A SCHOOLGIRL'S MISSION.
E. R. Burden.
GLASGOW: JOHN S. MARR & SONS, 51 DUNDAS STREET. 1881.
I. MINNIE'S PLAN 5
II. ITS DEVELOPMENT 19
III. PREPARATIONS 29
IV. THE FIRST ESSAY 44
V. AT THE ELEVENTH HOUR 54
VI. A DISPUTE SETTLED 78
VII. MONA'S DEFEAT 94
VIII. A SUCCESS 115
IX. THE END 121
HOLLOWMELL: OR, A SCHOOLGIRL'S MISSION.
"Why, wherever can my books be?" exclaimed Minnie Kimberley in a vexed tone, as she hunted up and down the schoolroom, opening now one cupboard, then another, now a desk, and again diving down to peer under some out-of-the-way table or form; for places which one would think the most unlikely, were certain to be the places where Minnie's books would at length be discovered.
"I can't make it out," she continued, her bright face clouded over with vexation, "somehow or other my books always do manage to get lost."
"Perhaps if you could manage to put them back in your desk when you had done with them, instead of leaving them lying just wherever you happen to be, they might manage to stay there," suggested Mona Cameron, a tall young lady, who sat near the window sewing, and who had more than once been disturbed by Minnie's voyage of discovery.
"Oh, I've found two of them!" cried Minnie, emerging from beneath a distant table, her hands black with dust, and herself nothing abashed by Mona's rather sarcastic speech. "I wonder, now, whether I shall be able to hunt up the others before Mab finishes her music!"
"O, Mabel Chartres is away," volunteered one of the other girls, "I heard her come down fully ten minutes ago."
"That can't be," replied Minnie, "she must have come in here for her things before she went away."
"Not at all, seeing she carried them up to the music-room with her that she might save time; I heard her say she wanted away soon."
Minnie flew to the corner where Mabel's hat and jacket usually hung, and sure enough both were gone. She sat down for a minute ready to cry with disappointment, but recovering herself immediately, she choked back the tears, and proceeded with the search for her books, though in a rather more subdued manner, and with a great deal less bustle and talkativeness. At length they were all collected from their various hiding-places, and Minnie was ready to depart, but she seemed in no hurry to go. She stood leaning against the desk, with a rather irresolute look on her face, as if trying to make up her mind to something. More than once she moved as if to go, but something seemed to arrest her step.
At last she turned to where Mona Cameron still sat at work, and said in a clear voice which could be distinctly heard by all the girls in the room, "I will try, Mona, to take your advice about putting my books back in my desk; I know I'm horribly careless, and I thank you for reminding me how I can mend it if I try."
All the girls looked up amazed—Mona herself as amazed as any and also a little confused—but Minnie did not wait to see what effect her words would produce, she walked straight out after she had spoken, and was not a little astonished, and perhaps a little perturbed, to find Miss Elgin, the English governess, in the dressing-room where she could not choose but hear what had passed. Her face flushed, and she tried to hurry out without attracting her notice, but Miss Elgin stopped her as she passed the desk at which she sat, and drawing the bright face down to the level of her own, kissed her on the forehead with a whispered "That was bravely spoken, Minnie," and let her go.
Minnie rushed out into the cool air with a flushed and happy face, and her heart beating high with the joy of victory, and the gratification of knowing that her effort was appreciated. She ran home without once thinking of her disappointment in missing Mabel, but she did not forget to seek her own room the first thing when she got in, and pour out her thanksgiving for her recent triumph—even although she did find herself stopping more than once in the midst of it to go over again in her own mind the scene in the dressing-room afterward. After dinner she was occupied with her lessons, and she found it just a little difficult to settle down to them after the excitement of the afternoon.
She was a girl of a very warm and impulsive temperament, and little things were apt to upset her in a way that many people would characterize as absurd, but which was, so far from being absurd, simply natural and unavoidable in an emotional nature such as hers. It was not, therefore, through one cause and another, till she was in bed that she recollected how she had wished to speak to Mabel so particularly, and what it was she had to speak about. She felt just a little ashamed of herself for allowing what had, only that morning, seemed to her a thing of the first importance, to be crushed out, and for the moment annihilated, by the occurrence of the afternoon. However, she decided to make up for it on the morrow, and satisfied with this resolve, she fell fast asleep.
Next morning, true to her resolution, she was early at the school so as to be able to see Mabel Chartres, her most particular friend and constant companion, before the day's work began. Mabel was a little late, so Minnie could only whisper to her to wait when school was over, and then they were called to their different places, for Minnie, though younger by almost a year than Mabel, occupied an advanced position in the first class, while Mabel was only in the second, and even there was not of much account. Minnie, indeed in most things divided the laurels of the school with Mona Cameron who was the oldest pupil, and the emulation of the two kept the school in a perpetual state of effervescence; Mona being sharp, and at times rather acrid, and Minnie bright and sparkling and excitable, the contact of the two natures was more than calculated to produce such a result. But on this particular day it seemed as if some of the ingredients were wanting, for the morning and afternoon passed, to the astonishment of all, without a single "phiz" as the girls were wont somewhat felicitously to call the frequent passages of arms in which the two girls considered it their peculiar privilege to indulge.
Mona had slightly sneered at what she termed Minnie's latest "crank," on the preceding evening, but she had been a good deal impressed by the courage and simplicity of Minnie's conduct, and in reality admired it, while she felt she could never emulate it. She was honest with herself whatever she might be with others, and felt in a vague sort of way that she might be doing a thing almost as admirable, if not as likely to excite admiration, if she could even only for one day keep her sharp tongue under control, and refrain from such exercises of the vein of sarcasm which was her peculiar characteristic, as at other times she held it almost necessary to perform. Thus it was that the school was particularly quiet that day, for Minnie was also in a subdued mood, and so when school was over and she was at liberty to walk off with Mabel, she felt just in the frame of mind for the discussion to which she had been looking forward all day.
She felt, however, that she could not proceed with it at present, on the way home where they would be liable to interruption at almost every turn, so she persuaded Mabel to come home with her. This was no very difficult matter, any more than it was an infrequent occurrence, for Minnie and Mabel were never very long separate, and having had to leave without her friend on the previous evening, had been as much a disappointment to Mabel as it had been to Minnie.
It was a remarkable feature in the friendship which existed between them, that it was, and always had been free from that species of quarrel called "huffs." In the case of nine girls' friendships out of ten, the fact of one going off in the way Mabel had done, without an explanation afterwards or an intimation before hand, would have formed a very strong foundation whereon to raise a structure of evidence to prove that something was amiss, which few girls could have resisted. But no such idea entered Minnie's head. She simply concluded that something very pressing had compelled Mabel to leave earlier than usual, and trusted her too completely to connect it in any way with herself.
After dinner they proceeded with their lessons, which seemed to be got over in a much shorter time when the two worked together, than when they each worked separately, so that they were soon free to settle down before the fire in Minnie's room, and begin the subject which had been on Minnie's mind for almost four days now.
"Well, Minnie, what is it?" asked Mabel at last, for Minnie seemed to be at a loss how to begin, now that the time had come. She walked over and sat down on the rug, leaning her head on Mabel's knee, and began, "you know, Mab, dear, that it isn't very long since I found out that there was anything better in life than laughing and dancing and enjoying one's self in the way the world calls enjoyment. I told you all about it before, how Mr. Laurence told me about the happiness of being a Christian, and living for something beside my own pleasure, and how since that I have felt that great happiness myself. I can't talk very much about it, because it is so new—and so—I can't find a word for it, but I think you'll know what I mean—that I don't quite understand it myself, but I feel it all the same, and it has made me another creature. I don't think anybody would believe that who only sees the outside of me, but it is quite true; I have different thoughts and feelings and wishes about everything, and feel altogether as if I had newly awakened and could never go to sleep again."
Minnie had rattled on in her usual impulsive fashion, and now pulled up suddenly, for Mabel's arm tightened round her arm with a convulsive clasp, and her head dropped on her shoulder in a perfect agony of weeping.
