A BOOK FOR GIRLS.
ROSA NOUCHETTE CAREY
CHAPTER I. The Last Day at Redmayne House.
CHAPTER II. The Arrival at Combe Manor.
CHAPTER III. Dot.
CHAPTER IV. Uncle Geoffrey.
CHAPTER V. The Old House at Milnthorpe.
CHAPTER VI. The Flitting.
CHAPTER VII. Over the Way.
CHAPTER VIII. Flurry and Flossy.
CHAPTER IX. The Cedars.
CHAPTER X. "I Wish I Had a Dot of My Own."
CHAPTER XI. Miss Ruth's Nurse.
CHAPTER XII. I Was Not Like Other Girls.
CHAPTER XIII. "We Have Missed Dame Bustle."
CHAPTER XIV. Playing in Tom Tidler's Ground.
CHAPTER XV. Life at the Brambles.
CHAPTER XVI. The Smugglers' Cave.
CHAPTER XVII. A Long Night.
CHAPTER XVIII. "You Brave Girl!"
CHAPTER XIX. A Letter from Home.
CHAPTER XX. "You Were Right, Esther."
CHAPTER XXI. Santa Claus.
CHAPTER XXII. Allan and I Walk to Eltham Green.
CHAPTER XXIII. Told in the Sunset.
CHAPTER XXIV. Ringing the Changes.
THE LAST DAY AT REDMAYNE HOUSE.
What trifles vex one!
I was always sorry that my name was Esther; not that I found fault with the name itself, but it was too grave, too full of meaning for such an insignificant person. Some one who was learned in such matters—I think it was Allan—told me once that it meant a star, or good fortune.
It may be so, but the real meaning lay for me in the marginal note of my Bible: Esther, fair of form and good in countenance, that Hadassah, who was brought to the palace of Shushan, the beautiful Jewish queen who loved and succored her suffering people; truly a bright particular star among them.
Girls, even the best of them, have their whims and fancies, and I never looked at myself in the glass on high days and holidays, when a festive garb was desirable, without a scornful protest, dumbly uttered, against so shining a name. There was such a choice, and I would rather have been Deborah or Leah, or even plain Susan, or Molly; anything homely, that would have suited my dark, low-browed face. Tall and angular, and hard-featured—what business had I with such a name?
"My dear, beauty is only skin-deep, and common sense is worth its weight in gold; and you are my good sensible Esther," my mother said once, when I had hinted rather too strongly at my plainness. Dear soul, she was anxious to appease the pangs of injured vanity, and was full of such sweet, balmy speeches; but girls in the ugly duckling stage are not alive to moral compliments; and, well—perhaps I hoped my mother might find contradiction possible.
Well, I am older and wiser now, less troublesomely introspective, and by no means so addicted to taking my internal structure to pieces, to find out how the motives and feelings work; but all the same, I hold strongly to diversity of gifts. I believe beauty is a gift, one of the good things of God; a very special talent, for which the owner must give account. But enough of this moralizing, for I want to speak of a certain fine afternoon in the year of our Lord, 18—well, never mind the date.
It was one of our red-letter days at Redmayne House—in other words, a whole holiday; we always had a whole holiday on Miss Majoribanks' birthday. The French governess had made a grand toilette, and had gone out for the day. Fraulein had retired to her own room, and was writing a long sentimental effusion to a certain "liebe Anna," who lived at Heidelberg. As Fraulein had taken several of us into confidence, we had heard a great deal of this Anna von Hummel, a little round-faced German, with flaxen plaits and china-blue eyes, like a doll; and Jessie and I had often wondered at this strong Teutonic attachment. Most of the girls were playing croquet—they played croquet then—on the square lawn before the drawing-room windows; the younger ones were swinging in the lime-walk. Jessie and I had betaken ourselves with our books to a corner we much affected, where there was a bench under a may-tree.
Jessie was my school friend—chum, I think we called it; she was a fair, pretty girl, with a thoroughly English face, a neat compact figure, and manners which every one pronounced charming and lady-like; her mind was lady-like too, which was the best of all.
Jessie read industriously—her book seemed to rivet her attention; but I was restless and distrait. The sun was shining on the limes, and the fresh green leaves seemed to thrill and shiver with life: a lazy breeze kept up a faint soughing, a white butterfly was hovering over the pink may, the girls' shrill voices sounded everywhere; a thousand undeveloped thoughts, vague and unsubstantial as the sunshine above us, seemed to blend with the sunshine and voices.
"Jessie, do put down your book—I want to talk." Jessie raised her eyebrows a little quizzically but she was always amiable; she had that rare unselfishness of giving up her own will ungrudgingly; I think this was why I loved her so. Her story was interesting, but she put down her book without a sigh.
"You are always talking, Esther," she said, with a provoking little smile; "but then," she added, quickly, as though she were afraid that I should think her unkind, "I never heard other girls talk so well."
"Nonsense," was my hasty response: "don't put me out of temper with myself. I was indulging in a little bit of philosophy while you were deep in the 'Daisy Chain.' I was thinking what constituted a great mind."
Jessie opened her eyes widely, but she did not at once reply; she was not, strictly speaking, a clever girl, and did not at once grasp any new idea; our conversations were generally rather one-sided. Emma Hardy, who was our school wag, once observed that I used Jessie's brains as an airing-place for my ideas. Certainly Jessie listened more than she talked, but then, she listened so sweetly.
"Of course, Alfred the Great, and Sir Philip Sidney, and Princess Elizabeth of France, and all the heroes and heroines of old time—all the people who did such great things and lived such wonderful lives —may be said to have had great minds; but I am not thinking about them. I want to know what makes a great mind, and how one is to get it. There is Carrie, now, you know how good she is; I think she may be said to have one."
"Why, yes," I returned, a little impatiently; for certainly Jessie could not think I meant that stupid, peevish little Carrie Steadman, the dullest girl in the school; and whom else should I mean, but Carrie, my own dear sister, who was two years older than I, and who was as good as she was pretty, and who set us all such an example of unworldliness and self-denial; and Jessie had spent the Christmas holidays at our house, and had grown to know and love her too; and yet she could doubt of whom I was speaking; it could not be denied that Jessie was a little slow.
"Carrie is so good," I went on, when I had cooled a little, "I am sure she has a great mind. When I read of Mrs. Judson and Elizabeth Fry, or of any of those grand creatures, I always think of Carrie. How few girls of nineteen would deprive themselves of half their dress allowance, that they might devote it to the poor; she has given up parties because she thinks them frivolous and a waste of time; and though she plays so beautifully, mother can hardly get her to practice, because she says it is a pity to devote so much time to a mere accomplishment, when she might be at school, or reading to poor old Betty Martin."
"She might do both," put in Jessie, rather timidly; for she never liked contradicting any of my notions, however far-fetched and ill-assorted they might be. "Do you know, Esther, I fancy your mother is a little sorry that Carrie is so unlike other girls; she told me once that she thought it such a pity that she had let her talents rust after all the money that had been spent on her education."
"You must have misunderstood my mother," I returned, somewhat loftily; "I heard her once say to Uncle Geoffrey that she thought Carrie was almost perfection. You have no idea how much Mr. Arnold thinks of her; he is always holding her up as his pattern young lady in the parish, and declares that he should not know what to do without her. She plays the organ at all the week-day services, and teaches at the Sunday school, and she has a district now, and a Bible-class for the younger girls. No wonder she cannot find time to practice, or to keep up her drawing." And I looked triumphantly at Jessie; but her manner did not quite please me. She might not be clever, but she had a good solid set of opinions to which she could hold stoutly enough.
"Don't think me disagreeable, Esther," she pleaded. "I think a great deal of Carrie; she is very sweet, and pretty, and good, and we should all be better if we were more like her; but no one is quite faultless, and I think even Carrie makes mistakes at times."
"Oh, of course!" I answered a little crossly, for I could not bear her finding fault with Carrie, who was such a paragon in my eyes. But Jessie took no notice of my manner, she was such a wise little creature; and I cannot help thinking that the less importance we attach to people's manner the better. Under a little roughness there is often good stuff, and some good people are singularly unfortunate in manner.
So Jessie went on in her gentle way, "Do you remember Miss Majoribanks' favorite copy: 'Moderation in all things'? I think this ought to apply to everything we do. We had an old nurse once, who used to say such droll things to us children. I remember I had been very good, and done something very wonderful, as I thought, and nursie said to me in her dry way, 'Well, Miss Jessie, my dear, duty is not a hedgehog, that you should be bristling all over in that way. There is no getting at you to-day, you are too fully armed at all points for praise.' And she would not say another word; and another time, when I thought I ought to have been commended; she said, 'Least done is soonest mended; and well done is not ill done, and that is all about it.' Poor old nurse! she would never praise any one."
"But, Jessie—how does this apply to Carrie?"
"Well, not very much, I dare say; only I think Carrie overdoes her duty sometimes. I remember one evening your mother look so disappointed when Carrie said she was too tired to sing."
"You mean the evening when the Scobells were there, and Carrie had been doing parish work all the day, and she came in looking so pale and fagged? I thought mother was hard on her that night. Carrie cried about it afterward in my room."
"Oh, Esther, I thought she spoke so gently! She only said, 'Would it not have been better to have done a little less to-day, and reserved yourself for our friends? We ought never to disappoint people if we can help it.'"
"Yes; only mother looked as if she were really displeased; and Carrie could not bear that; she said in her last letter that mother did not sympathize entirely in her work, and that she missed me dreadfully, for the whole atmosphere was rather chilling sometimes."
Jessie looked a little sorry at this. "No one could think that of your home, Esther." And she sighed, for her home was very different from ours. Her parents were dead, and as she was an only child, she had never known the love of brother or sister; and the aunt who brought her up was a strict narrow-minded sort of person, with manners that must have been singularly uncongenial to my affectionate, simple-minded Jessie. Poor Jessie! I could not help giving her one of my bear-like hugs at this, so well did I know the meaning of that sigh; and there is no telling into what channel our talk would have drifted, only just at that moment Belle Martin, the pupil-teacher, appeared in sight, walking very straight and fast, and carrying her chin in an elevated fashion, a sort of practical exposition of Madame's "Heads up, young ladies!" But this was only her way, and Belle was a good creature.
