The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
by Ada M. Trotter
Before she was thoroughly awake Hester was overwhelmed with the burden of unlearned lessons which must be accomplished to keep up with her class. Gradually this cloud cleared as memory brought to mind the doctor's words. He wanted her help, she must give up her studies for the present. Enough; Hester flew out of bed like a happy bird, her hands trembling with eagerness lest she might be late this morning and not appear willing to devote herself to her good friend.
"Hester looks perfectly well this morning," said Almira in a low tone to her brother as he passed her in the hall. "Are you not taking a great responsibility in keeping her back from her studies, so very backward as you know her to be?"
"Physicians have to shoulder so many responsibilities," he replied, with provoking levity, "that I really am not afraid of the result of this one extra. Yes, I know she looks well; I shall not be afraid to continue, for my diagnosis was absolutely correct for once."
Almira felt he need not have put in that modest saving clause; she really appreciated her brother's great gifts, which had won him a place as consulting physician in a large city, and had brought to her life so many additional interests, artistic and literary. But she felt he was now off on a tangent, run away with by his large imagination, as though Hester could possibly feel things with the intensity of one with a quick live brain and delicate perceptions such as he himself possessed. Only half satisfied, she followed the pair to the surgery, within whose doors no broom or duster was permitted to intrude unless wielded by the doctor himself. She listened with amazement as Hester received orders to sweep, dust and set in order the sacred premises. Also, a variety of glass bottles and receivers, small lamps and other objects used by the doctor in his experiments, were to be cleansed. And the girl did not seem in the least afraid to undertake the affair—simply turned to her aunt with the request for a good large bib apron. When she ran away to procure this protection to her dainty dress, Almira made one last effort to release Hester from this menial task.
"I could spare you Mary (the housemaid); you know she is as careful as anyone could possibly be. It seems a crime to take Hester's precious time."
The doctor shook his head. "Hester or no one," said he. "I must be able to trust my employee to follow my directions without bias of daily routine." Then, seeing that he was teasing his sister beyond endurance, added, "Dear Almira, do trust me. The time will not be irrevocable lost for Hester. I am not without my plans."
So Almira vanished from the scene, unconvinced and very much tried by her brother's versatility. Hester, she perceived, for the present, was taken out of her hands, to be played upon as a valuable instrument, to prove or disprove some new theory as to brain evolution.
Hester, however, was more than content; her grin as she stood to take her orders showed such elation of spirit that the good doctor was momentarily on the broad grin also. His orders given, he disappeared in his consulting room, the office being already well lined with patients, "grateful" or otherwise.
Hester paused, broom in hand, as the school bell clanged, and the girls left the house without her. What a martyrdom she had endured in that schoolroom! She positively executed a war-dance with the broom for a partner, for joy at her deliverance.
"You seem interested in practical questions," said the doctor, entering just as she gave a clumsy leap. "You were asking Bob about waterworks. Here's a book for you which I loved as a lad. You have heard of the Romans?"
"Pa says, 'when you're in Rome, do like the Romans,'" said Hester, after some mental research.
"Just so," laughed her friend. "Well, the Romans were a great people. Sometime you will like to read their history."
Hester looked doubtful, evidently preferring her broom.
"I want you to take a look at these pictures and see how these clever people managed to get a good water supply. Perhaps you will get some new ideas."
"I don't care awfully much for pictures," confessed the child. "Aunt Almiry sent us no end of 'em last Christmas. Some was awful homely women. Mydonnas most of 'em."
The doctor choked down his inclination to laugh, especially the greater as he himself had endured much in the Botticelli craze. But he continued seriously.
"When the clock strikes ten, sit down for a few minutes and look at the pages I have set marks in. By the way, do not let anyone enter the room during my absence."
Hester nodded. Left alone, she proceeded with keen enjoyment of her task. Well did she know how to sweep so as not to raise much dust, carefully had her mother trained her as to taking up what was left with a damp cloth, after the broom had done its best. The surgery floor was in beautiful condition by the time the clock ticked away an hour, and Hester was not unwilling to obey the order to sit down and look at the pictures.
The first picture representing arches spanning the Campagna did not interest her, but the second and third plate, giving sections of the aqueducts, awakened her attention. Slowly dawned understanding of the first picture, and she turned back to it, and became absorbed in the letterpress which preceded it. Could it be possible that from this page she could find the secret which would make life less laborious to "ma"?
The doctor had dismissed his patients, and was ready to set forth to pay his round of visits, when he next peeped in on Hester.
"They brought it forty miles in acqueducks," she cried, "sweet good water in plenty."