Minnie felt a good deal of surprise as well as alarm at this sudden outburst, for she had never seen Mabel so much overcome before, and just now it seemed so altogether unaccountable; she concluded, however, that it would be useless to attempt any solution of the mystery until the storm had somewhat spent itself; she did not, therefore, trouble her with any questions or attempts at consolation, but allowed her to cry on unrestrainedly, only changing her position, that she might the better render her all the support in her power, and convey to her by every means but that of speech her sympathy and concern. At length her sobs began to be less convulsive, and her tears to come less freely, and soon she was able to speak and assure her friend that she need not be under any apprehension concerning her, and that she would soon be able to tell her the cause of her grief.
Minnie waited with great patience for some minutes before she would allow Mabel to speak again, and then, Mabel protesting that it was all over, and that she was quite calm again, began with brimming eyes, notwithstanding her protest. "It must have been the narration of your happiness that caused me to lose control of myself, I felt the contrast between it and my own state of mind so keenly, that I was quite overcome—Oh, Minnie, I would give every drop of mere earthly happiness to feel for one hour, what you have described!"
Minnie looked at her in astonishment. "Why, Mabel, of course you never needed to feel such a thing—you have known about these things all your life!"
"Ah, yes!" replied Mabel, "I have known about them, as you say, but I have never known them. You know one may know all about a thing or person, and yet never know it or him by direct experience."
"That is true," said Minnie, reflectively. "But why did you always try to interest me in them, when you really felt no good effect from them yourself?"
"Please don't ask me that!" entreated Mabel, "It would be worse than useless for me to try to explain it, but it is a fact that I have never known such a change as you talk about—as what we call conversion must surely imply—so I have never been converted, and that is the reason, I suppose, why all my efforts to interest you were always vain. How could I hope to lead you to a Saviour I could not see myself?"
Minnie was silent. She could not understand Mabel's difficulty, and therefore did not feel able to discuss it. She could not say anything to comfort or console her either, from her own short experience, because she felt, notwithstanding all that she had just heard, that Mabel was years and years before her on the road—further by a long way than all the years of her life. She felt this but could not say it; it seemed to hover through her mind like a shadow, and she could not grasp it in order to put it into words.
Mabel saw how puzzled she was, and realized how dangerous it might be to her peace to communicate difficulties of such a nature in her present impressionable state; she therefore endeavoured to divert her mind into a safer channel by getting her to talk about herself.
"It is very silly of me," she said, "to speak thus to you who have so newly begun the race. What should you know of such things? Come, we won't talk about them, and I daresay I shall grow out of such morbid notions in time; tell me about yourself, I am sure it will do me good; you were telling me about how different you felt. Please do go on."
"But are you sure it won't affect you as it did before? I would like to tell you about it because of what it has led me to do, and because I would like you to feel as I do, if, as you say, you have never felt it." And Minnie looked at her with great tears in her eyes, and with a great pity in her warm generous heart, wishing she could give half her happiness to her friend.
"Go on, dear," said Mabel, "you don't know how much good it will do me."
"Well, but I must tell you, Mabel, that although I am very happy, it sometimes troubles me to think how little I am changed outwardly, and how nobody but yourself would believe anything of all I have told you. I am sure Mona Cameron wouldn't"—she stopped suddenly, half inclined to interrupt herself in order to retail to Mabel the incident of the previous day, but thinking better of it, she resumed—"It does trouble me more than a little, sometimes, but I'm not going to lot it. I know about the difference, and you know about it, and better than all, God who wrought it knows about it, so what can it matter whether the world knows about it or not?"
"But, Minnie," interrupted Mabel, "I don't see that you are quite right there; it must be of consequence that we show to the world what side we are on."—"O, yes, of course," replied Minnie hastily, "I was just coming to that—I meant the school-girls particularly when I said the world just now, because I know it will take a long time to convince them of the reality of this—indeed I am inclined to think they won't be convinced, it won't suit their ideas—but there, I am again! judging them just in the very way I am condemning them for judging me. Oh, dear, what a long time it will take before I get out of my old way of speaking without thought, for which my new way of thinking rebukes me a thousand times a day!"
"Patience, dear," recommended Mabel, knowing well what a hard recommendation it was to follow, but feeling she must say something.
"Yes, Mabel," returned Minnie, "I am learning patience—even I, who never knew what restraint meant all my life, am learning what true freedom is for the first time."
Mabel looked down at her wistfully, as if half inclined to say something, but remembering her danger she remained silent.
"And that just reminds me," continued Minnie, after a moment's pause, "that I have not yet told you the new idea I have been so longing to have your opinion upon, since ever it came into my head."
"Well, you must make haste," Mabel answered, "you see its quite late already.
"O, it won't take long! I'll just tell you about it, and we can go into it some other time, its only a project, you know, and of course I wanted to have your opinion and advice first, and your help afterwards."
"All of which you may count on," said Mabel smiling.
"Well, then, I must ask you in the first place, if you know the row of houses down beside the pit which papa built for the miners?"
"Yes, I pass it every day coming to school."
"Then you will probably have noticed how ill-kept and dirty the houses are, and how untidy the women and children are, who continually lounge and romp about the doors."
"Indeed I have," returned Mabel, "and I have often thought what a pity it was that those houses which might be made so beautiful, should be kept in such a state."
"That is just what papa was saying the other morning at breakfast. He said that he had had the houses built on the most approved principles, with every sort of convenience and facility for the promotion of health and order, and yet when he took a party of gentleman down to the pit last week, he was utterly ashamed to observe the squalor and misery of the place. He said that some of the worst slums of London could hardly be worse, except in the matter of light and air, and even these the people seemed to be doing their best to exclude, judging from the dust covered and tightly closed windows. It just occurred to me while he was speaking that perhaps I might be able to do something to remedy this terrible state of affairs. I am sure papa would be glad to do anything to help us. I have not said anything to him about it till I should hear your verdict, and because I haven't the least shadow of an idea what plan would be best to go upon. What do you think of it?"
"I think it will be a very difficult matter, and will require a great deal of consideration," replied Mabel thoughtfully.
"But you don't think it impossible or impracticable?" inquired Minnie, anxiously.
"Impossible?—no," replied she, "But do you think our hands will be strong enough, and our hearts stout enough for such an undertaking. It is not a thing we may take up to amuse ourselves with for a moment, and throw down when we are tired of it."
"O, there's no fear of you doing that with anything, and as for me, I must strike while the iron is hot. You know how new impressions wear off with me, and if I don't get into some work of this kind at once, I am afraid I'll get cool. I don't mean that I fear going back to where I was, but I am not like you, I haven't lived in it all my life, and I need something to keep up my interest. It's so with me in everything else, and I am sure it won't be different in this case, because of course my nature won't change, although my heart has. But that is not all; during these few weeks I have been living just in a sort of trance—that is, every moment I've been alone, content to dream all the time of how good God had been to me, but just the night before papa spoke about those people, it suddenly occurred to me that I must do something to help others, to find out how good He would be to them if they would only let Him. It seemed dreadfully selfish to sit still and drink in that wonderful happiness, without offering some of it to others when there are thousands dying for a drop of it. So when papa spoke about the miners down at Hollowmell, it struck me that here was work just ready for me."
She stopped, a little out of breath, and waited to hear what Mabel would say.
"Well, it does seem," said Mabel, beginning at the same time to put on her jacket and hat, "It does seem as if it was intended you should take this in hand; but don't let us do anything rashly. Let us think it over carefully for a week, and if we come to the conclusion that it would not be too much for us, let us begin operations then."
"O, Mab!" cried Minnie in dismay, "How calmly you talk of putting it off. Why, my hands are just aching to get to work, and then, what's the use of considering whether or not it will be too much for us; no amount of consideration will convince us as one attempt will, and of what use is our faith if we cannot make a practical use of it?"
"Perhaps I am over cautious," Mabel admitted, "but let us take at least till Saturday to make up our minds as to the best way of going to work, as you have already confessed you have not yet thought of a plan."
