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- Esther - 4/43 -
sigh, "it has been almost too horrid."
"Hush, Jack," was my sole reply; for there was dear mother coming down the passage toward us. I had only been away from her two months, and yet it struck me that her hair was grayer and her face was thinner than it used to be, and there were lines on her forehead that I never remember to have seen before; but she greeted me in her old affectionate way, putting back my hair from my face to look at me, and calling me her dear child. "But I must not stop a moment, Esther," she said hurriedly, "or father will miss me; take off your hat, and rest and refresh yourself, and then you shall come up and see him."
"But, mother, where is Dot?"
"In there," motioning toward the sick room; "he is always there, we cannot keep him out," and her lip trembled. When Jack and I returned to the brown room, we found the others gathered round the table. Carrie, who was pouring out the tea, pointed to the seat beside her.
It was the first dreary meal I had ever remembered in the brown room; my first evening at home had always been so happy. The shallow blue teacups and tiny plates always seemed prettier than other people's china, and nothing ever tasted so delicious as our home-made brown bread and butter.
But this evening the flavor seemed spoiled. Carrie sat in mother's place looking sad and abstracted, and fingering her little silver cross nervously. Fred was downcast and out of spirits, returning only brief replies to Uncle Geoffrey's questions, and only waking up to snub Jack if she spoke a word. Oh, how I wished Allan would make his appearance and put us all right! It was quite a relief when I heard mother's voice calling me, and she took me into the great cool room where father lay.
Dot was curled up in mother's great arm-chair, with his favorite book of natural history; he slipped a hot little hand in mine as I passed him.
Dot was our name for him because he was so little, but he had been called Frank, after our father; he was eight years old, but he hardly looked bigger than a child of six. His poor back was crooked, and he was lame from hip-disease; sometimes for weeks together the cruel abscesses wasted his strength, at other times he was tolerably free from pain; even at his worst times Dot was a cheery invalid, for he was a bright, patient little fellow. He had a beautiful little face, too, though perhaps the eyes were a trifle too large for the thin features; but Dot was my pet, and I could see no fault in him; nothing angered me more than when people pitied him or lamented over his infirmity. When I first came home the sound of his crutch on the floor was the sweetest music in my ear. But I had no eyes even for Dot after my first look at father. Oh, how changed, how terribly changed he was! The great wave of brown hair over his forehead was gray, his features were pinched and haggard, and when he spoke to me his voice was different, and he seemed hardly able to articulate.
"Poor children--poor children!" he groaned; and as I kissed his cheek he said, "Be a good girl, Esther, and try to be a comfort to your mother."
"When I am a man I shall try and be a comfort too," cried Dot, in his sharp chirpy voice; it quite startled father.
"That's my brave boy," said father, faintly, and I think there were tears in his eyes. "Dora"--my mother's name was Dora--"I am too tired to talk; let the children go now, and come and sit by me while I go to sleep;" and mother gently dismissed us.
I had rather a difficulty with Dot when I got outside, for he suddenly lowered his crutch and sat down on the floor.
"I don't want to go to bed," he announced, decidedly. "I shall sit here all night, in case mother wants me; when it gets dark she may feel lonely."
"But, Dot, mother will be grieved if she comes out and finds you here; she has anxiety enough as it is; and if you make yourself ill, too, you will only add to her trouble. Come, be a good boy, and let me help you to undress." But I might as well have talked to Smudge. Dot had these obstinate fits at times; he was tired, and his nerves were shaken by being so many hours in the sick room, and nothing would have induced him to move. I was so tired at last that I sat down on the floor, too, and rested my head against the door, and Dot sat bolt upright like a watchful little dog, and in this ridiculous position we were discovered by Allan. I had not heard of his arrival; and when he came toward us, springing lightly up two stairs at a time, I could not help uttering a suppressed exclamation of delight.
He stopped at once and looked at us in astonishment. "Dot and Esther! in the name of all that is mysterious; huddled up like two Chinese gods on the matting. Why, I took Esther for a heap of clothes in the twilight." Of course I told him how it happened. Dot was naughty and would not move, and I was keeping him company. Allan hardly heard me out before he had shouldered Dot, crutch and all, and was walking off with him down the passage. "Wait for me a few minutes, Esther," he whispered; and I betook myself to the window-seat and looked over the dusky garden, where the tall white lilies looked like ghostly flowers in the gloom.