No little triumph sparkled in the doctor's amused eyes, as on questioning Hester he found she perfectly comprehended all she had read. He dismissed her from her work for the day, giving her a commission to do for him in the town. Later when he saw his sister, he said, "My experiment exceeded my hope. Hester has a mind. All she needs is a director skilful enough to introduce her to its mental processes. This I shall find in good time."
"Meantime she is to wash bottles, etc."
"Certainly, I need them badly, and she knows how to work. She reminds me of the way our mother accomplished such tasks. I wish my girls knew how to use their hands to such good purpose."
"Fancy Mab with a pail of water and a broom!"
"She would be the better, not the worse, for knowing how to use them skillfully. But we do not agree on this point. In some ways you are spoilt by indulgence in mental and artistic labours; you depreciate the homely life to which we were born, and the homely work which yet enhances a woman's charm, adding to the sense of power with which she stands ready for life's battles. You think I have a hobby when I talk like this; but in truth I should have fewer patients on my list, if less mental and more homely work were now encouraged amongst growing girls—ay, even by middle-aged women."
Hester's next letter to Dave asked—
"Don't the reader tell about the Romans? They done wonders with their waterworks—acqueducks, they called them. We might fix it somehow for summer—winters, guess it would freeze. You must see the pictures. They're stone, but we could get lots of old logs 'nough to lay from the well to the dairy."
Thus did the young leader of the "Children of Israel" strive to pass on every new idea to her sub—Dave.
About this time Bob was giving his father and aunt great anxiety. His college reports were most disheartening, his leisure being spent with idlers like himself. The doctor was too busy to keep the boy in hand, and Bob resented his aunt's authority. It was reserved for the stranger within their gates, plain, dull, ignorant though the young man considered her to be, to apply the spur to his flagging energies, striking unconsciously enough the only vulnerable point in his devil-may-care hardened mood.
It happened that a few days after Hester had been inaugurated as head bottle washer "to His Majesty" (Bob's effort at wit), the young man was at home, "headachy" he called his complaint (too many cigars the previous evening would have been the diagnosis of his father, had he seen his boy that morning). Feeling better as the hours fled, Bob lounged across the vestibule to the surgery door.
"What are you about now?" said he, preparing to enter, "or in particular slang, 'Where are you at?'"
"Washing these tiny bottles. No, you can't come in, I promised no one should come in while he's away."
"Who's he?" laughed Bob. "Don't you know, you must never speak of people as 'he' and 'she'"
"Well," said Hester, "but you can't come in."
"Father did not mean me," said Bob carelessly, stepping across the threshold.
"I don't know but he did," was the shrewd reply. "I guess no one means everyone, don't it?"
"But," said Bob, good-naturedly, "I want to talk to you."
Hester looked perplexed, but she meant to obey her orders ay any cost. Presently she made a dive at a chair, placing it for Bob outside the open door.
"Now you can talk as much as you're a mind to," she said. "When he's home perhaps he'll let you come in."
Bob accepted the chair, and permission to talk, with some amusement. He was accustomed to anything but toleration from young ladies.
At this moment Aunt Almira passed through the vestibule, and shook her head at the idle young man.
"You really might study a little, Bob. I wish you had an ounce of ambition in your make-up."
Bob smiled superior as she passed on.
"My aunt is goodness itself," he remarked, as he twisted a cigarette, "but she does plague a fellow so to study. Now, I know what I am doing: no one better. I have definite ideas on the liberty of every individual soul to work or not work—oh! what did you say?"
"So has pa," was Hester's remark.
Bob paused. He'd heard of Amos. Had this child the impudence to rank him with Amos? He glared at her, but Hester was unconcernedly at her work and apparently had no idea of the incongruity of the suggested idea. After a pause, during which he moulded his cigarette to his liking, lighted and puffed away at it, he continued in a didactic tone.
"The world needs all kinds of people. There are fellows at college who grind from morning to night. All right! If they want to, let them! I'm willing to grant them perfect freedom. But that is no reason why I should be forced into the same groove. But, though I may not be a grind, I avoid the other extreme. My aunt does not give me credit for this. But really I prefer the golden mean—"
"Yes, I know," said Hester, with quick comprehension. "You want to be mejum! That's pa all over. Pa, he says you take the liberty of a man away, and he's no better than a slave. It's a matter of will. If a man wants to be mejum, why, he's a right to be mejum. Man's a free critter to work his brains or let 'em alone, pa says."
Hester, flourishing her towel as she faced Bob with sympathetic grin, was a picture impressed on the young man's brain for many a long day. He flushed a dark red. Amos! that clod Amos! quoted to him as one with him in his level of thought, spring of action, non action! That his views of man's liberty to be, to do, to make or unmake himself, promulgated with such force as President of the Pioneer Club, had their echo in the man who had lived the theory, Amos, the dullard of the Hill Farm! But there was a more crushing blow to his pride yet to come, as Hester chattered on.