"Very well," agreed Minnie, kissing Mabel warmly as she bade her good-night, "Not a word more till Saturday, when we shall have time enough to give the subject the attention it requires. Good-night."
"Good-night," returned Mabel, as she ran lightly down the steps, and was soon lost in the gathering darkness.
Next day there was much open wonder expressed concerning the absence of any of the little bursts of excitement with which Mona Cameron and Minnie Kimberley were wont to refresh the pupils of Miss Marsden's Seminary for young Ladies. Some were even heard expressing disappointment with the novel arrangement, and Mona, who seemed as utterly at a loss to account for it as the rest, became rather piqued at Minnie's serene imperturbability under her most potent thrusts, and was fain to exercise her wit on some more vulnerable object. Minnie kept closely to her work during lesson time, and even during the pauses between classes was observed to sit quite still, attentively contemplating the toe of her boot, and never once running over to whisper to Mabel as she invariably did when she had something on her mind.
Then, when lessons were over, and needlework began, she sat in her usual place beside Mabel, but both appeared to be deeply interested in their work, and did not exchange a word, although talking was quite allowable during that time, and the privilege was usually taken advantage of fully by Minnie.
This circumstance was construed by some to indicate that a quarrel had taken place between the two friends, and was preying upon Minnie's mind, which hypothesis, however, was quickly annihilated when the two walked off together as usual, apparently on their usual terms, and in their usual spirits.
Next day things stood in exactly the same position, and the girls were beginning to get impatient for a solution of the mystery, but no solution was forthcoming. Then came Saturday, on which day school was not held, and the two friends were at liberty to discuss their project in full.
They had arranged that the discussion was to take place at Mabel's home, as Minnie's brothers were all at home on Saturday, and would be likely to interfere with their intention of keeping the matter private.
Mabel was an only child, her father being a business man with whom the world had not dealt too kindly. Her mother was dead, which circumstance had first drawn Minnie towards her, for she also was motherless.
A sister of Mr. Chartres kept house for him, so that Mabel was at liberty to spend as much time with her friend as she thought proper. She would often have felt more comfortable if her aunt would have allowed her to remain at home and render her some assistance with her household duties, but her aunt was immoveable in her determination to allow no interference with what she considered her special department, declaring indeed that she could not perform her duties to her own satisfaction, or her brother's comfort, if her mind was disturbed by having anyone to direct or issue orders to. Thus it was that when Minnie appeared, directly after breakfast, Mabel was at liberty to devote herself entirely to her. They chatted on various topics of general interest until Miss Chartres disappeared into the "lower regions" (as Minnie was wont to designate the kitchen floor) on housekeeping duties intent, and then they were free to bring forth the matter which was uppermost in each of their thoughts.
"Well?" Interrogated Minnie, after a short silence.
"Well?" Repeated Mabel in the same tone.
"Now, don't tease, Mabel!" she exclaimed, "you know I am in earnest, so I won't have teasing—and please don't be so awfully cautious: one would think you delighted to make a wet blanket of yourself for my especial discomfort and confusion."
"Not this 'one,' though," asserted Mabel, slipping her arm round Minnie, who tried to get up a terrible frown but failed ignominiously.
"Well, then, tell me the result of your cogitations—you are to be Prime Minister, you know."
"Then you must be Queen!" laughed Mabel.
"O, no, I am going to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, thank you, quite a high enough post for me."
"My Right Honourable Friend is easily satisfied, truly, but I don't think if I had the power of appointment I should entrust such an office to you," Mabel remarked.
"You are pleased to be complimentary," returned Minnie, with a ludicrous attempt at genteel sarcasm—and then, suddenly dropping her assumed stiffness, she continued. "But you don't know what a genius I am going to turn out in the region of finances, and I can assure you, you will be astonished when I bring forward my first Budget."
"I am certain I shall, one way or other; you are continually astonishing one with your ingenuity in various ways."
"Well, to my usual task then—for I have framed several astonishing resolutions, which only await your sanction to become law—you see this is quite a different form of government from any presently existing, so you must not be astonished at the manner of its conduct."
"So I perceive," observed Mabel demurely.
"In the first place, then, you must tell me whether your further consideration has confirmed your decision of Wednesday night?"
"Well, I must confess, that the more I thought of the thing, the more difficult it seemed, and yet I am convinced more than ever of the necessity of our taking it in hand as nobody else seems inclined to do so. But how are we to begin?"
"That is just what we intend to consider."
"Of course, education does not seem to have wrought any great result yet, for the children are compelled to go to school, yet they don't seem to be influenced in any great degree morally by it. I suppose the reason of that is that they don't know how to take advantage of it."
"I'll tell you what it is," said Minnie energetically, "Education is just what they require, and the sort they get just now would probably influence them in time. But we can't wait for that, and so we must do our best to help it on, and try to get them to see the good of it, and take advantage of it while they may; and the first step towards all this is to win their hearts—we must begin with the children, and through them we may reach the parents. It won't do to try any of the old methods of reform, they're hardened in them all. Mrs. Merton and the missionary, not to speak of the Episcopal Church curate, have all assailed them in turn, with tracts, hymn books and Sunday-schools—not that I would for a moment seem to despise these methods—only I think that in cases like this they should be introduced judiciously, and when the people are in a fit temper to receive them, and treat them with the respect they deserve; instead of being, as it were, thrown at them just at a time, when they will most probably not feel inclined to do anything but throw them back, and if they can't exactly do that they do the thing next best calculated to relieve their feelings—throw them in the fire. Now, I don't see that this does any good, and I should not like our efforts to be useless as theirs have been. We will take lessons from them and try to avoid what seems to have been their great mistake—injudiciousness; and perhaps showing a little too plainly that they considered them heathen, and were determined to convert them at any cost."
Mabel laughed at Minnie's queer statement of the case, but was constrained to admit that it was at least fair in the main, if a little severe on the well-meant efforts of the persons referred to.
"Well, its quite clear we must take an entirely different course if we wish to succeed," concluded Minnie, "and I hereby beg to propose as our first course, a course of Popular Entertainments."
Mabel stared at her in amazement.
"Why, Minnie, are you crazy!" she exclaimed when she recovered her breath.
"Well, no, not quite yet I hope," replied Minnie, enjoying the sensation she had created, "But I suppose that was rather a big way to put it, I don't wonder it took away your breath. The style of entertainment I have in my head is a very small, innocent kind of affair, as you will perceive when I tell you that they are to be carried out by ourselves, and, moreover, that they are not to consist of anything more formidable (for the present at anyrate) than the preparation of tea or coffee, and the adjuncts pertaining thereunto."
"But how is it to be done?" asked Mabel, scarcely less mystified than before, "It can't be done without money, and a good deal of money too."
"That's just what bothered me at first," Minnie replied, "Of course, I knew I could get the money from papa if I asked him for it, and could assure him it was for a good purpose, but I wasn't going to do that, because, in the first place, I wished to keep the thing a secret between ourselves till we see how it will work, and in the next place I didn't want to take the money from papa at all; so I thought out a plan, but to carry it out we must take papa into our secret."
"Perhaps it would be as well to do that in any case," remarked Mabel, "seeing it happens to be his work-people with whom we have to do, and I daresay it is only fair and just that he should know about it. However, let me hear the plan."
"You remember I told you I was laying past money for a sealskin jacket. Papa thought I was too young to have one last year, but he promised me that if I had a certain sum by my next birthday he would give me the rest. I have saved a good deal, for I have done without some things—a good many things—and given the money they would have cost to papa to keep for me because I was always afraid I might use it for something else. I should have, I think, about seven or eight pounds by this time, which will, I am sure, with part of our pocket-money, and clever management go a good way to start us fairly on our expedition, don't you think so?"
"Why, yes, that is quite a fortune; but are you sure you won't be sorry for it when your birthday comes and you can't have the jacket you've wished for so long?"
"O, I suppose I shall be sorry that I can't have the jacket, but that won't matter much, I shall be so much more happy that it has been spent in doing good that it will be recompense for any amount of jackets."
"But we must have some more definite plan than this to work upon, and there will be no end of arrangements to be made. How about a place where the entertainments may be held?"