"You are to go in at once, Miss Cameron," she called out, almost before she reached us. "Miss Majoribanks has sent me to look for you; your uncle is with her in the drawing-room."
"Uncle Geoffrey? Oh, my dear Uncle Geoff!" I exclaimed, joyfully. "Do you really mean it, Belle?"
"Yes, Dr. Cameron is in the drawing-room," repeated Belle. But I never noticed how grave her voice was. She commenced whispering to Jessie almost before I was a yard away, and I thought I heard an exclamation in Jessie's voice; but I only said to myself, "Oh, my dear Uncle Geoff!" in a tone of suppressed ecstasy, and I looked round on the croquet players as I threaded the lawn with a sense of pity that not one of them possessed an uncle like mine.
Miss Majoribanks was seated in state, in her well-preserved black satin gown, with her black gloves reposing in her lap, looking rather like a feminine mute; but on this occasion I took no notice of her. I actually forgot my courtesy, and I am afraid I made one of my awkward rushes, for Miss Majoribanks groaned slightly, though afterward she turned it into a cough.
"Why, Esther, you are almost a woman now," said my uncle, putting me in front of him, and laying his heavy hand on my shoulder. "Bless me, how the child has grown, and how unlike she is to Carrie!"
"I was seventeen yesterday," I answered, pouting a little, for I understood the reference to Carrie; and was I not the ugly duckling? —but I would not keep up the sore feeling a minute, I was so pleased to see him.
No one would call Uncle Geoffrey handsome—oh, dear, no! his features were too rugged for that; but he had a droll, clever face, and a pair of honest eyes, and his gray hair was so closely cropped that it looked like a silver cap. He was a little restless and fidgety in his movements, too, and had ways that appeared singular to strangers, but I always regarded his habits respectfully. Clever men, I thought, were often eccentric; and I was quite angry with my mother when she used to say, "Geoff was an old bachelor, and he wanted a wife to polish him; I should like to see any woman dare to marry Uncle Geoff."
"Seventeen, sweet seventeen! Eh, Esther?" but he still held my hand and looked at me thoughtfully. It was then I first noticed how grave he looked.
"Have you come from Combe Manor, Uncle Geoff, and are they all quite well at home?" I asked, rather anxiously, for he seemed decidedly nervous.
"Well, no," he returned, rather slowly; "I am sorry to spoil your holiday, child, but I have come by your mother's express desire to fetch you home. Frank—your father, I mean—is not well, and they will be glad of your help and—bless me"—Uncle Geoff's favorite exclamation—"how pale the girl looks!"
"You are keeping something from me—he is very ill—I know he is very ill!" I exclaimed, passionately. "Oh, uncle, do speak out! he is —" but I could not finish my sentence, only Uncle Geoffrey understood.
"No, no, it is not so bad as that," putting his arm round me, for I was trembling and shaking all over; "he is very ill—I dare not deny that there is much ground for fear; but Esther, we ought to lose no time in getting away from here. Will you swallow this glass of wine, like a good, brave child, and then pack up your things as soon as possible?"
There was no resisting Uncle Geoffrey's coaxing voice; all his patients did what he told them, so I drank the wine, and tried to hurry from the room, only my knees felt so weak.
"Miss Martin will assist you," whispered Miss Majoribanks, as I passed her; and, sure enough, as I entered the dormitory, there was Belle emptying my drawers, with Jessie helping her. Even in my bewildered state of wretchedness I wondered why Miss Majoribanks thought it necessary for me to take all my things. Was I bidding good-by to Redmayne House?
Belle looked very kindly at me as she folded my dresses, but Jessie came up to me with tears in her eyes. "Oh, Esther!" she whispered, "how strange to think we were talking as we were, and now the opportunity has come?" and though her speech was a little vague, I understood it; she meant the time for me to display my greatness of mind—ah, me! my greatness of mind—where was it? I was of no use at all; the girls did it all between them, while I sat on the edge of my little bed and watched them. They were as quick as possible, and yet it seemed hours before the box was locked, and Belle had handed me the key; by-and-by, Miss Majoribanks came and fetched me down, for she said the fly was at the door, and Dr. Cameron was waiting.
We girls had never cared much for Miss Majoribanks, but nothing could exceed her kindness then. I think the reason why schoolmistresses are not often beloved by their pupils—though there certainly are exceptions to that rule—is that they do not often show their good hearts.
When Miss Majoribanks buttoned my gloves for me, and smoothed my hair, and gave me that motherly kiss, I felt I loved her. "God bless you my dear child! we shall all miss you; you have worked well and been a credit to the establishment. I am sorry indeed to part with you." Actually these were Miss Majoribanks' words, and spoken, too, in a husky voice!
And when I got downstairs, there were all the girls, many of them with their croquet mallets in their hands, gathered in the front garden, and little Susie Pierrepoint, the baby of the school, carrying a large bunch of lavender and sweet-william from her own little garden, which she thrust into my hands.
"They are for you," cried Susie; and then they all crowded round and kissed me.
"Good-by, Esther; we are so sorry to lose you; write to us and let us know how you are."
Jessie's pale little face came last. "Oh, my darling! how I shall be thinking of you!" cried the affectionate creature; and then I broke down, and Uncle Geoffrey led me away.
"I am glad to see your school-fellows love you," he said, as we drove off, and Redmayne House became lost to sight. "Human affection is a great boon, Esther."
Dear Uncle Geoffrey! he wanted to comfort me; but for some time I would not speak or listen.
THE ARRIVAL AT COMBE MANOR.
The great secret of Uncle Geoffrey's influence with people was a certain quiet undemonstrative sympathy. He did not talk much; he was rather given to letting people alone, but his kindliness of look made his few spoken words more precious than the voluble condolences of others.
He made no effort to check the torrent of tears that followed my first stunned feelings; indeed, his "Poor child!" so tenderly uttered, only made them flow more quickly. It was not until we were seated in the railway compartment, and I had dried them of my own accord, that he attempted to rouse me by entering into conversation, and yet there was much that he knew must be said, only "great haste, small speed," was always Uncle Geoffrey's favorite motto. "There is time for all things, and much more," as he used to tell us.
"Are you better now?" he asked, kindly. "That is right; put your handkerchief away, and we can have a little talk together. You are a sensible girl, Esther, and have a wise little head on your shoulders. Tell me, my child, had you any idea of any special anxiety or trouble that was preying on your father's mind?"
"No, indeed," I returned, astonished. "I knew the farm was doing badly, and father used to complain now and then of Fred's extravagance, and mother looked once or twice very worried, but we did not think much about it."
"Then I am afraid what I am going to tell you will be a great shock," he returned, gravely. "Your father and mother must have had heavy anxieties lately, though they have kept it from you children. The cause of your father's illness is mental trouble. I must not hide from you, Esther, that he is ruined."
"Ruined!" I tried to repeat the word aloud, but it died on my lips.
"A man with a family ought not to speculate," went on my uncle, speaking more to himself than me. "What did Frank know about the business? About as much as Fred does about art. He has spent thousands on the farm, and it has been a dead loss from the beginning. He knew as much about farming as Carrie does. Stuff and nonsense! And then he must needs dabble in shares for Spanish mines; and that new-fangled Wheal Catherine affair that has gone to smash lately. Every penny gone; and a wife, and—how many of you are there, Esther?"
But I was too much overwhelmed to help him in his calculation, so he commenced striking off on his fingers, one by one.
"Let me see; there's Fred, brought up, young coxcomb! to think himself a fine gentleman and an artist, with almost as much notion of work as I have of piano playing; and Allan, who has more brains than the rest of you put together; and Carrie, who is half a saint and slightly hysterical; and your poor little self; and then comes that nondescript article Jack. Why in the world do you call a feminine creature Jack? And poor little Dot, who will never earn a penny for himself—humph, six of you to clothe and feed—"
"Oh, Uncle Geoff!" I burst out, taking no notice of this long tirade; and what did it matter if Dot never earned anything when I would work my fingers to the bone for him, the darling! "oh, Uncle Geoff, are things really so bad as that? Will Fred be obliged to give up his painting, when he has been to Rome, too; and shall we have to leave Combe Manor, and the farm? Oh, what will they all do? and Carrie, too?"
"Work," was the somewhat grim reply, and then he went on in a milder tone. "Things are very bad, Esther; about as bad as they can be—for we must look matters in the face—and your father is very ill, and there is no knowing where the mischief may end; but you must all put your shoulders to the domestic wheel, and push it up the Hill Difficulty. It is a crisis, and a very painful one, but it will prove which of you has the right mettle.
"I am not afraid of Allan," he went on; "the lad has plenty of good stuff in him; and I am not much afraid of you, Esther, at least I think not; but—" He hesitated, and then stopped, and I knew he was thinking of Fred and Carrie; but he need not. Of course Carrie would work as heartily as any of us; idling was never her forte; and Fred —well, perhaps Fred was not always industrious.
I seemed to have lost myself in a perfect tangle of doubt and dread. Uncle Geoffrey went on with his talk, half sad and half moralizing, but I could not follow all he said. Two thoughts were buzzing about me like hornets. Father was ill, very ill, and we should have to leave Combe Manor. The sting of these thoughts was dreadful.
I seemed to rouse out of a nightmare when Uncle Geoffrey suddenly announced that we were at Crowbridge. No one was waiting for us at the station, which somewhat surprised me; but Combe Manor was not a quarter of a mile off, so the luggage was wheeled away on a truck, and Uncle Geoffrey and I walked after it, up the sandy lane, and round by the hazel copse. And there were the fields, where Dapple, the gray mare, was feeding; and there were Cherry and Spot, and Brindle, and all the rest of the dear creatures, rubbing their horned heads against the hedge as usual; and two or three of them standing knee-deep in the great shallow pool, where Fred and Allan used to sail their boats, and make believe it was the Atlantic. We always called the little bit of sedgy ground under the willow America, and used to send freights of paper and cardboard across the mimic ocean, which did not always arrive safely.