"Now, ma's got ambition. She says it's real common to be 'mejum.' She'd like to see more come her way as wasn't. It would be a treat, ma says, to see folks with minds cock full of ideas, and achin' to work 'em out. Ma says, her ideas of a patriot ain't them mejum go-as-you-please folks. Our Dave he says no mejum for him: give him a chanct of anything better to get on to."
Bob's cigarette fell from his fingers. Common! Classed as common! He stared at the speaker as she delicately handled a frail tube, continuing the subject with fresh zest.
"Now pa's just as happy; he's real clever is pa. 'What's the use of werriting,' pa says, 'when things go wrong? What ain't done to-day, can be done to-morrow.' And he can't understand why ma has days for doin' things. 'He don't—' he says, 'they come along and he does 'em. Monday one week, Wednesday another. What's the odds, so long's they get done?' I suppose," continued Hester, with a geniality more cutting than the keenest satire could have been to the self-satisfied youth, "it's the same to you if you pass this year or next, or any time."
Inarticulate growl from Bob.
"Uncle spoke of you goin' in for engineering," continued the dense Hester, bent on showing how well she understood the theme, and wishing to be agreeably sympathetic. "Guess there's other things easier he'd let you try for, if you say so."
Bob writhed. She could not have given him a deeper cut. Professors and parents had hitherto harped on his superior mental abilities, and the high place they might lead him to did he buckle down to work. He had not felt the need of ambition to stir his pulses, being, as he thought, sufficiently distinguished by his remarkable talents. Hester presented him with a fresh point of view, a new public. Bob realized that there were people who would think he took a low place because he had not power to do better. He would not at all mind the foot of his class, if he could meet as usual the reproach of friends and teachers, "Bob, we expected more of you."
His vanity was well fed by the perpetual bemoaning of those interested in him, that he was not ambitious of a better standing. Bob realized, as Hester spoke, that there were people who would think he did not pass because he could not. It stung him sharply, the more since he found it impossible to explain his platform to Hester, who was so purely literal, that he would have to say it outright and baldly, "Hester, I am really a very able fellow, I could surpass my fellows did I choose, but I have no ambition to be a grind."
Nor would Bob have enjoyed his position any better had he known that his father had heard the last part of the conversation from the inner room, with full appreciation of Hester's genial part in it, being convulsed with amusement at the rout of his brilliant son.
"Yes," continued Hester, reflectively, "there's lots like you as 'ud rather be 'mejum.'" (Bob classed himself as a star.) "Why don't you own up to your pa? Pity for him to be payin' out good money for nothin'! He might put it into something as you're fit for, eh!"
Another inarticulate sound from the debonair one.
"I daresay engineering is awful hard to learn," sympathetically from Hester; "but whist I was a boy—I'd learn it somehow, anyway all there is to road-making and acqueducks. Our roads up to the farm can't be beat for badness."
Bob, now crimson in hue, beat a hasty retreat, snatched his hat from the hallstand, and darted out of the house.
"My—you're in a hurry, aint you?" called Hester, wonderingly.
Bob left the house in a excessively irritable frame of mind. To begin with, his head really ached, and the cause of the throbbing, the lively discussion which he had led at the Pioneer Club the previous night, added to incessant smoking, did not make his feeling of mortification anything the lighter. Aristocratic Bob, however, as he walked down High Street with his usual air of elegant leisure, conscious that his clothes, boots, gloves, cane were all exquisitely appointed, regained by degrees his nonchalant mood, his good opinion of himself, and his serenely equable manner. The windows gave back the reflection of a very handsome youth, quite distinguished from the common herd in appearance. Bob stood for a moment to fondle his budding mustache before one of these flattering mirrors, but as he turned away with indulgent pride in his outward and visible man, he started with a sense of smart, for Hester's words came back in their bald commonplaceness: "I know, you want to be mejum. Pa's mejum."