"I've thought of that too," said Minnie, her eyes sparkling with delight. "Such a glorious idea occurred to me yesterday, as I was coming home; after I left you I went round by the Hollow—I was sorry I did not think of it sooner, I might have gone along with you as far as that—well, I noticed that one of the houses in the corner is not occupied, and it struck me we might have that, as long as it is empty at anyrate, to hold our meetings in. I am sure papa will consent."
"The very thing!" exclaimed Mabel, clapping her hands. "I noticed that house also, and it did occur to me that it would be a promising spot, but the idea of asking it, or even hinting at such a thing never entered my mind."
"I am so glad that you like it. Now, confess that the exact direction in which my genius lies has at last been revealed. I was sure you would discover it some day."
"Pray, be more explicit, my talented friend," requested Mabel. "I am doubtless very dull, but I should like to be quite certain about the direction to which you alluded just now."
"Well I'm afraid I can't enlighten you very much," said Minnie, with a look of comical dismay, "I am about as uncertain as yourself. I was just trusting to your general stupidity not to go any deeper into the subject, but simply to take my word for it."
"I think I won't cause you any further confusion by discussing the matter more fully, but proceed to business. What do you think of taking a walk down there this afternoon, and viewing the battlefield?"
"I am quite agreeable," responded Minnie, "and I shall speak to papa to-night about our other arrangements. I must be off now, and dispose of some of my lessons so that I may have time—I shall expect you about four."
"Very well," agreed Mabel. "But I shall only have an hour to spare, remember, I must be back by five."
"All right, we won't put off any time, you may count on my being ready." And off she went with a light heart.
Mabel turned back and went in with a sigh.
"How bright and gay she is," said she to herself. "To look at her now, one would think that a serious thought never entered her head, and yet how full of good and unselfish thoughts that little head is, for all its giddiness.
"She spoke just now of giving some of the blessings she had received to others, to those who were thirsting for one drop, and did not guess that I who stood so near her was even one of those. It would only trouble and distress her to know how dark my mind is about these things which she thinks I have known all about for years—aye, truly I have known about them since I knew anything, yet of what use has the knowledge been to me. It's like the 'learned lumber' Pope speaks about—it's like rummaging in a library without a light. O, will light such as Minnie speaks about ever dawn in my heart? Will such a change as has beautified and softened her life with such a sweet and gracious influence, ever come near to touch mine? Minnie, my friend, you seek my aid to walk in the path you think I know so well, but it is I who should lean on you. I hold the scroll in my hand, but you have the guide in your heart." So thinking she turned wearily from the window and began her studies.
Sharply at four, Mabel appeared at the door of Minnie's home, and she, being quite ready, they proceeded without delay to carry out their purpose of "viewing the battlefield" as Mabel remarked.
Hollowmell was a lovely glade which lay at the foot of a gentle eminence, immediately behind which lay the pit whose ugly shaft was almost hid by it. No one would have imagined that such a thing lay in the immediate neighbourhood who saw the glade before the row of miner's cottages had been erected on one side of it by Mr. Kimberley for the convenience of his work-people, and even yet the beauty of the scene would not have been marred by the pretty picturesque-looking little red brick houses with their white-coppiced windows and green-painted sashes, if the carelessness and disorder which reigned within had not been reflected without in the neglected plots of ground attached to each cottage, in the dirty window-panes, and in the untidy women and children, and occasionally begrimed men who seemed to have no other object in life than to hang about and complete the disgrace they had wrought on the fair face of nature.
Mabel and Minnie walked along the entire row, as the empty cottage stood at the further end, looking with a new interest at the faces with which they were both well acquainted by sight, and being rewarded by stares of stony indifference. They went into the empty cottage, and Mabel cried out with pleasure, as she looked round the bright, cheerful apartments, wondering how anyone could feel anything but pride and interest in keeping such a house in order.
"Why," she said, "I would not wish any pleasanter place to live in myself, nor any lovelier view to feast my eyes on."
Minnie laughed and said that her papa always said these houses should belong to her some day, and when that time came she would make this one a present to Mabel, unless indeed, she would allow her to share it. After that, they took their leave, convinced that it would answer their purpose exactly.
Minnie made a message into one of the cottages on their way back to make inquiries concerning one of the children whom she knew to be ill.
This house was about the most respectable in the entire row, and yet it might have borne a great deal in the way of improvement. The child's mother was quite a young woman, probably not over twenty-two, yet there were two other children playing on the floor, while she herself sat sewing the braid of her skirt with white thread in great uneven stitches, the dishes and remains of dinner still upon the table.
She jumped up as they tapped at the open door, and having hastily bade them enter, she dived into an adjoining room from whence she produced two chairs, talking in a pleasant, though rather loud voice all the time. They thanked her, but would not sit down, as they had only a few minutes to spare, and having ascertained that the little girl was progressing favourably, they departed.
"I think I'd better go home this way," said Mabel, when they got to the end of the glade. "It is my soonest way home, and I have got a great deal to do. I suppose I shall see you at church to-morrow?"
"O, yes," returned Minnie. "And I shall speak to papa to-night. I'll just whisper to you whether it's all right or not, when I see you to-morrow."
"And I suppose that after that it will be a free subject, and liable to be discussed at any time?" queried Mabel, smiling.
"Certainly," assented Minnie, a little puzzled.
"O, Minnie, you can't think how amused I was at your efforts to keep from speaking about it yesterday and the day before! You would open your lips to say something every five minutes, and then suddenly recollecting yourself, you would close them again with a determined snap, but it was hard work to keep them closed, I could see that plainly enough."
"I know it was," she confessed, "but I must say I did not dream that my efforts would be appreciated as thoroughly as they seem to have been."
"Well, be thankful it is so," advised Mabel. "And now I'm off. Good-bye."
That evening Minnie, seizing a favourable moment when the boys were all out, and she and her father alone, unfolded to him her scheme for the reformation of Hollowmell. He was, of course, greatly surprised, and at first very reluctant to allow his daughter to go among these people, even for the purpose she had at heart.
"You don't know what sort of people these miners are, my dear," he said when Minnie had made known to him in as few words as possible what she wished to do. "And as for reforming them, I don't think that possible, I don't indeed. You had better leave that to the missionary, I think, or to some one who knows the sort of folks they are, and how to deal with them."
"But they have proved that they don't know how to deal with them, they have all failed, so I mean to try a different plan from any of the common methods, besides I shall only have to do with the children at first; I want to try to influence the older people through them. Come, papa, do let me have the cottage and make a trial, and I promise if the result does not please you to give it up at the end of a month."
Mr. Kimberly shook his head a good deal, and grumbled a little that she might find something better to occupy her time than amusing a lot of dirty ragamuffins who would never thank her for her trouble, but finally gave in, to the unbounded delight of Minnie, who, it may be remarked, had never entertained a doubt as to the final issue of the debate, knowing well that her father would refuse her nothing on which she had so strenuously set her heart.
"And how about the jacket?" he inquired, when she laid before him her financial scheme, in a business-like manner which greatly amused and delighted him.
"O, you know, I can do without that quite well. You don't imagine, surely, that it is because a sealskin is warmer or for any reason of that description that I want it. It is only because it looks finer, and it is so great a satisfaction to have such a thing that I wanted it—in fact, only to gratify my vanity, which is gratified too much already by a certain old gentleman who evidently thinks there never was such another girl as his daughter."
"Come, now, young lady, don't abuse your old father in that insinuating manner, for he won't stand it, and as for your vanity, you don't overstate it a bit; but we'll see whether the inhabitants of Hollowmell won't contrive to rid you of some of that."
"Just one thing, papa," said Minnie, as she kissed and thanked him again, before retiring for the night. "Please keep it a secret from the boys. You know how they would tease me about it if they knew."
"Very well, it is not likely it would have occurred to me to mention it to them, but it is just as well to be on guard. When do you begin operations?"
"As soon as we can have everything in working order."
"Well, here's some money to start with, and see you make a good use of it. We'll arrange about your own money when I have more time."