How lovely and peaceful it all looked on this June evening! The sun shone on the red brick house and old-fashioned casements; roses were climbing everywhere, on the walls, round the porch, over the very gateway. Fred was leaning against the gate, in his brown velveteen coat and slouched hat, looking so handsome and picturesque, poor fellow! He had a Gloire de Dijon in his button-hole. I remember I wondered vaguely how he had had the heart to pick it.
"How is he?" called out Uncle Geoffrey. And Fred started, for though he was watching for us he had not seen us turn the corner of the lane.
"No better," was the disconsolate answer, as he unlatched the gate, and stooped over it to kiss me. "We are expecting Allan down by the next train, and Carrie asked me to look out for you; how do you do, Esther? What have you done to yourself?" eyeing me with a mixture of chagrin and astonishment. I suppose crying had not improved my appearance; still, Fred need not have noticed my red eyes; but he was one who always "looked on the outward appearance."
"She is tired and unhappy, poor little thing," repeated Uncle Geoffrey, answering for me, as he drew my arm through his. "I hope Carrie has got some tea for her;" and as he spoke Carrie came out in the porch to meet us. How sweet she looked, the "little nun," as Fred always called her, in her gray dress; with her smooth fair hair and pale pretty face.
"Poor Esther, how tired you look!" she said, kissing me affectionately, but quietly—Carrie was always a little undemonstrative—"but I have got tea for you in the brown room" (we always called it the brown room, because it was wainscoted in oak); "will you have it now, or would you like to see mother?"
"You had better have tea first and see your mother afterward," observed Uncle Geoffrey; but I would not take this prudent counsel. On the stairs I came upon Jack, curled up on a window-sill, with Smudge, our old black cat, in her arms, and was welcomed by both of them with much effusion. Jack was a tall, thin girl, all legs and arms, with a droll, freckled face and round blue eyes, with all the awkwardness of fourteen, and none of its precocity. Her real name was Jacqueline, but we had always called her Jack, for brevity, and because, with her cropped head and rough ways, she resembled a boy more than a girl; her hair was growing now, and hung about her neck in short ungainly lengths, but I doubt whether in its present stage it was any improvement. I am not at all sure strangers considered Jack a prepossessing child, she was so awkward and overgrown, but I liked her droll face immensely. Fred was always finding fault with her and snubbing her, which brought him nothing but pert replies; then he would entreat mother to send her to school, but somehow she never went. Dot could not spare her, and mother thought there was plenty of time, so Jack still roamed about at her own sweet will; riding Dapple barebacked round the paddock, milking Cherry, and feeding the chickens; carrying on some pretense at lessons with Carrie, who was not a very strict mistress, and plaguing Fred, who had nice ways and hated any form of untidiness.
"Oh, you dear thing!" cried Jack, leaping from the window-seat and nearly strangling me, while Smudge rubbed himself lovingly against my dress; "oh, you dear, darling, delightful old Esther, how pleased I am to see you!" (Certainly Jack was not undemonstrative.) "Oh, it has been so horrid the last few days—father ill, and mother always with him, and Fred as cross as two sticks, and Carrie always too busy or too tired for any one to speak to her; and Dot complaining of pain in his back and not caring to play, oh!" finished Jack, with a long-drawn sigh, "it has been almost too horrid."
"Hush, Jack," was my sole reply; for there was dear mother coming down the passage toward us. I had only been away from her two months, and yet it struck me that her hair was grayer and her face was thinner than it used to be, and there were lines on her forehead that I never remember to have seen before; but she greeted me in her old affectionate way, putting back my hair from my face to look at me, and calling me her dear child. "But I must not stop a moment, Esther," she said hurriedly, "or father will miss me; take off your hat, and rest and refresh yourself, and then you shall come up and see him."
"But, mother, where is Dot?"
"In there," motioning toward the sick room; "he is always there, we cannot keep him out," and her lip trembled. When Jack and I returned to the brown room, we found the others gathered round the table. Carrie, who was pouring out the tea, pointed to the seat beside her.
It was the first dreary meal I had ever remembered in the brown room; my first evening at home had always been so happy. The shallow blue teacups and tiny plates always seemed prettier than other people's china, and nothing ever tasted so delicious as our home-made brown bread and butter.
But this evening the flavor seemed spoiled. Carrie sat in mother's place looking sad and abstracted, and fingering her little silver cross nervously. Fred was downcast and out of spirits, returning only brief replies to Uncle Geoffrey's questions, and only waking up to snub Jack if she spoke a word. Oh, how I wished Allan would make his appearance and put us all right! It was quite a relief when I heard mother's voice calling me, and she took me into the great cool room where father lay.
Dot was curled up in mother's great arm-chair, with his favorite book of natural history; he slipped a hot little hand in mine as I passed him.
Dot was our name for him because he was so little, but he had been called Frank, after our father; he was eight years old, but he hardly looked bigger than a child of six. His poor back was crooked, and he was lame from hip-disease; sometimes for weeks together the cruel abscesses wasted his strength, at other times he was tolerably free from pain; even at his worst times Dot was a cheery invalid, for he was a bright, patient little fellow. He had a beautiful little face, too, though perhaps the eyes were a trifle too large for the thin features; but Dot was my pet, and I could see no fault in him; nothing angered me more than when people pitied him or lamented over his infirmity. When I first came home the sound of his crutch on the floor was the sweetest music in my ear. But I had no eyes even for Dot after my first look at father. Oh, how changed, how terribly changed he was! The great wave of brown hair over his forehead was gray, his features were pinched and haggard, and when he spoke to me his voice was different, and he seemed hardly able to articulate.
"Poor children—poor children!" he groaned; and as I kissed his cheek he said, "Be a good girl, Esther, and try to be a comfort to your mother."
"When I am a man I shall try and be a comfort too," cried Dot, in his sharp chirpy voice; it quite startled father.
"That's my brave boy," said father, faintly, and I think there were tears in his eyes. "Dora"—my mother's name was Dora—"I am too tired to talk; let the children go now, and come and sit by me while I go to sleep;" and mother gently dismissed us.
I had rather a difficulty with Dot when I got outside, for he suddenly lowered his crutch and sat down on the floor.
"I don't want to go to bed," he announced, decidedly. "I shall sit here all night, in case mother wants me; when it gets dark she may feel lonely."
"But, Dot, mother will be grieved if she comes out and finds you here; she has anxiety enough as it is; and if you make yourself ill, too, you will only add to her trouble. Come, be a good boy, and let me help you to undress." But I might as well have talked to Smudge. Dot had these obstinate fits at times; he was tired, and his nerves were shaken by being so many hours in the sick room, and nothing would have induced him to move. I was so tired at last that I sat down on the floor, too, and rested my head against the door, and Dot sat bolt upright like a watchful little dog, and in this ridiculous position we were discovered by Allan. I had not heard of his arrival; and when he came toward us, springing lightly up two stairs at a time, I could not help uttering a suppressed exclamation of delight.
He stopped at once and looked at us in astonishment. "Dot and Esther! in the name of all that is mysterious; huddled up like two Chinese gods on the matting. Why, I took Esther for a heap of clothes in the twilight." Of course I told him how it happened. Dot was naughty and would not move, and I was keeping him company. Allan hardly heard me out before he had shouldered Dot, crutch and all, and was walking off with him down the passage. "Wait for me a few minutes, Esther," he whispered; and I betook myself to the window-seat and looked over the dusky garden, where the tall white lilies looked like ghostly flowers in the gloom.
It was a long time before Allan rejoined me. "That is a curious little body," he said, half laughing, as he sat down beside me. "I had quite a piece of work with him for carrying him off in that fashion; he said 'I was a savage, a great uncivilized man, to take such a mean advantage of him; If I were big I would fight you,' he said, doubling his fists; he looked such a miserable little atom of a chap as he said it."
"Was he really angry?" I asked, for Dot was so seldom out of temper.
"Angry, I believe you. He was in a towering rage; but he is all right now, so you need not go to him. I stroked him down, and praised him for his good intentions, and then I told him I was a doctor now, and no one contradicted my orders, and that he must be a good boy and let me help him to bed. Poor little fellow; he sobbed all the time he was undressing, he is so fond of father. I am afraid it will go badly with him if things turn out as I fear they will," and Allan's voice was very grave.
We had a long talk after that, until Uncle Geoffrey came upstairs and dislodged us, by carrying Allan off. It was such a comfort to have him all to myself; we had been so much separated of late years.
Allan was five years older than I; he was only a year younger than Fred, but the difference between them was very great. Allan looked the elder of the two; he was not so tall as Fred, but he was strongly built and sturdy; he was dark-complexioned, and his features were almost as irregular as mine; but in a man that did not so much matter, and very few people called Allan plain.
Allan had always been my special brother—most sisters know what I mean by that term. Allan was undemonstrative; he seldom petted or made much of me, but a word from him was worth a hundred from Fred; and there was a quiet unspoken sympathy between us that was sufficiently palpable. If Allan wanted his gloves mended he always came to me, and not to Carrie. I was his chief correspondent, and he made me the confidante of his professional hopes and fears. In return, he good-humoredly interested himself in my studies, directed my reading, and considered himself at liberty to find fault with everything that did not please him. He was a little peremptory sometimes, but I did not mind that half so much as Fred's sarcasms; and he never distressed me as Fred did, by laughing at my large hands, or wondering why I was not so natty in my dress as Carrie.
I went to my room to unpack my things, and by-and-by Carrie joined me.
I half hoped that she meant to help me, but she sat down by the window and said, with a sigh, how tired she was; and certainly her eyes had a weary look.
