gown of mine, and was going to show you how to make it up for yourself, but I'll look over your writing instead. Sit down and let me see what you can do."
In a state of nervous trepidation, pitiful to behold, Elizabeth took the pen. Terrible scratches resulted; blots innumerable; and one fatal deluge of ink, which startled from their seats both mistress and maid, and made Hilary thankful that she had taken off her better gown for a common one, as, with sad thriftiness, the Misses Leaf always did of evenings.
When Elizabeth saw the mischief she had done, her contrition and humility were unbounded. "No, Miss Hilary, you can't make nothin' of me. I be too stupid, I'll give it up."
"Nonsense!" And the bright active little lady looked steadily into the heavy face of this undeveloped girl, half child, half woman, until some of her own spirit seemed to be reflected there. Whether the excitement of the morning had roused her, or her mistresses' kindness had touched Elizabeth's heart, and—as in most women—the heart was the key to the intellect; or whether the gradual daily influence of her changed life during the last month had been taking effect, now for the first time to appear—certain it is that Hilary had never perceived before what an extremely intelligent face it was; what good sense was indicated in the well shaped head and forehead; what tenderness and feeling in the deep-set grey eyes.
"Nonsense," repeated she. "Never give up any thing; I never would. We'll try a different plan, and begin from the beginning, as I do with my little scholars. Wait, while I fetch a copy book out of the parlor press."
She highly amused her sisters with a description of what she called her "newly instituted Polynesian Academy;" returned, and set to work to guide the rough, coarse hand through the mysteries of calligraphy.
To say this was an easy task would not be true. Nature's own laws and limits make the using of faculties which have been unused for generations very difficult at first. To suppose that a working man, the son of working men, who applies himself to study, does it with as little trouble as your upper-class children, who have been unconsciously undergoing education ever since the cradle, is a great mistake. All honor, therefore, to those who do attempt, and to ever so small a degree succeed in, the best and wisest culture of all, self-culture.
Of this honor Elizabeth deserved her share.
"She is stupid enough," Hilary confessed, after the lesson was over; "but there is a dogged perseverance about the girl which I actually admire. She blots her fingers, her nose, her apron, but she never gives in; and she sticks to the grand principle of one thing at a time. I think she did two whole pages of a's, and really performed them satisfactorily, before she asked to go on to b's. Yes! I believe she will do."
"I hope she will do her work, any how," said Selina, breaking into the conversation rather crossly. "I'm sure I don't see the good of wasting time over teaching Elizabeth to write, when there's so much to be done in the house by one and all of us, from Monday morning till Saturday night."
"Ay, that's it," answered Hilary, meditatively. "I don't see how I ever shall get time to teach her, and she is so tired of nights when the work is all done; she'll be dropping asleep with the pen in her hand—I have done it myself before now."
Ay, in those days when, trying so hard to "improve her mind," and make herself a little more equal and companionable to another mind she knew, she had, after her daily house cares and her six hours of school teaching, attempted at nine P. M. to begin close study on her own account. And though with her strong will she succeeded tolerably, still, as she told Johanna, she could well understand how slow was the, "march of intellect" (a phrase which had just then come up) among day laborers and the like; and how difficult it was for these Mechanics Institutions, which were now talked so much of, to put any new ideas into the poor tired heads, rendered sluggish and stupid with hard bodily labor, "Suppose I were to hold my Polynesian Academy on a Sunday?" and she looked inquiringly at her sisters, especially Johanna.
Now the Misses Leaf were old fashioned country folk, who lived before the words Sabbatarian and un-Sabbatarian had ever got into the English language. They simply "remembered the Sabbath day to keep it holy;" they arranged so as to make it for all the household a day of rest: and they went regularly to church once—sometimes Selina and Hilary went twice. For the intervening hours, their usual custom was to take an afternoon walk in the fields; begun chiefly for Ascott's sake, to keep the lad out of mischief, and put into his mind better thoughts than he was likely to get from his favorite Sunday recreation of sitting on the wall throwing stones. After he left for London there was Elizabeth to be thought of; and they decided that the best Sabbath duty for the little servant was to go and see her mother. So they gave her every Sunday afternoon free; only requiring that she should be at home punctually after church time, at eight o'clock. But from thence till bedtime was a blank two hours, which, Hilary had noticed, Elizabeth not infrequently spent in dozing over the fire.
"And I wonder," said she, giving the end of her long meditation out loud, "whether going to sleep is not as much Sabbath breaking as learning to write? What do you say, Johanna?"
Johanna, simple, God-fearing woman as she was, to whom faith and love came as natural as the breath she drew, had never perplexed herself with the question. She only smiled acquiescence. But Selina was greatly shocked. Teaching to write on a Sunday! Bringing the week day work into the day of rest! Doing one's own pleasure on the holy day! She thought it exceedingly wrong. Such a thing had never been heard of in their house. Whatever else might be said of them, the Leafs were always a respectable family as to keeping Sunday. Nobody could say that even poor Henry—
But here Selina's torrent of words stopped.
When conversation revived, Hilary, who had been at first half annoyed and half amused, resumed her point seriously.
"I might say that writing isn't Elizabeth's week-day work, and that teaching her is not exactly doing my own pleasure; but I won't creep out of the argument by a quibble. The question is, What is keeping the Sabbath day 'holy?' I say—and I stick to my opinion—that it is by making it a day of worship, a rest day—a cheerful and happy day—and by doing as much good in it as we can. And therefore I mean to teach Elizabeth on a Sunday."
"She'll never understand it. She'll consider it work."
"And if she did, work is a more religious thing than idleness. I am sure I often feel that, of the two, I should be less sinful in digging potatoes in my garden, or sitting mending stockings in my parlor, than in keeping Sunday as some people do—going to church genteelly in my best clothes, eating a huge Sunday dinner, and then nodding over a good book, or taking a regular Sunday nap till bedtime."
"Hush, child!" said Johanna, reprovingly; for Hilary's cheeks were red, and her voice angry. She was taking the hot, youthful part which in its hatred of forms and shams, sometimes leads—and not seldom led poor Hilary—a little too far on the other side. "I think," Miss Leaf added, "that our business is with ourselves, and not with our neighbors. Let us keep the Sabbath according to our conscience. Only, I would take care never to do any thing which jarred against my neighbor's feelings. I would, like Paul, 'eat no meat while the world standeth' rather than 'make my brother to offend.' "
Hilary looked in her sister's sweet, calm face, and the anger died out of her own.
"Shall I give up my academy?" she said, softly.
"No, my love. It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath day, and teaching a poor ignorant girl to write is an absolute good. Make her understand that, and you need not be afraid of any harm ensuing."
"You never will make her understand," said Selina, sullenly. "She is only a servant."
"Nevertheless I'll try."
Hilary could not tell how far she succeeded in simplifying to the young servant's comprehension this great question, involving so many points—such as the following of the spirit and the letter, the law of duty and the compulsion of love, which, as she spoke, seemed opening out so widely and awfully that she herself involuntarily shrank from it, and wondered that poor finite creatures should, ever presume to squabble about it at all.