Minnie ran off with her prize—a bright, golden sovereign—and found herself scarcely able to sleep that night for dreaming of the wonders which were to be affected through her agency in Hollowmell.
Next day she only saw Mabel for a few minutes as they came out of church, but even that short time was sufficient for the communication of a whispered account of her success, the narration of which afforded Mabel quite as much delight as its accomplishment had afforded Minnie. It is just possible, indeed, that the consideration of their project occupied rather more of their attention on that day, at least, than the sermon did. Mabel had to take herself to task severely several times during the afternoon service, and Minnie, without thinking very much about it, found herself mixing up the Epistle to the Galatians with a homily to be delivered to the inhabitants of Hollowmell upon some important occasion, the exact nature of which she had not yet clearly settled in her mind.
Next day there was more than one "phiz" between Minnie and Mona, owing to the fact that Minnie's mind was so entirely occupied by her new undertaking, that she could not manage to give more than a small part of her attention to her lessons. This was a matter of no small gratification to Mona, who was rather more profuse, in consequence, with her sharp remarks, which Minnie was in no mood to brook patiently.
Some of Minnie's books were lost as usual, when at last she was free to go, for although she had tried, and been pretty successful too, in keeping her books together since her promise to do so, they sometimes reverted to their old habit of getting lost again, and to-day she had almost fallen back to her former careless state.
Mona looked on from time to time when she could spare a minute from her work, and at last observed in her most sarcastic manner that "fair words were easily spoken and light vows swiftly broken."
Minnie flared up in a moment.
"Fair words are easily spoken, as you say, Mona," she retorted, "you speak of what you know nothing. It may be so. Sharp things cost more, I dare say, and that is doubtless why they are generally more successful in their aim."
Mona laughed disagreeably, and enquired with mock politeness, "at what object Minnie might at present be aiming."
She was about to retort with a bitterness scarcely less penetrating than Mona's own sharp thrusts, when she suddenly checked herself, and putting her books which she had now collected under her arm, she walked out without even waiting for Mabel, lest she should find the temptation to speak too strong for her. Her heart was very heavy as she walked homewards, and her eyes would keep filling with tears.
Only last night she had been so happy in her efforts to do good, and here she was, actually as bad as any of the people she had been flattering herself she could reform. What was she to do? she asked herself a hundred times, and then it occurred to her that she must tell God about it.
She hastened home, and shutting herself into her room poured out all her sorrow and contrition into the ear of Him who is ever ready to hear and comfort. When she rose she felt both refreshed and strengthened, and after a little while something came into her mind which she had, only by chance, heard the minister say yesterday. She could not tell the exact words, for she had only a vague remembrance of it, but it was something about the mistake of allowing anything, however good and right it might be in itself, to come between us and our present duty.
"That is just the mistake I have fallen into," thought Minnie, "I ought to have been attending to my lessons, which were clearly of the first importance at the time, and having gone wrong at the beginning, I naturally fell into a great many other scrapes. I must remember that about present duty. I am rather afraid I allowed the same thing to occur yesterday in church, or I should have been better able to recollect the words I wanted just now."
On the afternoon of the following day, which happily contained no cause of regret to Minnie, she and Mabel went down to the vacant cottage, and occupied themselves for about two hours busily and happily in rendering it fit for their purpose. They were determined to do all the scrubbing and cleaning themselves, so on that and the two following afternoons all the time they could spare was devoted to the work.
Having got it thoroughly bright and clean, they proceeded to arrange a variety of odd pieces of furniture, dragged by Minnie from their place of concealment in a large attic, where such things were allowed to accumulate, and supplemented by various old benches, which the gardener had been only too glad to get rid of.
These had been transported to their place of consignment by him during the early hours of the morning, when the lazy inhabitants were still wrapped in slumber, the hour being discriminately chosen to avoid the notice of such miners as might be going or returning from the pit.
These arrangements being successfully carried out by Thursday evening, Minnie paid a visit to all the houses which contained children, and asked leave that they might attend a small treat which they intended to provide for their enjoyment on the following Saturday.
Various were the forms of reception which she received. Some regarded the proposal with contempt, enquiring with ironical interest what manner of "treat" they were going to stand, and whether they would not include parents also in their invitations, Others affected anger, and wondered what the "likes of them" had to do coming among poor folk's bairns, and stuffing their heads with their "high and mighty nonsense," whatever style of absurdity such a term might be held to describe.
However, she won over most of them with her bright winning manner, and sweet, unaffected graciousness, and seemed when she left their dirty and untidy dwellings to leave something behind in them that had never been there before.
On Friday evening she and Mabel had a wonderful shopping expedition, to provide the necessary utensils for the preparation of their entertainment. These absorbed the greater part of their treasure, but happily Mabel had some of her pocket-money left which was a great help.
Then they made everything ready for the morrow, the whole forenoon of which was to be devoted to cooking, for they had mutually agreed that all the eatables were to be of their own manufacture—unless, indeed, they were found to be unpalatable to their guests, in which case they should resort to other methods.
Minnie could make oat-cake of a specially delicious kind, so it was to be introduced, Mabel had learnt to make gingerbread of quite an uncommon quality, which was also to make its appearance; and various other delicacies, easily made and of general popularity, were placed upon their bill of fare.
There was much fun and merriment over their cooking operations next day, and when all were completed, both girls came to the conclusion that working for the good and happiness of others, was in itself an excellent cure for irritability, and all forms of bad temper.
"Do you remember the time," enquired Minnie, "when I invited all the girls in the singing-class to tea? How I did fret about the cake-basket being old-fashioned, and moaned about the pattern of the tea cups." And she laughed again at the recollection.
"And how perfectly tragic you became on the subject of the drawing-room curtains," reminded Mabel laughing also.
"I don't think," continued Minnie, "that we were ever so near quarrelling as we were that day about those very curtains. Well, that was all because I wished to make a show before the girls, not to have them enjoy themselves. Now it is quite different. We don't mind at all what like the things about us are, as long as the things we make are good, and the children enjoy themselves."
"That reminds me," said Mabel, "that we have forgotten to provide ourselves with confections—they will doubtless be in great request."
"Of course, what could we be thinking about! We must see after them immediately—or stay! Perhaps you could get them when you are coming back—don't you think that would do?"
"I am sure it would, and would save time which is precious," agreed Mabel, and so it was settled.
Their preparations being completed about two o'clock, they repaired to their respective homes, locking the door upon their possessions with a delightful sense of proprietorship and satisfaction, after a solemn mutual reminder concerning the necessity of being back sharp at four, as the festivity was arranged to take place at five prompt.
Minnie found her father and four brothers in the parlour when she came in, flushed and breathless with her run home.
"Hallo, Min!" Exclaimed Charlie, the eldest of her brothers, a young man of about twenty-two. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself, rushing off directly breakfast's over and leaving your poor unhappy encumbrances of brothers to amuse themselves as best they can during the long hours of a Saturday morning. Here are Ned and I, who only get a peep of home once a week, and even on that occasion we seldom get half a peep of you. Confess now, isn't it too bad?"
"Bad!" put in Ned, before she could speak, "It's villainous. Here am I, shut up in a dingy office all week and every day of the week, with nothing more amusing than that highly respectable old humbug, Blackstone, to lighten the weary moments, and when I come home it isn't a bit better."
"Oh, you two poor, neglected beings!" Cried Minnie, laughing heartlessly at their rueful faces, "What would you like me to do for your amusement? Read goody stories to you, or play at wild beasts?—Which?"
"Why, you're just as heartless as any other girl could possibly be," asserted Ned.
"And haven't I quite as good a right?" enquired Minnie saucily. "Pray, tell me why shouldn't I be?"
"Oh, as to that, you may be just as heartless as you please to other fellows—the more so the better, I should say—but you might have a little consideration for the feeling of your brothers," replied Ned, calling up a look of tragic gloom, delightful to behold.
"I say," interrupted Archie at this juncture, "I'm ferociously hungry. Do let's see about having something to eat. In my opinion, the best way to amuse one's self under the present circumstances, and to lay the foundation of an imperturbable temper, is to satisfy the cravings of the inner man."