For the first time in his life he had been confronted by a judge who unerringly unveiled to his clear-sighted view his inner man—calmly showed him the level he desired to attain, and agreed with him, that feeling this to be his ultimatum, he had a perfect right to descend to it if he chose so to do. One flattering word from Hester as to his power to be anything higher—one suggestion that he had better buckle to and make use of his brilliant talents—and his vanity would have been appeased: he would have encouraged her to continue in that vein, for he liked to hear of Dame Nature's liberality to him. But Hester had not grasped the situation as he and his had always seen it, that he must perforce make his mark in the world. On the contrary, she had entered into what she believed to be his honest standpoint, and perceiving that the profession chosen for him was impossible of attainment, without more application than the youth was willing to give, made the practical suggestion that he should ask for something easier to do. Hester's words showed, unmistakably, that she regarded him as on a level with—Amos, fitted by nature for dead level, rather than the career suggested to him by his distinguished father. Suddenly Bob's vain soul was cut to the quick by a pertinent question which intruded itself most mysteriously into his inner consciousness. Had his professors also begun to rank him as only of average ability? He recalled to mind that none of them had striven during this session to spur him to better endeavour, receiving his work without remark, protest or comment. He had been several times a little nettled at the indifference of Dr. Herrmann, who, last year, had lent him books and striven to interest him in German literature, and to make him understand its fine points. Now he seldom took any notice of him, correcting his exercises without comment; merely giving them back heavily underscored.
Still buried in thought of a new and most absorbing nature, he traversed the road to the college, passing, as he did so, many young ladies of his acquaintance, whom he greeted with mechanical grace. One of these stopped to speak to him.
"Oh, how lucky you are to be free!" she said. "There's my poor brother digging so hard at his work this year that he scarcely exists for his family."
"Oh, Jack's a hard worker, I know," said Bob, courteously.
"Yes; and he's not quick like you. I suppose if you stay away one day you can make it up without any trouble, while Jack would have to work for hours to catch up. But I never saw such a fellow as he is; his ambition is boundless: he spares no trouble to gain his place in class. Father's just tickled to death to see the dogged way he sets about his work."
Now Jack Delaney was a most uninteresting subject to Bob at the best of times, and coming on top of what he had endured from Hester, was taken as a particular grievance by the unhappy youth. He felt a perfect antipathy for Jack and Jack's proud little sister at the moment, hastily excused himself and passed on his way.
Unendurable thought: was he going to allow dull Jack Delaney to carry away the honours of the class?
Well, here was the college at last. He should be in time for his German, and could make excuse for any shortcomings because of his headache. As it happened Jack was seated in front of him, and Bob could scarcely attend to the lecture for watching the intent way Jack listened and took notes, writing them in shorthand of his own invention. The kind old professor accepted Bob's brief apology, and condoled with him on his evident suffering.
"Bob," he said, later. "A young man like you should not have aches and pains. Hein! No matter how hard our parents work for us, one makes his own fate for good or ill: this is a bad beginning."
"Everyone is subject more or less to headache," said Bob.
"Does your father grant that as a truth?" asked the professor; "because, if so, I have no more to say. If there exists a more skillful physician I should like to see him, that is all."
"I did not know you were so much interested in medicine," said Bob, who was intensely proud of his father's reputation.
After a pause the good professor spoke. "Perhaps not. But what I did see with mine own eyes! It was the poor little lame son of my friend. Ach! and now he is straight like other children, and but for his one boot an inch thicker that the other there is nothing to attract notice to him. Ach! and to see the doctor cutting and breaking and setting the bones, making the crooked straight. Gott in Himmel! The mother would have let him cut off her head if he had wanted it; but she has faith in him!"
Usually the professor would have pointed this story with a little sermonette as to what Bob owed to such a father, to be worthy of him. But to-day, when Bob's vanity would have welcomed the suggestion that he might emulate his distinguished parent, no such sop to his vanity was forthcoming. The professor turned from him almost coldly, and interested himself in another student.
Bob went into the college library. He thought he would look over the curriculum of past years and see what was expected of fellows who had to go up for their B.A. degree. His face grew long as he read. No wonder the professors had ceased to feel any especial interest in him as a student. He was, to all practical purposes, out of the swim.
"Well there is no use worrying," he began to himself; "If I can't, I can't—that's all there is to it."
Suddenly came back in vivid memory Hester's shrill, unmodulated voice, as she delivered herself on the subject of Amos:—
"Pa, he don't worry; he's real clever is pa."
Oh, that abominable level of mediumness! What possessed him to talk to a chit of a girl of Hester's age, an ignorant child who had so few words at command to express her meaning that one grew positively weary of her vernacular? What did he care for her sayings or doings? It was a mere matter of personal business, but here again came the voice shrilly insistent.
"Pa says, 'if a man's got a mind to be mejum, there's no one's got the right to prevent him.'"
"She's a little nuisance, that girl," he said, between his teeth. "Can't think what father has taken such a fancy to her for, she's as plain as she is densely stupid."