She watched me for some time in silence, but once or twice she sighed very heavily.
"I wish you could leave those things, Esther," she said, at last, not pettishly—Carrie was never pettish—but a little too plaintively. "I have not had a creature to whom I could talk since you left home in April."
The implied compliment was very nice, but I did not half like leaving my things—I was rather old-maidish in my ways, and never liked half measures; but I remembered reading once about "the lust of finishing," and what a test of unselfishness it was to put by a half-completed task cheerfully at the call of another duty. Perhaps it was my duty to leave my unpacking and listen to Carrie, but there was one little point in her speech that did not please me.
"You could talk to mother," I objected; for mother always listened to one so nicely.
"I tried it once, but mother did not understand," sighed Carrie. I used to wish she did not sigh so much. "We had quite an argument, but I saw it was no use—that I should never bring her to my way of thinking. She was brought up so differently; girls were allowed so little liberty then. My notions seemed to distress her. She said that I was peculiar, and that I carried things too far, and that she wished I were more like other girls; and then she kissed me, and said I was very good, and she did not mean to hurt me; but she thought home had the first claim; and so on. You know mother's way."
"I think mother was right there—you think so yourself, do you not Carrie?" I asked anxiously, for this seemed to me the A B C of common sense.
"Oh, of course," rather hastily. "Charity begins at home, but it ought not to stop there. If I chose to waste my time practicing for Fred's violin, and attending to all his thousand and one fads and fancies, what would become of all my parish work? You should have heard Mr. Arnold's sermon last Sunday, Esther; he spoke of the misery and poverty and ignorance that lay around us outside our homes, and of the loiterers and idlers within those homes." And Carrie's eyes looked sad and serious.
"That is true," I returned, and then I stopped, and Jessie's words came to my mind, "Even Carrie makes mistakes at times." For the first time in my life the thought crossed me; in my absence would it not have been better for Carrie to have been a little more at home? It was Jessie's words and mother's careworn face that put the thought into my head; but the next moment I had dismissed it as heresy. My good, unselfish Carrie, it was impossible that she could make mistakes! Carrie's next speech chimed in well with my unspoken thoughts.
"Home duties come first, of course, Esther—no one in their senses could deny such a thing; but we must be on our guard against make- believe duties. It is my duty to help mother by teaching Jack, and I give her two hours every morning; but when Fred comes into the schoolroom with some nonsensical request that would rob me of an hour or so, I am quite right not to give way to him. Do you think," warming into enthusiasm over her subject, "that Fred's violin playing ought to stand in the way of any real work that will benefit souls as well as bodies—that will help to reclaim ignorance and teach virtue?" And Carrie's beautiful eyes grew dark and dewy with feeling. I wish mother could have seen her; something in her expression reminded me of a picture of Faith I had once seen.
"Oh, Esther," she continued, for I was too moved to answer her, "every day I live I long to give myself more entirely to benefiting my fellow creatures. Girl as I am, I mean to join the grand army of workers—that is what Mr. Arnold called them. Oh, how I wish I could remember all he said! He told us not to be disheartened by petty difficulties, or to feel lonely because, perhaps, those who were our nearest and dearest discouraged our efforts or put obstacles in our way. 'You think you are alone,' he said, 'when you are one of the rank and file in that glorious battalion. There are thousands working with you and around you, although you cannot see them.' And then he exhorted us who were young to enter this crusade."
"But, Carrie," I interrupted, somewhat mournfully, for I was tired and a little depressed, "I am afraid our work is already cut out for us, and we shall have to do it however little pleased we may be with the pattern. From what Uncle Geoffrey tells me, we shall be very poor."
"I am not afraid of poverty, Esther."
"But still you will be grieved to leave Combe Manor," I persisted. "Perhaps we shall have to live in a little pokey house somewhere, and to go out as governesses."
"Perhaps so," she answered, serenely; "but I shall still find time for higher duties. I shall be a miser, and treasure all my minutes. But I have wasted nearly half-an-hour now; but it is such a luxury to talk to somebody who can understand." And then she kissed me affectionately and bade me hasten to bed, for it was getting late, and I looked sadly tired; but it never entered into her head to help me put away the clothes that strewed my room, though I was aching in every limb from grief and fatigue. If one looks up too much at the clouds one stumbles against rough stones sometimes. Star gazing is very sweet and elevating, but it is as well sometimes to pick up the homely flowers that grow round our feet. "What does Carrie mean by higher duties?" I grumbled, as I sought wearily to evoke order out of chaos. "To work for one's family is as much a duty as visiting the poor." I could not solve the problem; Carrie was too vague for me there; but I went to bed at last, and dreamed that we two were building houses on the seashore. Carrie's was the prettier, for it was all of sea-weed and bright-colored shells that looked as though the sun were shining on them, while mine was made of clay, tempered by mortar.
"Oh, Carrie, I like yours best" I cried, disconsolately; yet as I spoke a long tidal wave came up and washed the frail building away. But though mine filled with foamy water, the rough walls remained entire, and then I looked at it again the receding wave had strewn its floors with small shining pearls.
I must pass over the record of the next few days, for they were so sad—so sad, even now, I cannot think of them without tears. On the second day after my return, dear father had another attack, and before many hours were over we knew we were orphans.
Two things stood out most prominently during that terrible week; dear mother's exceeding patience and Dot's despair. Mother gave us little trouble. She lay on her couch weeping silently, but no word of complaint or rebellion crossed her lips; she liked us to sit beside her and read her soothing passages of Scripture, and she was very thoughtful and full of pity for us all. Her health was never very good, and just now her strength had given way utterly. Uncle Geoffrey would not hear of her exerting herself, and, indeed, she looked so frail and broken that even Fred got alarmed about her.
Carrie was her principal companion, for Dot took all my attention; and, indeed, it nearly broke our hearts to see him.
Uncle Geoffrey had carried him from the room when father's last attack had come on. Jack was left in charge of him, and the rest of us were gathered in the sick room. I was the first to leave when all was over, for I thought of Dot and trembled; but as I opened the door there he was, crouched down in a little heap at the entrance, with Jack sobbing beside him.
"I took away his crutch, but he crawled all the way on his hands and knees," whispered Jack; and then Allan came out and stood beside me.
"Poor little fellow!" he muttered; and Dot lifted his miserable little white face, and held out his arms.
"Take me in," he implored. "Father's dead, for I heard you all crying; but I must kiss him once more."
"I don't think it will hurt him," observed Allan, in a low voice. "He will only imagine all sorts of horrors—and he looks so peaceful," motioning toward the closed door.
"I will be so good," implored the poor child, "if you only take me in." And Allan, unable to resist any longer, lifted him in his arms.
I did not go in, for I could not have borne it. Carrie told me afterward that Allan cried like a child when Dot nestled up to the dead face and began kissing and stroking it.
"You are my own father, though you look so different," he whispered. "I wish you were not so cold. I wish you could look and speak to me —I am your little boy Dot—you were always so fond of Dot, father. Let me go with you; I don't want to live any longer without you," and so on, until Uncle Geoffrey made Allan take him away.
Oh, how good Allan was to him! He lay down by his side all night, soothing him and talking to him, for Dot never slept. The next day we took turns to be with him, and so on day after day; but I think Dot liked Allan best.
"He is most like father," he said once, which, perhaps, explained the preference; but then Allan had so much tact and gentleness. Fred did not understand him at all; he called him odd and uncanny, which displeased us both.
One evening I had been reading to mother, and afterward I went up to Dot. He had been very feverish and had suffered much all day, and Allan had scarcely left him; but toward evening he had grown quieter. I found Jack beside him; they were making up garlands for the grave; it was Dot's only occupation just now.
"Look here, Essie," he cried, eagerly. "Is not this a splendid wreath? We are making it all of pansies—they were father's favorite flowers. He always called them floral butterflies. Fancy a wreath of butterflies!" and Dot gave a weak little laugh. It was a very ghost of a laugh, but it was his first, and I hailed it joyfully. I praised the quaint stiff wreath. In its way it was picturesque. The rich hues of the pansies blended well—violet and gold; it was a pretty idea, laying heartsease on the breast that would never know anxiety again.
"When I get better," continued Dot, "I am going to make such a beautiful little garden by dear father. Jack and I have been planning it. We are going to have rose-trees and lilies of the valley and sweet peas—father was so fond of sweet peas; and in the spring snowdrops and crocuses and violets. Allan says I may do it."
"Yes, surely, Dot."
"I wonder what father is doing now?" he exclaimed, suddenly, putting by the unfinished wreath a little wearily. "I think the worst of people dying is that we cannot find out what they are doing," and his eyes grew large and wistful. Alas! Dot, herein lies the sting of death—silence so insupportable and unbroken!
"Shall I read you your favorite chapter?" I asked, softly; for every day Dot made us read to him the description of that City with its golden streets and gem-built walls; but he shook his head,
"It glitters too much for my head to-night," he said, quaintly; "it is too bright and shining. I would rather think of dear father walking in those green pastures, with all the good people who have died. It must be very beautiful there, Esther. But I think father would be happier if I were with him."
"Oh, Dot, no!" for the bare idea pained me; and I felt I must argue this notion away. "Allan and I could not spare you, or mother either; and there's Jack—what would poor Jack do without her playfellow?"
"I don't feel I shall ever play again," said Dot, leaning his chin on his mites of hands and peering at us in his shrewd way. "Jack is a girl, and she cannot understand; but when one is only a Dot, and has an ugly crutch and a back that never leaves off aching, and a father that has gone to heaven, one does not care to be left behind."
"But you are not thinking of us, Dot, and how unhappy it would make us to lose you too," I returned. And now the tears would come one by one; Dot saw them, and wiped them off with his sleeve.
"Don't be silly, Esther," he said, in a coaxing little voice. "I am not going yet. Allan says I may live to be a man. He said so last night; and then he told me he was afraid we should be very poor; and that made me sorry, for I knew I should never be able to work, with my poor back."