"Well spoken!" approved Charlie, patting him on the head, "you're a sound philosopher, my boy, and deserve every honour."
"''Tis not for praise, my voice I raise,'" sang Charlie, "I speak only in the interests of common sense, and common necessity," he continued in a sepulchral voice, "and I rather think Pope had the same interests at heart when he represented justice weighing solid pudding against empty praise."
They all laughed at the extreme literalness of Archie's interpretation, which Charlie declared would probably have afforded the great poet himself unbounded satisfaction. By this time they had made the transition from the parlour to the dining-room, where, on the table just by Minnie's plate lay a letter, directed in a peculiar yet beautiful form of writing. Ned, in passing, was arrested by it, and lifted it the better to observe its beauty.
"Look here!" he exclaimed, "what peculiar writing—I never saw anything like this before. Did you, Charlie?"
Charlie, thus appealed to, came round to see, and started slightly when his eyes fell upon it, but quickly recovering himself, he glanced at it indifferently, and remarked that it was very pretty in a careless tone, which yet had in it an uneasy ring.
"Whose writing is it?" asked Ned, bluntly, as Minnie at last obtained possession of it after it had been criticized and admired by all in turn, with the exception of Charlie, who stood somewhat aloof, humming a tune with a strained assumption of carelessness, which was only noticed by Seymour, the only member of the family who had been silent during the conversation.
"O, it's a girl in our school—Mona Cameron—a deadly enemy of mine," said Minnie with a laugh as she made the last assertion, "Some of the girls call her 'Soda' and me 'Magnesia,' because we always create a 'phiz' when we come into contact."
She opened the letter carelessly and found it to contain, as she had expected it would, some information relative to an examination for which they were both working. She put the note in her pocket when she had read it, but left the envelope on the table.
Nothing more was said on the subject, but when Minnie came into the dining-room about half-an-hour afterward for something she had left there, she found Charlie standing by the window with the envelope in his hand, gazing at it with a look that was more than merely critical. He put it down hastily as she entered, and remembering his former indifference, she enquired laughingly if he was trying to discover the writer's character from her caligraphy. He laughed too, but it was not a mirthful laugh, and soon after, went out; Minnie observed, however, that the envelope no longer lay where he had laid it, and turned back to look for it, thinking it must have fallen, but it was not to be found.
"Charlie must have taken it with him," she thought. "Is it possible that he has fallen in love with Mona's writing without knowing Mona herself. Well, when one thinks of it, Mona's writing is almost Mona's self, and any one who would be likely to fall in love with it would be almost likely to fall in love with her. She is just as beautiful and delicate and sharp," she continued to herself, taking out Mona's note and looking at it attentively, "and just the same something about both that repels one and produces an uncomfortable sensation without any visible cause."
She put back the note in a hurry, remembering how much she had to do, and soon forgot the circumstance among the multitude of other matters which immediately claimed her attention.
She found her time fully occupied till shortly before four o'clock, and had a pretty exciting scramble to be at Hollowmell at the time appointed.
THE FIRST ESSAY.
Mabel was already there when she arrived, and the two set to work in earnest, buttering great piles of tea-cakes and toasted muffins, which were all set forth in tempting array when the children began to appear at the door, looking in with some bashfulness at first, but plucking up courage after sundry peeps at the good things, they came trooping in, in goodly numbers—a motly throng, ranging in point of age, from about seven to fourteen, and in point of condition, from ragged and torn urchins, with dirty faces and uncombed hair, to mill-girls of various ages with shining faces, and ribbons of different degrees of dirtiness in their crimped and frizzled tresses.
They were led by Mabel into another apartment, where accommodation was provided for those who desired to improve their toilet with such additions as soap and water and a certain amount of vigorous brushing could afford. These arrangements completed, they were marshalled into the largest room the house contained, where it was found that, although an apartment of no mean dimensions, it was still hardly large enough to accommodate the throng comfortably. However, by dint of squeezing and crushing, and amid not a little noise and merriment, they were at last all wedged in, "like figs in a box," as Minnie humourously remarked thinking she was saying quite a smart thing, out of which delusion she was at once awakened by one of the smallest and most ragged of the urchins present, who promptly suggested "herring" as a more appropriate simile. This view of the case being evidently a popular one, and, moreover, being more favourably received by the assemblage, Minnie felt it to be her duty to admit the correction, and next fell to wondering how they would manage to get out again. The difficulty did not seem to strike the children as being an insuperable one, they even proposed to tackle and overcome it on the spot—merely as an experiment, in order to show that it could be done—which obliging proposal, however, was not accepted. One row of small boys, nevertheless, fired with a desire to distinguish themselves in some way or other, tilted back the bench on which they sat so far that they completely lost their equilibrium, and indubitably proved the possibility of their getting out, at least, by finding themselves on the floor in various ungraceful positions, and with several pretty hard knocks.
These had of course to be re-packed, which ceremony being accomplished, the business of eating and drinking commenced in earnest.
This occupied a considerable part of the time which was thereafter filled up with games and songs supplied by the young folks themselves, Minnie and Mabel merely superintending.
They departed about nine o'clock, all highly pleased with themselves, each other, and most of all with the young ladies who had provided for them this means of enjoyment. Each of them carried away some remnant of the feast, and better than that, all carried to their homes and scattered there all unconsciously, the seeds of kindness which had that night been scattered so freely in their own hearts; for Minnie could not let them go away, even on that first night of her experiment, without saying to them a word about the kind "Master" who had put it into her head to give them this pleasure, and offering up a short and simple petition that her efforts might be attended with the result she aimed at, namely, the winning of these young souls for the Master's service.
There were no murmurings as they ran home about their fun being turned into a prayer-meeting, as would doubtless have been the case had the Missionary or the Curate tried such a plan, but none of those who were likely to give the matter a second thought suspected a girl not much older than themselves of such a thing, and the younger ones did not trouble themselves with motives, but thought it nice to have the young lady speaking so sweetly and gently to them, with tears in her eyes too, and determined firmly, though they were scarcely conscious of the determination, to please her by every means in their power, and from that moment were her devoted champions.
Mabel and Minnie had had a slight difference of opinion on the subject of allowing the children to provide the games and songs entirely themselves. Mabel thought it likely they would introduce rather rough games, and possibly rude songs, and that it might be better if they themselves suggested the games, and allowed only such songs to be sung as should be approved by them.
"Because," she remarked, "We mean to educate them to something better than what forms their enjoyment at present, and this ought to be a beginning."
The latter part of Mabel's suggestion was received by Minnie with some favour, and at length, indeed, admitted as a rule of the house, but the first clause she resolutely objected to as too decided an invasion, and Mabel was obliged to yield.
"It is quite true that we mean to educate them to something better, but we must not frighten them away at the beginning with stringent regulations. If we do, we shall have no opportunity of educating them at all."
And so it was settled, and as it happened, they had no cause to regret their decision, for many of their little friends confessed long afterwards, that it was the complete freedom from restraint and from any attempt to introduce other than their customary forms of enjoyment, that induced them to return again and again when the plan was almost wholly changed.
Next morning Minnie rose with a light heart, feeling that she was better as well as happier for her last night's exertions, and during the whole of that week things went smoothly with her, for the spell of a sacred charge was upon her, and its influence mellowed and subdued her native sweetness, till it seemed to those about her something unearthly, and the girls regarded her with something like awe, all but Mona Cameron, who, if she noticed any difference, would not acknowledge it, and laughed at the others for their absurdity.
"I'll show you," she said, as they were talking about it one afternoon after Minnie had gone home, "How far her saintliness will carry her. You all say that she never gets provoked except with me. Well, I promise you, I'll provoke her; I know her, and exactly how long any impression lasts with her. I suppose she's been attending some revival meeting and got this wonderful sweetness there, but I'll scatter it, I promise you."