It was some relief to his mood to reflect that Hester was densely stupid, but, after all, it gave him no rest from the train of thought set afloat by the unflattering advice of the little country maid. He leaned over the book, his aching temples supported on his hands, and gave himself up to some hard thinking to the exclusion of Hester. He did not know it, but his fate in life was, during that hour, being weighed to a nicety in the balance.
He saw that his reputation as a brilliant young man, who, from sheer idleness, allowed others less fortunate to pass him, was on the wane. He had a certain position in the regard of the townsfolk which he did not undervalue, as a young man of means—the charming son of a distinguished father. He had done nothing in himself so far to give him rank above his contemporaries. Most difficult would it now be to take up a more serious role. He saw plainly what it would mean, he would have to dig as though he had no more brilliant powers than the hard-working Jack. His club, the idle lounging in High Street, must be given up. If he transgressed the rules of the house and burnt midnight oil, it must be for the sake of his studies rather than the consummation of a "good time." How he detested the mental picture thus conjured into existence. But the whip, the spur, were lashing and pricking him cruelly. Would the hour ever come when he should be obliged to ask his father to give him something less "hard" to work for?
When Bob arose to go home, the balance had been adjusted and Bob had paid his farewell to the indifferent attitude he had affected as he grew out of boyhood.
Hester, meanwhile, perfectly unconscious that she had said anything of great import to the family which had undertaken through her to advance the interests of the "Children of Israel," was calmly finishing her work, sorry that the surgery was now almost cleaned to perfection. Should she have to go back to school?
She was debating this question in her mind, when the door of the inner room opened and the doctor beckoned her. The sound of a child's wail broke the silence.
"You know what to do with children, I think," he said. "I've got a child here badly burnt, and the mother has fainted and can't hold him."
Hester was in the room in a moment.
"Oh, you poor baby," she said, darting upon the little fellow now on the floor beside his mother, who with wan face and pitiful eyes looked imploringly from the doctor to Hester.
"I'll hold him," said she, nodding to the woman. "I guess most of our children have been worse hurt than this tumblin' round, and the boys always would play with fire." With that she picked up the child and amused him cleverly while the doctor attended to the wound.
"They upset the kettle over him," said the doctor when the woman had gone away. "It is a common enough incident amongst the poor."
"My, but he was badly scorched," said Hester. The doctor looked at her keenly.
"If I am called away to-morrow before the woman brings the child, can you dress the wound as I did to-day?"
"I guess so," said Hester. "Ma, she uses flour and oil; but I guess what you put on will do as well, the flour takes the heat out and feels real cooling."
A few days later as the family were sitting over their dessert, the doctor, who had been unusually silent, hazarded an observation.
"I have one of you in my eye, to train for a profession," said he.
"One of us, father?" said Mab, pouting.
"Yes, one of you. I want a skilful surgical nurse, and mean to have one to my mind"; with this he nodded in Hester's direction.
Brought thus before the public in such a new light, Hester lost her bearings.
"Land's sake," she said, grinning all over her face. "You don't mean me?"
Bob shouted in a kind of ecstasy, Almira's face was so comic in its despair.
"She has such clever fingers," said the doctor, whose face had broadened a little at this lapse from grace. "To-day during my absence she bandaged a little burnt baby as well as I could do it myself, and she has splendid nerve. She would not faint in an emergency like some people I know"; with a meaning look at Mildred.
"But I can't help fainting, father."
"Can't you? Did you ever try? Well, we will thrash this subject out some other time, when you distinguish yourself by some such folly. All I want to say now, is that Hester will never lack a career or a good income if she chooses to take up this line of woman's work."
Hester stared with wide-eyed surprise at this encomium, but her honest soul would not permit her to accept praise which she considered undeserved.
"Why," she blundered, "anyone could tie up a sore arm, I guess. It's as easy as A B C."
"Is it?" he smiled with a sly look at his daughter. "Did I not say it was your vocation? It is easy to you because you have a talent in that direction."
And now Hester was overpowered with her pleasure in the words. She, the dullard, always so conscious of her limitations beside these elegant people, to be selected as one worthy of praise, as possessing a gift, a talent. She grinned from ear to ear, in a succession of masks to hide her deep feeling, and for once Almira had sympathy with her fledgling, and permitted the lapse to pass unreproved.
Bob, meanwhile, looked upon Hester with not a little respect; perhaps he felt there was something better than mere polish and beauty as a foundation for character.
And, from that moment, Hester lost much of her stupid awkwardness; she was uplifted by the judicious praise to a level where her slow faculties would come at her call, and many of her nervous blunders died a natural death, having been merely temporarily created by the exigencies of her novel position; the leader of the "Children of Israel" had proved her mettle at last.