"But Allan and I will work for you, my darling," I exclaimed, throwing my arms round him; "only you must not leave us, Dot, even for father;" and as I said this I began to sob bitterly. I was terribly ashamed of myself when Allan came in and discovered me in the act; and there was Jack keeping me company, and frowning away her tears dreadfully.
I thought Allan would have scolded us all round; but no, he did nothing of the kind. He patted Jack's wet cheeks and laughed at the hole in her handkerchief; and he then seated himself on the bed, and asked me very gently what was the matter with us all. Dot was spokesman: he stated the facts of the case rather lugubriously and in a slightly injured voice.
"Esther is crying because she is selfish, and I am afraid I am selfish too."
"Most likely," returned Allan, dryly; "it is a human failing. What is the case in point, Frankie?"
Allan was the only one of us who ever called Dot by his proper name.
"I should not mind growing up to be a man," replied Dot, fencing a little, "if I were big and strong like you," taking hold of the huge sinewy hand. "I could work then for mother and the girls; but now you will be always obliged to take care of me, and so—and so—" and here Dot's lips quivered a little, "I would rather go with dear father, if Esther would not cry about it so."
"No, no, you must stay with us, Sonny," returned Allan, cheerily. "Esther and I are not going to give you up so easily. Why, look here, Frankie; I will tell you a secret. One of these days I mean to have a nice little house of my own, and Esther and you shall come and live with me, and I will go among my patients all the morning, and in the evening I shall come home very lazy and tired, and Esther shall fetch me my slippers and light the lamp, and I shall get my books, and you will have your drawing, and Esther will mend our clothes, and we shall be as cozy as possible."
"Yes, yes," exclaimed Dot, clapping his hands. The snug picture had fascinated his childish fancy; Allan's fireside had obscured the lights of paradise. From this time this imaginary home of Allan's became his favorite castle in the air. When we were together he would often talk of it as though it were reality. We had planted the garden and furnished the parlor a dozen times over before the year was out; and so strong is a settled imagination that I am almost sure Dot believed that somewhere there existed the little white cottage with the porch covered with honeysuckle, and the low bay-window with the great pots of flowering plants, beside which Dot's couch was to stand.
I don't think Jack enjoyed these talks so much as Dot and I did, as we made no room for her in our castle-building.
"You must not live with us, Jack," Dot would say, very gravely; "you are only a girl, and we don't want girls"—what was I, I wonder?— "but you shall come and see us once a week, and Esther will give you brown bread and honey out of our beehives; for we had arranged there must be a row of beehives under a southern wall where peaches were to grow; and as for white lilies, we were to have dozens of them. Dear, dear, how harmless all these fancies were, and yet they kept us cheerful and warded off many an hour of depression from pain when Dot's back was bad. I remember one more thing that Allan said that night, when we were all better and more cheerful, for it was rather a grave speech for a young man; but then Allan had these fits of gravity.
"Never mind thinking if you will grow up to be a man, Dot. Wishing won't help us to die an hour sooner, and the longest life must have an end some day. What we have to do is to take up our life, and do the best we can with it while it lasts, and to be kind and patient, and help one another. Most likely Esther and I will have to work hard enough all our lives—we shall work, and you may have to suffer; but we cannot do without you any more than you can do without us. There, Frankie!"
The day after the funeral Uncle Geoffrey held a family council, at which we were all present, except mother and Dot; he preferred talking to her alone afterward.
Oh, what changes! what incredible changes! We must leave Combe Manor at once. With the exception of a few hundred pounds that had been mother's portion, the only dowry that her good old father, a naval captain, had been able to give her, we were literally penniless. The boys were not able to help us much. Allan was only a house-surgeon in one of the London hospitals; and Fred, who called himself an artist, had never earned a penny. He was a fair copyist, and talked the ordinary art jargon, and went about all day in his brown velveteen coat, and wore his hair rather long; but we never saw much result from his Roman studies; latterly he had somewhat neglected his painting, and had taken to violin playing and musical composition. Uncle Geoffrey used to shake his head and say he was "Jack of all trades and master of none," which was not far from the mark. There was a great deal of talk between the three, before anything was settled.
Fred was terribly aggravating to Uncle Geoffrey, I could see; but then he was so miserable, poor fellow; he would not look at things in their proper light, and he had a way with him as though he thought Uncle Geoffrey was putting upon him. The discussion grew very warm at last, for Allan sided with Uncle Geoffrey, and then Fred said every one was against him. It struck me Uncle Geoffrey pooh-poohed Fred's whim of being an artist; he wanted him to go into an office; there was a vacant berth he could secure by speaking to an old friend of his, who was in a China tea-house, a most respectable money-making firm, and Fred would have a salary at once, with good prospects of rising; but Fred passionately scouted the notion. He would rather enlist; he would drown, or hang himself sooner. There were no end of naughty things he said; only Carrie cried and begged him not to be so wicked, and that checked him.
Uncle Geoffrey lost his patience at last, and very nearly told him he was an idiot, to his face; but Fred looked so handsome and miserable, that he relented; and at last it was arranged that Fred was to take a hundred pounds of mother's money—she would have given him the whole if she could, poor dear—and take cheap rooms in London, and try how he could get on by teaching drawing and taking copying orders.
"Remember, Fred," continued Uncle Geoffrey, rather sternly, "you are taking a sixth part of your mother's entire income; all that she has for herself and these girls; if you squander it rashly, you will be robbing the widow and the fatherless. You have scouted my well-meant advice, and Allan's"—he went on—"and are marking out your own path in life very foolishly, as we think; remember, you have only yourself to blame, if you make that life a failure. Artists are of the same stuff as other men, and ought to be sober, steady, and persevering; without patience and effort you cannot succeed."
"When my picture is accepted by the hanging committee, you and Allan will repent your sneers," answered Fred, bitterly.
"We do not sneer, my boy," returned Uncle Geoffrey, more mildly—for he remembered Fred's father had only been dead a week—"we are only doubtful of the wisdom of your choice; but there, work hard at your daubs, and keep out of debt and bad company, and you may yet triumph over your cranky old uncle." And so the matter was amicably settled.
Allan's arrangements were far more simple. He was to leave the hospital in another year, and become Uncle Geoffrey's assistant, with a view to partnership. It was not quite Allan's taste, a practice in a sleepy country town; but, as he remarked rather curtly, "beggars must not be choosers," and he would as soon work under Uncle Geoffrey as any other man. I think Allan was rather ambitious in his secret views. He wanted to remain longer at the hospital and get into a London practice; he would have liked to have been higher up the tree than Uncle Geoffrey, who was quite content with his quiet position at Milnthorpe. But the most astonishing part of the domestic programme was, that we were all going to live with Uncle Geoffrey. I could scarcely believe my ears when I heard it, and Carrie was just as surprised. Could any of us credit such unselfish generosity? He had not prepared us for it in the least.
"Now, girls, you must just pack up your things, you, and the mother, and Dot; of course we must take Dot, and you must manage to shake yourselves down in the old house at Milnthorpe"—that is how he put it; "it is not so big as Combe Manor, and I daresay we shall be rather a tight fit when Allan comes; but the more the merrier, eh, Jack?"
"Oh, Uncle Geoff, do you mean it?" gasped Jack, growing scarlet; but Carrie and I could not speak for surprise.
"Mean it! Of course. What is the good of being a bachelor uncle, if one is not to be tyrannized over by an army of nephews and nieces? Do you think the plan will answer, Esther?" he said, rather more seriously.
"If you and Deborah do not mind it, Uncle Geoffrey, I am sure it ought to answer; but we shall crowd you, and put you and Deborah to sad inconvenience, I am afraid;" for I was half afraid of Deborah, who had lived with Uncle Geoffrey for five-and-twenty years, and was used to her own ways, and not over fond of young people.
"I shall not ask Deb's opinion," he answered, rather roguishly; "we must smooth her down afterward, eh, girls? Seriously, Allan, I think it is the best plan under the circumstances. I am not fond of being alone," and here Uncle Geoffrey gave a quick sigh. Poor Uncle Geoff! he had never meant to be an old bachelor, only She died while he was furnishing the old house at Milnthorpe, and he never could fix his mind on any one else.
"I like young folks about me," he continued, cheerfully. "When I get old and rheumatic, I can keep Dot company, and Jack can wait on us both. Of course I am not a rich man, children, and we must all help to keep the kettle boiling; but the house is my own, and you can all shelter in it if you like; it will save house-rent and taxes, at any rate for the present."
"Carrie and I will work," I replied, eagerly; for, though Uncle Geoffrey was not a poor man, he was very far from being rich, and he could not possibly afford to keep us all. A third of his income went to poor Aunt Prue, who had married foolishly, and was now a widow with a large family.
Aunt Prue would have been penniless, only father and Uncle Geoff agreed to allow her a fixed maintenance. As Uncle Geoff explained to us afterward, she would now lose half her income.
"There are eight children, and two or three of them are very delicate, and take after their father. I have been thinking about it all, Esther," he said, when Allan and I were alone with him, "and I have made up my mind that I must allow her another hundred a year. Poor soul, she works hard at that school-keeping of hers, and none of the children are old enough to help her except Lawrence, and he is going into a decline, the doctors say. I am afraid we shall have to pinch a bit, unless you and Carrie get some teaching."
"Oh, Uncle Geoff, of course we shall work; and Jack, too, when she is old enough." Could he think we should be a burden on him, when we were all young and strong?
I had forgotten poor Aunt Prue, who lived a long way off, and whom we saw but seldom. She was a pretty, subdued little woman, who always wore shabby black gowns; I never saw her in a good dress in my life. Well, we were as poor as Aunt Prue now, and I wondered if we should make such a gallant fight against misfortune as she did.
We arranged matters after that—Allan and Uncle Geoff and I; for Carrie had gone to sit with mother, and Fred had strolled off somewhere. They wanted me to try my hand at housekeeping; at least, until mother was stronger and more able to bear things.