"Well, I don't think that fair any way you look at it," remarked another girl, who was standing by. "It can't be right to try and make anybody sour just for spite, and as for Minnie, you can't make her sour whatever you do, so it is only lost time. She's just sweetness itself always, though she has a quick temper, and lets it get roused very easily now and then. But it can't be right to make any one worse, we are all bad enough for that matter, and should have enough to do to look after ourselves."
"I'm glad you have the candour to confess it, Agnes, but speak for yourself another time, please, it's quite enough responsibility for a young lady of your age," replied Mona with asperity, "Your notions of what is right or wrong are of no consequence to me whatever."
After that none dared to add a word, for they were, one and all, afraid of Mona's sharp tongue; nevertheless, they felt the injustice of her attack, and resented it in their hearts, for Minnie was their favourite, and they all knew that Mona was jealous of Minnie's position as such, no less than of her rivalry in other matters. However, though she did her best by long-successful methods, to upset Minnie's tranquillity next day she found it of no use. Minnie was living in another world just then, and the sound of strife could not come near her.
Mabel noticed these efforts on the part of Mona with growing indignation, but seeing they fell harmless, judged it best to be silent on the subject. There was also another eye which saw and noted these things—that of Miss Elgin, the English governess, who was more among the girls than any of the other teachers, and she kept a vigilant watch, determined to check Mona's tactics whenever they should go too far.
But Minnie was all unconscious of these things, and in this way Saturday arrived, and the two girls again held their simple entertainment.
At the close of the evening, before the children left it was announced from the chair, which was occupied by Mabel, that a prize would be given at the end of a stated time to whichever of the young people then present could show the best kept garden.
This was the first step towards the improving of the place outwardly, which they both considered their plain duty to begin at the very outset, seeing it was with this view they had obtained the use of the house.
Minnie arranged with the gardener to procure the necessary implements for those who had not already got them. These were partially supplied by him out of a hoard of old ones which he was very glad to be rid of, and partially through the co-operation of a friend of his who also obtained permission so to dispose of his superfluous stock, leaving only a few to be provided out of the "Exchequer," as Minnie stated at next meeting with due gravity and importance.
It was necessary to exercise a little diplomacy in the distribution of these, as they were a little afraid there might be some dissatisfaction felt about some getting new spades and rakes, and others not. This difficulty they soon disposed of, however, by the new ones being bought of a smaller size than usual, and only the youngest being supplied with these.
Thus the minds of the two girls were occupied during their leisure time in devising new schemes for the furtherance of the good work they had originated, and were so kept free from the morbid and unhealthy train of thought into which girls of their age with nothing better to interest them are so apt to fall. And thus their work went on, and the month of probation for which Minnie had asked was nearly at an end.
Some fruits of their labours were already beginning to make themselves visible. The children always made it a point to appear on Saturdays, at least, with clean faces and neatly-combed hair, and altogether as tidy generally as circumstances would permit; and were to be found, on other afternoons, instead of lying about the little gardens, enhancing their disorder, hard at work with their spades and other implements, engaged in weeding them and setting them in order; so that the outward aspect of Hollowmell was being improved at any rate, upon which indication of success the two friends congratulated themselves much, and felt more than repaid for their efforts and sacrifices both of time and money.
Mr. Kimberly had not given much thought to Minnie's freak, as he called it, after consenting to it, and had in fact dismissed it from his mind and forgotten all about it, when Minnie informed him one evening that it was now a month since they commenced their work, and as they had obtained his permission to use the house for only that length of time, she begged him to continue it if the house were still unlet.
"O, yes, I remember now," he said. "The house at the end of the hollow. No, it is not let to anybody but you. I had almost forgotten that it was you who occupied it till this moment. I was just remarking to Menzies, the manager down at the pit, the other day that it was by far the most respectable house in the place."
"I suppose that is because we keep the windows clean," laughed Minnie.
"Well, as you seem to be such good tenants—you and your friend—I don't think I can do better than give you another lease of it," remarked Mr. Kimberly, smiling at her delighted face. "By the way, I suppose that is some of your work—the general improvement in the grass plots?"
"O, no, papa, that is what the children do themselves. And what do you think, papa, one of the little fellows actually comes regularly and weeds our beds, because we haven't time to attend to them ourselves. He did it at first without any prompting but that of gratitude, and now some of the others help him, and so they keep our garden tidy as well as their own."
"Yes, yes, Slyboots, but who put the idea of keeping their own tidy, into their heads? It didn't grow there, I am sure of that."
"Well, I'm not quite so sure of that," replied Minnie, shaking her head wisely. "Perhaps it has been there a long while, and only required some one to tap it out."
"Well, well," returned Mr. Kimberly with an amused expression, "as you have been so clever as to tap this one out, who knows how many more you may tap out before long, so go on and prosper, and remember if you run short of funds you may draw on me, because I should like to see my work-people in a better condition, though I haven't time to attend to it myself, and they wont. They don't seem to see the good of spending money on anything but drink, and that is how it is, though they have good houses and fair pay, they are always dirty and miserable and discontented." And a weary look took the place of his former amused one, as he turned again to the heap of papers on his desk.
Minnie saw that he was busy, and though she would have liked to stay and cheer him up, she thought it better to retire, her request being granted.
"He sees I am in earnest, anyhow," she observed to herself as she closed the door softly behind her, "and he sees too that we are doing something. Oh, I will be so glad if I can do anything to make it easier for him. These people try him so—I suppose they have been threatening another strike." And she went to bed, her head full of plans for getting further into the hearts of these rough miners, and drawing them to better things.
AT THE ELEVENTH HOUR.
Meanwhile, Mona Cameron, who had no such philanthropic schemes to occupy her energies, was no less busy with schemes of an altogether different character. She was thoroughly roused by this time, by Minnie's utter impregnability to all established methods of provocation, so that she found herself obliged to invent new ones, which up to this time had been attended with no better success.
She was not naturally malicious, nor did it afford her any sort of pleasure to rouse and anger Minnie as she so often did, neither did she dislike the girl herself; but circumstances had been too much for her in the beginning, and her nature was such that now it seemed to her almost impossible to change her policy and adopt any other line of conduct. She sometimes rebelled against the rivalry which, she considered, stood between them and any possibility of friendship, but was still firm in her belief, that it was a difficulty which could not be bridged, and the subject had not hitherto been considered by Minnie at all; she simply accepted it, as she did most other things, as it stood, and it had not yet occurred to her that it could or should be changed.
One afternoon, Minnie stood at the outer door of the schoolroom waiting on Mabel coming down stairs from the music-room. There were perhaps a dozen girls inside, but she stood just where they could not observe her—at least, with the exception of Mona Cameron—who seemed much too intent upon her work to notice anything. At last, however, she appeared to have got over the part which demanded such urgent attention, and began to talk.
"I say, girls!" She said in an animated tone, which instantly secured the attention of every one present, at the same time moving nearer the window for the purpose, as it seemed, of obtaining better light. "Have you heard the news?"
"What news?" eagerly exclaimed a dozen voices.
"Why, that Minnie Kimberly has turned Methodist."
Minnie started, scarce knowing whether to leave immediately or return and proclaim her presence.
"What?" cried the girls, not quite understanding what Mona meant to convey by that appellation.
"Methodist," repeated Mona, quite enjoying their mystification. "One of those people who profess to go about continually doing good with tracts in their pocket—though it's my private opinion they usually contrive to do the very opposite. That's the sort of thing Minnie's going in for just now, though I really think she is a little ashamed of it, she keeps it so well hidden. You see my penetration was not at fault—I said it was revival meetings or something of that sort."
Minnie turned, and with a firm step and fast beating heart walked back into the schoolroom.
Mona did not seem to notice her but went on.
"Yes, isn't it fun! Quite a romance I'm sure! A sort of juvenile Mrs. Fry or some person of that stamp, converting the heathen down in Hollowmell."
"O, hush!" whispered some one, as Minnie walked straight into their midst, her eyes flashing, but her cheeks pale as marble.
"I do not know what you may mean to insinuate by calling me Methodist as you did just now. It may either be that you intend it as a term of reproach to me, or as a mark of disrespect to the worthy body of people who bear that name—"
"You hear her!" Interrupted Mona with a laugh, "you hear her defending them. Didn't I tell you so?"