The doctor at last had his inspiration and decided upon an instructress for Hester, in the daughter of a patient of his in reduced circumstances, a woman of very original mind. She not only enjoyed teaching, but it was a passion with her, and it was her eager promulgation of her views on the subject when conversing with friends which had led the doctor to think she was the lever which, applied to Hester's brains, might give them the awakening they required, before she could be thrown on the mercy of ordinary teachers. So Miss Johnstone was engaged to experiment on Hester.
Almira, patiently giving way to her brother's whim in this, as in so many other matters, set aside a small sitting room for the theatre of this new play, in which Miss Johnstone was to be leading lady. Then the doctor, having introduced the two so much in need of one another on the scene, left them to the first act, without stage accessories or prompters.
Miss Johnstone was a small woman, fat and serene; her one peculiarity, eyes so curiously set that it was difficult to tell on whom they were focused. Was she looking at her, Hester, or was she looking out of the window? wondered the child during that first hour with her teacher. Hester, it must be confessed feeling more nervous than usual, sat on the edge of her chair, hanging her head, and pushing her foot back and forth, as she had been accustomed to do in the sand at the Hill Farm, only instead of the possibility of seizing and holding pebbles and stones, the prehensile toes enclosed in dainty stockings and slipper merely did the shuffle without the satisfaction of the skilful porterage.
Miss Johnstone was apparently unconscious of the embarrassment of her new charge, for, taking a minute red pocket-book from her satchel, she began to enter some notes, holding the book corner-wise to her funny eyes, making Hester increasingly nervous, for surely one of the eyes was on her shuffling foot as the last entry was made.
"Bucolic type. Cranium small and undeveloped. No ancestors behind her of intellectual capacity. Thinking machine not set in train. Power of noticing, nil."
The wisest of investigators may err. Power of noticing, "nil!" Hester had summed up everything about the stranger with a rapid process of acute perception perhaps only found amongst country folk who see strangers so rarely that they take in every peculiarity at a glance. Hester could have told not only the size of foot and hand of her instructess, but had finished her summary with the guess "she was a crank of some kind."
"I suppose you can read?" came as a sudden question.
"Guess so," said Hester, bluntly. "Even the twins know A from B."
"Erudite twins!" in an amused tone. "Well, I've brought some very charming stories in my bag, and we can begin by reading some of them together this morning. Let me see, which would you like?"
Hester grinned. She really did not want any of them, but she wished to look pleasant.
"The Swiss Family Robinson," read Miss Johnstone. "Now that is about a very interesting family, which, being wrecked on a desert island, found everything they wanted growing there, and lived up in a tree."
"Guess it's all made up," said Hester, in a tone of unmitigated disgust. "I don't think there's much to stories all made up like that: downright childish to live up in a tree, when it's so inconvenient carting everything up and down—"
"Well, well," interposed Miss Johnstone, hurriedly, "here's a book of travels—what do you say to that?"
Hester, as usual, spoke her mind, without knowing that, sometimes, it is better to qualify or modify the expression of one's opinions.
"Travels are kind of tejous," she declared. "Mab's been puttin' me through some of 'em. They kill a bear one day, and another next week, and go to bed in snow houses, and 'most starve and freeze to death; and I haven't come to where I can find out what they done as made it all worth while."
There ensued a pause. Miss Johnstone began to ask herself if the Doctor had not underrated the shrewdness of his charge. On her beam ends, she took refuge in history.
"Then, as you do not care for travel, let us begin with a little history. Most people consider the subject interesting."
As Hester made no objection, the history was opened, and the reader proceeded without interruption for a couple of pages.
"Am I to believ it?" asked Hester, at the first pause.
"Certainly, in a measure. Of course every history has the bias of the mind that wrote it, but of course you are too young to discriminate. I cannot say that every statement is absolutely true," replied Miss Johnstone.
"How am I to know what to believe and what not?" asked Hester, "and have I got to remember it?"
She gazed at the teacher with corrugated brows, some of the old muddled condition of brain coming back with the puzzled feeling. "All kind of mixed up," she would have expressed it herself. Miss Johnstone closed the book. She felt she was advancing in the wrong direction, and it behoved her to find out something more of her charge before she attempted to instruct her mind with history or any other subject.
So, as she settled herself in her seat, and with both eyes for once focused in the same direction (a mirror on the opposite side of the room), she said encouragingly, "You're the eldest of the family, I understand; I wish you would tell me something of your life out on the farm, and what the other children are like, not forgetting the twins that know A from B (erudite twins)."