"Carrie hates it, and you have a good head for accounts," Allan observed, quietly. It seemed rather strange that they should make me take the head, when Carrie was two years older, and a week ago I was only a schoolgirl; but I felt they were right, for I liked planning and contriving, and Carrie detested anything she called domestic drudgery.
We considered ways and means after that. Uncle Geoffrey told us the exact amount of his income, He had always lived very comfortably, but when he had deducted the extra allowance for poor Aunt Prue, we saw clearly that there was not enough for so large a party; but at the first hint of this from Allan Uncle Geoffrey got quite warm and eager. Dear, generous Uncle Geoff! he was determined to share his last crust with his dead brother's widow and children.
"Nonsense, fiddlesticks!" he kept on saying; "what do I want with luxuries? Ask Deborah if I care what I eat and drink; we shall do very well, if you and Esther are not so faint-hearted." And when we found out how our protests seemed to hurt him, we let him have his own way; only Allan and I exchanged looks, which said as plainly as looks could, "Is he not the best uncle that ever lived, and will we not work our hardest to help him?"
I had a long talk with Carrie that night; she was very submissive and very sad, and seemed rather downhearted over things. She was quite as grateful for Uncle Geoff's generosity as we were, but I could see the notion of being a governess distressed her greatly. "I am very glad you will undertake the housekeeping, Esther," she said, rather plaintively; "it will leave me free for other things," and then she sighed very bitterly, and got up and left me. I was a little sorry that she did not tell me all that was in her mind, for, if we are "to bear each other's burdens," it is necessary to break down the reserve that keeps us out of even a sister's heart sometimes.
But though Carrie left me to my own thoughts, I was not able to quiet myself for hours. If I had only Jessie to whom I could talk! and then it seemed to me as though it were months since we sat together in the garden of Redmayne House talking out our girlish philosophy.
Only a fortnight ago, and yet how much had happened since then! What a revolution in our home-world! Dear father lying in his quiet grave; ourselves penniless orphans, obliged to leave Combe Manor, and indebted to our generous benefactor for the very roof that was to cover us and the food that we were to eat.
Ah, well! I was only a schoolgirl, barely seventeen. No wonder I shrank back a little appalled from the responsibilities that awaited me. I was to be Uncle Geoff's housekeeper, his trusted right-hand and referee. I was to manage that formidable Deborah, and the stolid, broad-faced Martha; and there was mother so broken in health and spirits, and Dot, and Jack, with her hoidenish ways and torn frocks, and Allan miles away from me, and Carrie—well, I felt half afraid of Carrie to-night; she seemed meditating great things when I wanted her to compass daily duties. I hoped she would volunteer to go on with Jack's lessons and help with the mending, and I wondered with more forebodings what things she was planning for which I was to leave her free.
All these things tired me, and I sat rather dismally in the moonlight looking out at the closed white lilies and the swaying branches of the limes, until a text suddenly flashed into my mind, "As thy day, so shall thy strength be." I lit my candle and opened my Bible, that I might read over the words for myself. Yes, there they were shining before my eyes, like "apples of gold in pictures of silver," refreshing and comforting my worn-out spirits. Strength promised for the day, but not beforehand, supplies of heavenly manna, not to be hoarded or put by; the daily measure, daily gathered.
An old verse of Bishop Ken's came to my mind. Very quaint and rich in wisdom it was:
"Does each day upon its wing Its appointed burden bring? Load it not besides with sorrow That belongeth to the morrow. When by God the heart is riven, Strength is promised, strength is given: But fore-date the day of woe, And alone thou bear'st the blow."
When I had said this over to myself, I laid my head on the pillow and slept soundly.
Mother and I had a nice little talk the next day. It was arranged that I was to go over to Milnthorpe with Uncle Geoffrey, who was obliged to return home somewhat hastily, in order to talk to Deborah and see what furniture would be required for the rooms that were placed at our disposal. As I was somewhat aghast at the amount of business entrusted to my inexperienced hands, Allan volunteered to help me, as Carrie could not be spared.
We were to stay two or three days, make all the arrangements that were necessary, and then come back and prepare for the flitting. If Allan were beside me, I felt that I could accomplish wonders; nevertheless, I carried rather a harassed face into dear mother's dressing-room that morning.
"Oh, Esther, how pale and tired you look!" were her first words as I came toward her couch. "Poor child, we are making you a woman before your time!" and her eyes filled with tears.
"I am seventeen," I returned, with an odd little choke in my voice, for I could have cried with her readily at that moment. "That is quite a great age, mother; I feel terribly old, I assure you."
"You are our dear, unselfish Esther," she returned, lovingly. Dear soul, she always thought the best of us all, and my heart swelled how proudly, and oh! how gratefully, when she told me in her sweet gentle way what a comfort I was to her.
"You are so reliable, Esther," she went on, "that we all look to you as though you were older. You must be Uncle Geoffrey's favorite, I think, from the way he talks about you. Carrie is very sweet and good too, but she is not so practical."
"Oh, mother, she is ever so much better than I!" I cried, for I could not bear the least disparagement of my darling Carrie. "Think how pretty she is, and how little she cares for dress and admiration. If I were like that," I added, flushing a little over my words, "I'm afraid I should be terribly vain."
Mother smiled a little at that.
"Be thankful then that you are saved that temptation." And then she stroked my hot cheek and went on softly: "Don't think so much about your looks, child; plain women are just as vain as pretty ones. Not that you are plain, Esther, in my eyes, or in the eyes of any one who loves you." But even that did not quite comfort me, for in my secret heart my want of beauty troubled me sadly. There, I have owned the worst of myself—it is out now.
We talked for a long time after that about the new life that lay before us, and again I marveled at mother's patience and submission; but when I told her so she only hid her face and wept.
"What does it matter?" she said, at last, when she had recovered herself a little. "No home can be quite a home to me now without him. If I could live within sight of his grave, I should be thankful; but Combe Manor and Milnthrope are the same to me now." And though these words struck me as strange at first, I understood afterward; for in the void and waste of her widowed life no outer change of circumstances seemed to disturb her, except for our sakes and for us.
She seemed to feel Uncle Geoffrey's kindness as a sort of stay and source of endless comfort. "Such goodness—such unselfishness!" she kept murmuring to herself; and then she wanted to hear all that Allan and I proposed.
"How I wish I could get strong and help you," she said, wistfully, when I had finished. "With all that teaching and housekeeping, I am afraid you will overtax your strength."
"Oh, no, Carrie will help me," I returned, confidently. "Uncle Geoffrey is going to speak to some of his patients about us. He rather thinks those Thornes who live opposite to him want a governess."
"That will be nice and handy, and save you a walk," she returned, brightening up at the notion that one of us would be so near her; but though I would not have hinted at such a thing, I should rather have enjoyed the daily walk. I was fond of fresh air, and exercise, and rushing about, after the manner of girls, and it seemed rather tame and monotonous just to cross the street to one's work; but I remembered Allan's favorite speech, "Beggars must not be choosers," and held my peace.
On the whole, I felt somewhat comforted by my talk with mother. If she and Uncle Geoffrey thought so well of me, I must try and live up to their good opinion. There is nothing so good as to fix a high standard for one's self. True, we may never reach it, never satisfy ourselves, but the continued effort strengthens and elevates us.
I went into Carrie's room to tell her about the Thornes, and lay our plans together, but she was reading Thomas a Kempis, and did not seem inclined to be disturbed, so I retreated somewhat discomforted.
But I forgot my disappointment a moment afterward, when I went into the schoolroom and found Dot fractious and weary, and Jack vainly trying to amuse him. Allan was busy, and the two children had passed a solitary morning.
"Dot wanted Carrie to read to him, but she said she was too tired, and I could do it," grumbled Jack, disconsolately.
"I don't like Jack's reading; it is too jerky, and her voice is too loud," returned Dot; but his countenance smoothed when I got the book and read to him, and soon he fell into a sound sleep.
THE OLD HOUSE AT MILNTHORPE.
The following afternoon Uncle Geoffrey, Allan, and I, started for Milnthorpe. Youthful grief is addicted to restlessness—it is only the old who can sit so silently and weep; it was perfectly natural, then, that I should hail a few days' change with feelings of relief.
It was rather late in the evening when we arrived. As we drove through the market place there was the usual group of idlers loitering on the steps of the Red Lion, who stared at us lazily as we passed. Milnthorpe was an odd, primitive little place—the sunniest and sleepiest of country towns. It had a steep, straggling Highstreet, which ended in a wide, deserted-looking square, which rather reminded one of the Place in some Continental town. The weekly markets were held here, on which occasion the large white portico of the Red Lion was never empty. Milnthorpe woke with brief spasms of life on Monday morning; broad-shouldered men jostled each other on the grass-grown pavements; large country wagons, sweet-smelling in haymaking seasons, blocked up the central spaces; country women, with gay-colored handkerchiefs, sold eggs, and butter, and poultry In the square; and two or three farmers, with their dogs at their heels, lingered under the windows of the Red Lion, fingering the samples in their pockets, and exchanging dismal prognostications concerning the crops and the weather. One side of the square was occupied by St. Barnabas, with its pretty shaded churchyard and old gray vicarage. On the opposite side was the handsome red brick house occupied by Mr. Lucas, the banker, and two or three other houses, more or less pretentious, inhabited by the gentry of Milnthorpe.
Uncle Geoffrey lived at the lower end of the High street. It was a tall, narrow house, with old-fashioned windows and wire blinds. These blinds, which were my detestation, were absolutely necessary, as the street door opened directly on the street. There was one smooth, long step, and that was all. It had rather a dull outside look, but the moment one entered the narrow wainscoted hall, there was a cheery vista of green lawn and neatly graveled paths through the glass door.