"I mean to say," continued Minnie, ignoring the interruption, "that if you mean by calling me Methodist that I profess to go about continually doing good, you are mistaken. Until now, I have not as you hinted, made any profession at all, but I am not ashamed to own that I consider it the noblest thing in life, to be good and to do good, and if by taking the name of Methodist I might the better attain that object I should be happy to do so."
"Ah!" replied Mona with a sneer, as no one else spoke, "it is quite affecting I'm sure, to hear you say so. I should not be at all surprised if that good-looking Methodist Minister from Canningate, had something to do with these novel notions. I heard he had evinced great interest in the heathen of Hollowmell."
Minnie's pale cheeks flushed with indignation, and for a moment she forgot everything but Mona's cruel insinuation.
"It is certainly flattering to know you take such an interest in my proceedings," she began, angrily, then checking herself hastily, she continued in a softer tone: "I don't know why you should say such a thing of me, Mona. What I have done (and the motive I had for keeping it secret, was because it was so little), I have done from a simple wish to make my life of some use, and benefit my father's tenants."
Mona smiled derisively but did not speak.
"I do not fear to say I am a Christian," continued Minnie, turning to the other girls after a short pause. "Even in spite of Mona's sarcasm, and though I do often come short of what one bearing that name should be, I am not the less determined to persevere in my endeavours to make these failures as few and far between as possible; and that any one here will intentionally attempt to frustrate these efforts I cannot believe."
"That is a challenge directed to me, I suppose," observed Mona laughing disagreeably.
"For shame, Mona!" cried one of the girls with warmth. "Your sharpness is no match for Minnie's earnestness, I am sure all here think so!" and she turned to the rest for confirmation.
"Yes, yes!" cried several voices enthusiastically.
"And I, for one," continued the young lady who had spoken, "though I cannot give as good an account of myself, either in words or actions as Minnie can, would have no objection to doing some good too, and if she will accept my help, I shall be glad to render it such as it is."
Minnie thanked her with tears in her eyes, and accepted her offer with simple gratitude, whereupon several of the others also volunteered their aid, and some who lived too far away to render actual assistance begged to know if there was no way in which they could help.
Minnie had by this time explained the plan of working adopted by Mabel and herself, which was received with expressions of unmixed approval by all, with the exception of Mona, who sat silently during their conversation with her head bent over her work.
Mabel appeared in the midst of their discussion, and was greatly surprised to learn the subject of it. She, however, entered heartily into the debate, and a plan was quickly sketched out whereby the eager desire displayed by all present to join in the work was to be satisfied.
Mabel was all this while wondering how their doings at Hollowmell had come to be known among the girls, but no one explained, and even after Minnie and she were on their way home, Minnie spoke no word in explanation of this strange circumstance.
On the following day, of course, she received a full account from one of those who had been present, and her love and respect for her friend increased tenfold on becoming acquainted with the part she had played on the occasion.
"She is a true heroine," thought Mabel when left to herself again, "I don't understand how she can do things like that. I am sure if they were required of me I could not do them. Why is there such a difference between us? She seems to do everything so well, though she is just newly conscious that there are things like this to do, and I have been acquainted with the fact all my life. I am distracted by doubts and fears—I, who have known the reality of God's love and goodness so long, and she, who only a few weeks ago wakened up to that reality, is able to rest in it without question or misgiving. Ah! that is the difference, I only know of its existence, while she feels it—breathes it—lives in it."
Just then her meditations were broken in upon by Minnie herself who ran in, exclaiming breathlessly, "O, I am so glad you're here early, I did so want to have a chat with you before the school commenced!"
"All right," replied Mabel, who had been occupied during her reflections in slowly unlacing her boot. She now set about the task with right good will, and was soon ready; but Minnie was quicker, and was already in the inner room, depositing the books of both in their respective desks when Mabel came in. Minnie turned to address some remark to her on the subject of her dilatoriness, and then for the first time her eye was caught by a paper fastened upon the opposite wall with a pin. It was a large paper, and had notice printed in large capitals on the top.
Beneath was written in Mona Cameron's beautiful writing the following advertisement:—
"MISSION TO THE HEATHEN OF HOLLOWMELL.
"A meeting of Christian friends favourable to the above scheme will be held in Hollowmell Hall, on the evening of Wednesday, the 22nd inst.
"All Christians—(especially Methodists)—are invited to attend."
Minnie's exclamation brought all the girls then in the room to the spot, and great was the indignation of those who had been witnesses of the scene on the preceding evening, but some who as yet knew nothing about it laughed and thought it rather clever.
Minnie's first impulse was to tear down the obnoxious notice and burn it before them all, but fortunately her better sense prevailed, and after a momentary struggle with her angry feelings, and also with her keen personal distress, she looked up and read it aloud, omitting the objectionable parenthesis, and said with a smile to those who were in the secret:
"It is a very good joke, I daresay, so we'll make it a true one," and then, with their permission, she told all about their proposed plan, and how Mona had laughed at it, and ended by inviting them all to attend the meeting advertised from so unexpected a quarter, in the Hollowmell Hall. "Only," she added, "we will hold it on Friday evening instead of Wednesday as Mona suggests—not considering, I apprehend, our onerous duties in the matter of lessons on that evening."
The teachers entered the room at this juncture, and consequently the curiosity of many who had come in during Minnie's speech was left unsatisfied except for various disconnected whispers which were exchanged during the morning with such as were better acquainted with the matter, and these, it may be supposed, were not of the most satisfactory character.
There was quite a sensation created in Minnie's favour when the girls were free again at the mid-day recess, and the whole story came out; Mona had to endure, as best she could, the spectacle of Minnie elevated to the pedestal of heroism, and finding herself all but sent to Coventry. As may be imagined, this state of affairs did not tend to soothe her already ruffled feelings, but rather the opposite, so that, by the time school was dismissed she was in no enviable frame of mind.
She did not sit at her work chatting and laughing with the others who remained behind, long after school hours, but immediately left the schoolroom, and proceeded to don her hat and ulster in haste, lest any one should come out before she could leave. Just as she lifted her glove she noticed something white on a table in one corner, and notwithstanding her haste she was moved by a strong desire to go over and look at it. It turned out to be a heap of manuscript.
"Why, it's Minnie Kimberly's," she said to herself. "Her Latin translation for the examination! just like her to leave it about in this manner!" she ran her eye over several lines.
"How beautiful!" she exclaimed, under her breath, "I could do nothing like it if I tried a hundred years. I am not afraid of her in anything else, but if she sends this, I may give up hope."
Then a strong temptation seized her to hide the manuscript, and so not only be revenged on Minnie for her humiliation, but also secure the certainty of her success in the examination.
"Why should she have everything?" she asked petulantly, "Is it not enough for her that she has sweet temper, and popularity, and—Christianity," and her lip did not curl at the word now that she was alone as it certainly would have done had there been others by. An expression of deep pain came into her beautiful face, and putting down the manuscript where she had found it, she laid her head on the dusty table and something like a sigh escaped her.
"No!" she said, in her excitement speaking aloud. "Minnie shall have the prize. She deserves it as she does all the gifts my selfish heart so wickedly envies her; we may not be friends, but at least we can be fair rivals."
A step was heard in the room, and without looking round to ascertain whose it might be, Mona snatched up her gloves and disappeared.
Minnie, for it was she, stood staring in a dazed sort of way at the place where Mona had been, not a moment before, in such an attitude of dejection as no one had ever believed her capable of yielding to, and thoroughly mystified by her last words which had reached her ears. All at once she noticed the paper on the table, and recognised it at once as her Latin translation.
"So that was it," she soliloquised. "Poor girl, she isn't happy, I am afraid. I wish we could be friends. Mab and I would soon manage to get her into a more cheerful frame of mind. If she would only join the Mission, she was the unintentional means of forming, she would find a great deal more satisfaction in her life. However, she need not be afraid of this," and she touched the pages of her work lovingly. "I don't think I will send it after all."