Thus encouraged, Hester began, mixing up her he's and she's in the usual manner of country folk, until none but a master mind could have followed her meanderings. As to matter, Miss Johnstone was all abroad; but as to experience, she was receiving the lesson she required and absorbing it. By-and-by the clock struck the hour, and Miss Johnstone rose to go, feeling it had not been a wasted one. As she walked slowly, thoughtfully away from the house, the doctor driving past, drew up at the sidewalk.
"Well," he said.
"One of us got instruction this morning," she said merrily. "Not Hester! I wasted the early part of the interview by following foregone conclusions. That's the worst of employing a woman with a theory. Now, for the next week or so, Hester shall be leading lady. She shall teach me what she knows. Then I shall be in a position to teach her. Until this is consummated I am no more than a barber's block, I can't reach her intellect."
The doctor smiled.
"You are a clever woman," he said, "the very one I want."
"No, do not praise me, I'm so ashamed of my blunders. I took the child's mind as absolutely empty—to let, whereas the premises, none too large, are occupied at present by the many and varied peculiarities, virtues and charms of the children at the Hill Farm."
"Do you suppose to oust the present tenants?" asked the doctor with interest.
"Not I, I mean to build fresh barns—storehouses. I mean to try the theory of expansion."
"Some would laugh at the idea as impossible," said the doctor, approvingly.
"You will not, I see, and I assure you my building materials are all ready, as soon as I know my ground."
"I knew you would find the clue on the child's understanding," he said, thoughtfully.
"My nucleus, my tower of strength, on which I shall base all my advances," continued Miss Johnstone, "will be the twins."
This was too much for the doctor; he indulged in a spontaneous laugh.
"The acts of the twins, as narrated by Hester, give one all kinds of opportunities for educational suggestions—especially their tendency to revolution," continued Miss Johnstone.
Then she too began to laugh, and turned away home, well pleased with the liberty which she had to work out the problem as she best pleased. How did she manage it? Certainly Hester never dreamed that she was carefully studied by her teacher, for whose visits she began to prepare with keen pleasure. Day by day, fresh interests opened for her.
"Dave," she wrote one day, "I'm learning German. I told her what you said, that you'd like to study German, and she said, 'well, it's pretty hard work, but if I cared to begin and learn a little, I could start you, Dave, when you come, and she says you could go on by yourself if you'd a mind.' And it is hard, Dave, but I don't mind that, because I know I am getting it all right, and she says if it's only a few words every day I shall soon begin to read a bit. And I can help you lots. And I like it, Dave. I'm learning the writing, too—I can make most of the letters. She says I done better than she ever thought I could do in the time. Writing's easy to me, I can't think why Mab makes such a fuss about writing out her lessons. I can say two of three things now in German, she says I've got the sounds all right. I said one of them to the doctor yesterday in the hall. He was looking for his whip, and I told him it was on the chair. He was just as tickled as could be, Dave. Then he came in the schoolroom and told Miss Johnstone she was building pretty big premises. I didn't know she was in business, and it seems kind of funny for a woman to take up building. She's real good, though, and she don't see why I can't learn anything I'm a mind to. Guess I could too, though I'm awful slow, Dave."
The doctor was not slow to express his pleasure to Miss Johnstone for her remarkable success in dealing with the problem he had put in her hands.
"Did I not tell you I had found the key? Twins as a basis work like a charm. Slow, dull, I grant you Hester may be, but show her a plain path by means of which she can eventually benefit her people, and she is dauntless, will overcome every obstacle in her way. She will give three hours, poor child, to learn what your lazy clever little Mab could accomplish in half-an-hour."
"I told you Hester had her mother's character, even if she has got her father's looks," said Almira to her brother, as she joined the speakers. "Roxena is full of ambition."
The doctor was often surprised to find that his sister seemed to find it impossible to become attached to Hester. She showed herself tireless in caring for her material requirements, impartial in her kindness, and yet there never was a note of tenderness in her tone as she spoke to the child, nor a warm glance in her eyes when she met Hester's round light orbs fixed upon her. The truth was that Hester belonged to a commonplace type in Almira's eyes, reminding her of hours of boredom in her youth, before the doctor had founded the family fortunes and before her own happy marriage. Her strong cultured mind could not endure the paucity of ideas, the disposition to value small items of gossip, so common to the country people. She strove continually to combat Hester's too-intimate interest in her neighbours' affairs, teaching her that people must come and go without remark on her part, that the acquisition of new perambulators, horses or servants concerned those alone to whom they belonged. The girl sought to obey and not be interested in the coming and going of her neighbours, but somehow she always did know the affairs of the next-door folk as well as those of the neighbours over the way. Yet, with all her disabilities, her commonplaceness, Hester was more than holding her own in her new home. She was like one of the rocks on the Hill Farm, as impossible to move right or left when any moral question was approached. Now an absolutely sincere person becomes a power in any home circle fortunate enough to possess such a member. Hester had never known anyone afraid to say his mind; at the Hill Farm anyone possessing a thought shared it freely. Amos, who lacked almost every vital quality that a father should possess, at least was honest—he made no pretences. "The Children of Israel" never had anything to fear. Did they break such slender rules as their parent superimposed on their youthful ardour, they were encouraged to tell their story when the deed was done. Amos remarked then, "he guessed they'd better not be too previous another time, or he didn't know but he'd have to discipline them some." Notwithstanding the eccentricities of the tribe, as yet this threat had never come to fulfillment, and none the less had the system one merit—there were no lies to the fore at the Hill Farm.