The garden was the delight of Uncle Geoffrey's heart. It was somewhat narrow, to match the house; but in the center of the lawn, there was a glorious mulberry tree, the joy of us children. Behind was a wonderful intricacy of slim, oddly-shaped flower-beds, intersected by miniature walks, where two people could with difficulty walk abreast; and beyond this lay a tolerable kitchen garden, where Deborah grew cabbages and all sorts of homely herbs, and where tiny pink roses and sturdy sweet-williams blossomed among the gooseberry bushes.
On one side of the house were two roomy parlors, divided by folding doors. We never called them anything but parlors, for the shabby wainscoted walls and old-fashioned furniture forbade any similitude to the modern drawing-room.
On the other side of the hall was Uncle Geoffrey's study—a somewhat grim, dingy apartment, with brown shelves full of ponderous tomes, a pipe-rack filled with fantastic pipes, deep old cupboards full of hetereogeneous rubbish, and wide easy-chairs that one could hardly lift, one of which was always occupied by Jumbles, Uncle Geoffrey's dog.
Jumbles was a great favorite with us all. He was a solemn, wise -looking dog of the terrier breed, indeed, I believe Uncle Geoff called him a Dandy Dinmont—blue-gray in color, with a great head, and deep-set intelligent eyes. It was Uncle Geoffrey's opinion that Jumbles understood all one said to him. He would sit with his head slightly on one side, thumping his tail against the floor, with a sort of glimmer of fun in his eyes, as though he comprehended our conversation, and interposed a "Hear, hear!" and when he had had enough of it, and we were growing prosy, he would turn over on his back with an expression of abject weariness, as though canine reticence objected to human garrulity.
Jumbles was a rare old philosopher—a sort of four-footed Diogenes. He was discerning in his friendships, somewhat aggressive and splenetic to his equals; intolerant of cats, whom he hunted like vermin, and rather disdainfully condescending to the small dogs of Milnthorpe. Jumbles always accompanied Uncle Geoffrey in his rounds. He used to take his place in the gig with undeviating punctuality; nothing induced him to desert his post when the night-bell rang. He would rouse up from his sleep, and go out in the coldest weather. We used to hear his deep bark under the window as they sallied out in the midnight gloom.
The morning after we arrived, Allan and I made a tour of inspection through the house. There were only three rooms on the first floor— Uncle Geoffrey's, with its huge four-post bed; a large front room, that we both decided would just do for mother; and a smaller one at the back, that, after a few minutes' deliberation, I allotted to Carrie.
It caused me an envious pang or two before I yielded it, for I knew I must share a large upper room with Jack; the little room behind it must be for Dot, and the larger one would by-and-by be Allan's. I confess my heart sank a little when I thought of Jack's noisiness and thriftless ways; but when I remembered how fond she was of good books, and the great red-leaved diary that lay on her little table, I thought it better that Carrie should have a quiet corner to herself, and then she would be near mother.
If only Jack could be taught to hold her tongue sometimes, and keep her drawers in order, instead of strewing her room with muddy boots and odd items of attire! Well, perhaps it might be my mission to train Jack to more orderly habits. I would set her a good example, and coax her to follow it. She was good-tempered and affectionate, and perhaps I should find her sufficiently pliable. I was so lost in these anxious thoughts that Allan had left me unperceived. I found him in the back parlor, seated on the table, and looking about him rather gloomily.
"I say, Esther!" he called out, as soon as he caught sight of me, "I am afraid mother and Carrie will find this rather shabby after the dear old rooms at Combe Manor. Could we not furbish it up a little?" And Allan looked discontentedly at the ugly curtains and little, straight horse-hair sofa. Everything had grown rather shabby, only Uncle Geoffrey had not found it out.
"Oh, of course!" I exclaimed, joyfully, for all sorts of brilliant thoughts had come to me while I tossed rather wakefully in the early morning hours. "Don't you know, Allan, that Uncle Geoffrey has decided to send mother and Carrie and Dot down to the sea for a week, while you and I and Jack make things comfortable for them? Now, why should we not help ourselves to the best of the furniture at Combe Manor, and make Uncle Geoff turn out all these ugly things? We might have our pretty carpet from the drawing-room, and the curtains, and mother's couch, and some of the easy-chairs, and the dear little carved cabinet with our purple china; it need not all be sold when we want it so badly for mother."
Allan was so delighted at the idea that we propounded our views to Uncle Geoffrey at dinner-time; but he did not see the thing quite in our light.
"Of course you will need furniture for the bedrooms," he returned, rather dubiously; "but I wanted to sell the rest of the things that were not absolutely needed, and invest the money."
But this sensible view of the matter did not please me or Allan. We had a long argument, which ended in a compromise—the question of carpets might rest. Uncle Geoffrey's was a good Brussels, although it was dingy; but I might retain, if I liked, the pretty striped curtains from our drawing-room at Combe Manor, and mother's couch, and a few of the easy-chairs, and the little cabinet with the purple china; and then there was mother's inlaid work-table, and Carrie's davenport, and books belonging to both of us, and a little gilt clock that father had given mother on her last wedding-day—all these things would make an entire renovation in the shabby parlors.
I was quite excited by all these arrangements; but an interview with Deborah soon cooled my ardor.
Allan and Jumbles had gone out with Uncle Geoffrey, and I was sitting at the window looking over the lawn and the mulberry tree, when a sudden tap at the door startled me from my reverie. Of course it was Deborah; no one else's knuckles sounded as though they were iron. Deborah was a tall, angular woman, very spare and erect of figure, with a severe cast of countenance, and heavy black curls pinned up under her net cap; her print dresses were always starched until they crackled, and on Sunday her black silk dress rustled as I never heard any silk dress rustle before.
"Yes, Deborah, what is it?" I asked, half-frightened; for surely my hour had come. Deborah was standing so very erect, with the basket of keys in her hands, and her mouth drawn down at the corners.
"Master said this morning," began Deborah, grimly, "as how there was a new family coming to live here, and that I was to go to Miss Esther for orders. Five-and-twenty years have I cooked master's dinners for him, and received his orders, and never had a word of complaint from his lips, and now he is putting a mistress over me and Martha."
"Oh, Deborah," I faltered, and then I came to a full stop; for was it not trying to a woman of her age and disposition, used to Uncle Geoffrey's bachelor ways, to have a houseful of young people turned on her hands? She and Martha would have to work harder, and they were both getting old. I felt so much for her that the tears came into my eyes, and my voice trembled.
"It is hard!" I burst out; "it is very hard for you and Martha to have your quiet life disturbed. But how could we help coming here, when we had no home and no money, and Uncle Geoffrey was so generous? And then there was Dot and mother so ailing." And at the thought of all our helplessness, and Uncle Geoffrey's goodness a great tear rolled down my cheek. It was very babyish and undignified; but, after all, no assumption of womanliness would have helped me so much. Deborah's grim mouth relaxed; under her severe exterior, and with her sharp tongue, there beat a very kind heart, and Dot was her weak point.
"Well, well, crying won't help the pot to boil, Miss Esther!" she said, brusquely enough; but I could see she was coming round. "Master was always that kind-hearted that he would have sheltered the whole parish if he could. I am not blaming him, though it goes hard with Martha and me, who have led peaceable, orderly lives, and never had a mistress or thought of one since Miss Blake died, and the master took up thoughts of single blessedness in earnest."
"What sort of woman was Miss Blake?" I asked, eagerly, forgetting my few troubled tears at the thought of Uncle Geoffrey's one romance. The romance of middle-aged people always came with a faint, far-away odor to us young ones, like some old garment laid up in rose-leaves or lavender, which must needs be of quaint fashion and material, but doubtless precious in the eyes of the wearer.
"Woman!" returned Deborah, with an angry snort; "she was a lady, if there ever was one. We don't see her sort every day, I can tell you that, Miss Esther; a pretty-spoken, dainty creature, with long fair curls, that one longed to twine round one's fingers."
"She was pretty, then?" I hazarded more timidly.
"Pretty! she was downright beautiful. Miss Carrie reminds me of her sometimes, but she is not near so handsome as poor Miss Rose. She used to come here sometimes with her mother, and she and master would sit under that mulberry tree. I can see her now walking over the grass in her white gown, with some apple blossoms in her hand, talking and laughing with him. It was a sad day when she lay in the fever, and did not know him, for all his calling to her 'Rose! Rose!' I was with her when she died, and I thought he would never hold up his head again."
"Poor Uncle Geoffrey! But he is cheerful and contented now."
"But there, I must not stand gossiping," continued Deborah, interrupting herself. "I have only brought you the keys, and wish to know what preserve you and Mr. Allan might favor for tea."
But here I caught hold, not of the key-basket, but of the hard, work-worn hand that held it.
"Oh, Deborah! do be good to us!" I broke out: "we will trouble you and Martha as little as possible, and we are all going to put our shoulders to the wheel and help ourselves; and we have no home but this, and no one to take care of us but Uncle Geoffrey."
"I don't know but I will make some girdle cakes for tea," returned Deborah, in the most imperturbable voice; and she turned herself round abruptly, and walked out of the room without another word. But I was quite well satisfied and triumphant. When Deborah baked girdle cakes, she meant the warmest of welcomes, and no end of honor to Uncle Geoffrey's guests.
"Humph! girdle cakes!" observed Uncle Geoffrey, with a smile, as he regarded them. "Deb is in a first-rate humor, then. You have played your cards well, old lady," and his eyes twinkled merrily.
I went into the kitchen after tea, and had another long talk with Deborah. Dear old kitchen! How many happy hours we children had spent in it! It was very low and dark, and its two windows looked out on the stable-yard; but in the evening, when the fire burned clear and the blinds were drawn, it was a pleasant place. Deborah and Martha used to sit in the brown Windsor chairs knitting, with Puff, the great tabby cat, beside them, and the firelight would play on the red brick floor and snug crimson curtains.
Deborah and I had a grand talk that night. She was a trifle obstinate and dogmatical, but we got on fairly well. To do her justice, her chief care seemed to be that her master should not be interfered with in any of his ways. "He will work harder than ever," she groaned, "now there are all these mouths to feed. He and Jumbles will be fairly worn out."
