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- Esther - 2/43 -
"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
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