It was a long time before Allan rejoined me. "That is a curious little body," he said, half laughing, as he sat down beside me. "I had quite a piece of work with him for carrying him off in that fashion; he said 'I was a savage, a great uncivilized man, to take such a mean advantage of him; If I were big I would fight you,' he said, doubling his fists; he looked such a miserable little atom of a chap as he said it."
"Was he really angry?" I asked, for Dot was so seldom out of temper.
"Angry, I believe you. He was in a towering rage; but he is all right now, so you need not go to him. I stroked him down, and praised him for his good intentions, and then I told him I was a doctor now, and no one contradicted my orders, and that he must be a good boy and let me help him to bed. Poor little fellow; he sobbed all the time he was undressing, he is so fond of father. I am afraid it will go badly with him if things turn out as I fear they will," and Allan's voice was very grave.
We had a long talk after that, until Uncle Geoffrey came upstairs and dislodged us, by carrying Allan off. It was such a comfort to have him all to myself; we had been so much separated of late years.
Allan was five years older than I; he was only a year younger than Fred, but the difference between them was very great. Allan looked the elder of the two; he was not so tall as Fred, but he was strongly built and sturdy; he was dark-complexioned, and his features were almost as irregular as mine; but in a man that did not so much matter, and very few people called Allan plain.
Allan had always been my special brother--most sisters know what I mean by that term. Allan was undemonstrative; he seldom petted or made much of me, but a word from him was worth a hundred from Fred; and there was a quiet unspoken sympathy between us that was sufficiently palpable. If Allan wanted his gloves mended he always came to me, and not to Carrie. I was his chief correspondent, and he made me the confidante of his professional hopes and fears. In return, he good-humoredly interested himself in my studies, directed my reading, and considered himself at liberty to find fault with everything that did not please him. He was a little peremptory sometimes, but I did not mind that half so much as Fred's sarcasms; and he never distressed me as Fred did, by laughing at my large hands, or wondering why I was not so natty in my dress as Carrie.
I went to my room to unpack my things, and by-and-by Carrie joined me.
I half hoped that she meant to help me, but she sat down by the window and said, with a sigh, how tired she was; and certainly her eyes had a weary look.
She watched me for some time in silence, but once or twice she sighed very heavily.
"I wish you could leave those things, Esther," she said, at last, not pettishly--Carrie was never pettish--but a little too plaintively. "I have not had a creature to whom I could talk since you left home in April."
The implied compliment was very nice, but I did not half like leaving my things--I was rather old-maidish in my ways, and never liked half measures; but I remembered reading once about "the lust of finishing," and what a test of unselfishness it was to put by a half-completed task cheerfully at the call of another duty. Perhaps it was my duty to leave my unpacking and listen to Carrie, but there was one little point in her speech that did not please me.
"You could talk to mother," I objected; for mother always listened to one so nicely.
"I tried it once, but mother did not understand," sighed Carrie. I used to wish she did not sigh so much. "We had quite an argument, but I saw it was no use--that I should never bring her to my way of thinking. She was brought up so differently; girls were allowed so little liberty then. My notions seemed to distress her. She said that I was peculiar, and that I carried things too far, and that she wished I were more like other girls; and then she kissed me, and said I was very good, and she did not mean to hurt me; but she thought home had the first claim; and so on. You know mother's way."
"I think mother was right there--you think so yourself, do you not Carrie?" I asked anxiously, for this seemed to me the A B C of common sense.
"Oh, of course," rather hastily. "Charity begins at home, but it ought not to stop there. If I chose to waste my time practicing for Fred's violin, and attending to all his thousand and one fads and fancies, what would become of all my parish work? You should have heard Mr. Arnold's sermon last Sunday, Esther; he spoke of the misery and poverty and ignorance that lay around us outside our homes, and of the loiterers and idlers within those homes." And Carrie's eyes looked sad and serious.
"That is true," I returned, and then I stopped, and Jessie's words
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