But our talk contented me. I had enlisted Deborah's sympathies on our side. I felt the battle was over. I was only a "bit thing" as Deborah herself called me, and I was tolerably tired when I went up to my room that night.
Not that I felt inclined for sleep. Oh dear no! I just dragged the big easy-chair to the window, and sat there listening to the patter of summer rain on the leaves.
It was very dark, for the moon had hidden her face; but through the cool dampness there crept a delicious fragrance of wet jasmine and lilies. I wanted to have a good "think;" not to sit down and take myself to pieces. Oh no, that was Carrie's way. Such introspection bored me and did me little good, for it only made me think more of myself and less of the Master; but I wanted to review the past fortnight, and look the future in the face. Foolish Esther! As though we can look at a veiled face. Only the past and the present is ours; the future is hidden with God.
Yes, a fortnight ago I was a merry, heedless schoolgirl, with no responsibilities and few duties, except that laborious one of self-improvement, which must go on, under some form or other, until we die. And now, on my shrinking shoulders lay the weight of a woman's work. I was to teach others, when I knew so little myself; it was I who was to have the largest share of home administration—I, who was so faulty, so imperfect.
Then I remembered a sentence Carrie had once read to me out of one of her innumerable books, and which had struck me very greatly at the time.
"Happy should I think myself," said St. Francis de Sales, "if I could rid myself of my imperfections but one quarter of an hour previous to my death."
Well, if a saint could say that, why should I lose heart thinking about my faults? What was the good of stirring up muddy water to try and see one's own miserable reflection, when one could look up into the serene blue of Divine Providence? If I had faults—and, alas! how many they were—I must try to remedy them; if I slipped, I must pray for strength to rise again.
Courage, Esther! "Little by little," as Uncle Geoffrey says; "small beginnings make great endings." And when I had cheered myself with these words I went tranquilly to bed.
So the old Combe Manor days were over, and with them the girlhood of Esther Cameron.
Ah me! it was sad to say good-by to the dear old home of our childhood; to go round to our haunts, one by one, and look our last at every cherished nook and corner; to bid farewell to our four-footed pets, Dapple and Cherry and Brindle, and the dear little spotted calves; to caress our favorite pigeons for the last time, and to feed the greedy old turkey-cock, who had been the terror of our younger days. It was well, perhaps, that we were too busy for a prolonged leave-taking. Fred had gone to London, and his handsome lugubrious face no longer overlooked us as we packed books and china. Carrie and mother and Dot were cozily established in the little sea-side lodging, and only Allan, Jack, and I sat down to our meals in the dismantled rooms.
It was hard work trying to keep cheerful, when Allan left off whistling, as he hammered at the heavy cases, and when Jack was discovered sobbing in odd corners, with Smudge in her arms—of course Smudge would accompany us to Milnthorpe; no one could imagine Jack without her favorite sable attendant, and then Dot was devoted to him. Jack used to come to us with piteous pleadings to take first one and then another of her pets; now it was the lame chicken she had nursed in a little basket by the kitchen fire, then a pair of guinea pigs that belonged to Dot, and some carrier pigeons that they specially fancied; after that, she was bent on the removal of a young family of hedgehogs, and some kittens that had been discovered in the hay-loft, belonging to the stable cat.
We made a compromise at last, and entrusted to her care Carrie's tame canaries, and a cage of dormice that belonged to Dot, in whose fate Smudge look a vast amount of interest, though he never ventured to look at the canaries. The care of these interesting captives was consolatory to Jack, though she rained tears over them in secret, and was overheard by Allan telling them between her sobs that "they were all going to live in a little pokey house, without chickens or cows, or anything that would make life pleasant, and that she and they must never expect to be happy again." Ah, well! the longest day must have an end, and by-and-by the evening came when we turned away from dear old Combe Manor forever.
It was far more cheerful work fitting up the new rooms at Milnthorpe, with Deborah's strong arms to help, and Uncle Geoffrey standing by to encourage our efforts; even Jack plucked up heart then, and hung up the canaries, and hid away the dormice out of Smudge's and Jumbles' reach, and consented to stretch her long legs in our behalf. Allan and I thought we had done wonders when all was finished, and even Deborah gave an approving word.
"I think mother and Carrie will be pleased," I said, as I put some finishing touches to the tea-table on the evening we expected them. Allan had gone to the station to meet them, and only Uncle Geoffrey was my auditor. There was a great bowl of roses on the table, great crimson-hearted, delicious roses, and a basket of nectarines, that some patient had sent to Uncle Geoffrey. The parlors looked very pretty and snug; we had arranged our books on the shelves, and had hung up two or three choice engravings, and there was the gleam of purple and gold china from the dark oak cabinet, and by the garden window there were mother's little blue couch and her table and workbox, and Carrie's davenport, and an inviting easy-chair. The new curtains looked so well, too. No wonder Uncle Geoffrey declared that he did not recognize his old room.
"I am sure they will be pleased," I repeated, as I moved the old-fashioned glass dish full of our delicious Combe Manor honey; but Uncle Geoffrey did not answer; he was listening to some wheels in the distance.
"There they are," he said, snatching up his felt wide-awake. "Don't expect your mother to notice much to-night, Esther; poor thing, this is a sad coming home to her."
I need not have worked so hard; that was my first thought when I saw mother's face as she entered the room. She was trembling like a leaf, and her face was all puckered and drawn, as I kissed her; but Uncle Geoffrey would not let her sit down or look at anything.
"No, no, you shall not make efforts for us to-night," he said, patting her as though she were a child. "Take your mother upstairs, children, and let her have quiet! do you hear, nothing but quiet to-night." And then Allan drew her arm through his.
I cried shame on myself for a selfish, disappointed pang, as I followed them. Of course Uncle Geoffrey was right and wise, as he always was, and I was still more ashamed of myself when I entered the room and found mother crying as though her heart would break, and clinging to Allan.
"Oh, children, children! how can I live without your father?" she exclaimed, hysterically. Well, it was wise of Allan, for he let that pass and never said a word; he only helped me remove the heavy widow's bonnet and cloak, and moved the big chintz couch nearer to the window, and then he told me to be quick and bring her some tea; and when I returned he was sitting by her, fanning and talking to her in his pleasant boyish way; and though the tears were still flowing down her pale cheeks she sobbed less convulsively.
"You have both been so good, and worked so hard, and I cannot thank you," she whispered, taking my hand, as I stood near her.
"Esther does not want to be thanked," returned Allan, sturdily. "Now you will take your tea, won't you, mother? and by-and-by one of the girls shall come and sit with you."
"Are we to go down and leave her?" I observed, dubiously, as Allan rose from his seat.
"Yes, go, both of you, I shall be better alone; Allan knows that," with a grateful glance as I reluctantly obeyed her. I was too young to understand the healing effects of quiet and silence in a great grief; to me the thought of such loneliness was dreadful, until, later on, she explained the whole matter.
"I am never less alone than when I am alone," she said once, very simply to me. "I have the remembrance of your dear father and his words and looks ever before me, and God is so near—one feels that most when one is solitary." And her words remained with me long afterward.
It was not such a very sad evening, after all. The sea air had done Dot good, and he was in better spirits; and then Carrie was so good and sweet, and so pleased with everything.
"How kind of you, Esther," she said, with tears in her eyes, as I led her into her little bedroom. "I hardly dared hope for this, and so near dear mother." Well, it was very tiny, but very pretty, too. Carrie had her own little bed, in which she had slept from a child, and the evening sun streamed full on it, and a pleasant smell of white jasmine pervaded it; part of the window was framed with the delicate tendrils and tiny buds; and there was her little prayer-desk, with its shelf of devotional books, and her little round table and easy-chair standing just as it used; only, if one looked out of the window, instead of the belt of green circling meadows, dotted over by grazing cattle there was the lawn and the mulberry tree—a little narrow and homely, but still pleasant.
Carrie's eyes looked very vague and misty when I left her and went down to Dot. Allan had put him to bed, but he would not hear of going to sleep; he had his dormice beside him, and Jumbles was curled up at the foot of the bed; he wanted to show me his seaweed and shells, and tell me about the sea.
"I can't get it out of my head, Essie," he said, sitting up among his pillows and looking very wide-awake and excited. "I used to fall asleep listening to the long wash and roll of the waves, and in the morning there it was again. Don't you love the sea?"
"Yes, dearly, Dot; and so does Allan."
"It reminded me of the "Pilgrim's Progress"—just the last part. Don't you remember the river that every one was obliged to cross? Carrie told me it meant death." I nodded; Dot did not always need an answer to his childish fancies, he used to like to tell them all out to Allan and me. "One night," he went on, "my back was bad, and I could not sleep, and Carrie made me up a nest of pillows in a big chair by the window, and we sat there ever so long after mother was fast asleep.
"It was so light—almost as light as day—and there were all sorts of sparkles over the water, as though it were shaking out tiny stars in play; and there was one broad golden path—oh! it was so beautiful —and then I thought of Christian and Christiana, and Mr. Ready-to-halt, and father, and they all crossed the river, you know."
"Yes, Dot," I whispered. And then I repeated softly the well-known verse we had so often sung:
"One army of the living God, To His command we bow; Part of the host have crossed the flood, And part are crossing now."
"Yes, yes," he repeated, eagerly; "it seemed as though I could see father walking down the long golden path; it shone so, he could not have missed his way or fallen into the dark waters. Carrie told me that by-and-by there would be "no more sea," somehow; I was sorry for that—aren't you, Essie?"
"Oh, no, don't be sorry," I burst out, for I had often talked about this with Carrie. "It is beautiful, but it is too shifting, too treacherous, too changeable, to belong to the higher life. Think of all the cruel wrecks, of all the drowned people it has swallowed up in its rage; it devours men and women, and little children, Dot, and hides its mischief with a smile. Oh, no, it is false in its beauty, and there shall be an end of it, with all that is not true and perfect."