Almira's rules were of the strictest for the governing of the young people. Every bedroom had its code framed ready for the occupant to study. Lazy Mab ignored them all boldly, and the spoilt little beauty seldom received rebuke. With Mildred things were different; she had a timid nature; blame she could not endure, and to screen herself would act or tell an untruth. On her character, Hester's unswerving uprightness had a bracing effect. Certainly if the gentle girl's tactful kindliness was given generously to the relief of the awkward stranger, the reflux action, the very atmosphere clinging about this child of nature, had a powerful influence on the city-bred, less robust child of the house.
Hester cannot be said to have had much influence on Mab in any way. Mab was lazily selfish, and went her own way, caring little if it was to the taste of others or the reverse. She was very clever, and could learn so easily that her lessons took up little of her time. She read omnivorously, but was, after all, critical in her selections: she really preferred good literature. In brief, she had a remarkably able mind, but an inert nature. Her aunt was too indulgent to her faults, for the child really appealed to her two weak spots—her love of beauty and of culture. It gratified her to peep over Mab's shoulder and find her absorbed in a book on travel, or a biography or other instructive work. She was delighted also to make the child her companion when paying visits of ceremony. Mab, dressed in some simple artistic fashion, looked worthy of her distinguished father: her manners never cost Almira a thought, except perchance of passing approval. Her brother had once suggested she should take Hester for a round of visits, to enlighten her mind as to the ways of the new world into which she had been born. This was too much! Take Hester! Be forced to watch the facial contortions of the countrymaid as she put on company manners; to apprehend the mischief those uneducated limbs might do under stress of nerve paralysis? Almira drew the line at Hester. As for Mildred, though often entreated, she was never to be drawn into the meshes. Almira smilingly excused her, believing that she refused because she had such a retiring spirit; but she never dreamed, and it would have given her a heart-break to know, that in reality Mildred was never at ease in her presence—was always more or less afraid of the stern woman. More than this, had Almira only had the sixth sense of divination, so largely possessed by her brother, she would have found out that the one fault which might one day prove disastrous to Mildred was a timidity, even cowardice of spirit. She feared blame, and from her baby days, after the loss of her gentle mother, had taken refuge in the vice of the timid falsehood. Almira herself, fearlessly truthful, so little comprehended such a weakness that had she become aware of it, she would probably have made things much worse by her severe denunciations of the meanness of subterfuge. Mab knew that Mildred fibbed, and turned up her nose in pretty scorn of the act; but Almira never suspected her niece of want of honesty. When Hester first became aware of Mildred's weakness, she was overpowered, and with difficulty choked down an expression of opinion. It came about accidentally.
Almira had laid down one rule, a very wise one, that while the girls were busy in school they should not distract their minds by reading story books. Mab had no temptation to break the rule, for though she often was found book in hand because she was too lazy to find other employment, she really had a fine taste in literature, child as she was. Now Mildred cared only for story books, and so long as she had a romance in hand, did not care at all for its literary quality. Some of her girl friends appeared to have an unlimited supply of trash, with which they were always ready to provide her. These books were of a nature which Mildred would never have dared to read openly at home, even had Almira not laid down the rule about light literature. She would not have had her aunt know that she reveled in love scenes, in heroines who would throw aside all their home ties for lovers who, in general, had little to offer in addition to their love-making for the sacrifice of home and friends which the silly maid was willing to make for the hero.
It happened one day that Hester, having finished her hour with Miss Johnstone, went to meet her cousins as they returned from school. Mab handed Hester her bag to carry with an exhausted gesture, which brought a laugh to her companions, and Hester, as she shouldered it, told Mildred she guessed she could carry hers too, if she was at the point of fainting under the weight. Mildred refused, of course; but presently seeing her aunt in the distance looked very much flustered, and hastily taking a gaily covered book from her bag passed it in silence to Hester, so that Mab did not see, and signed to her to put it in the bag she carried.
"It won't go in," said honest Hester, looking admiringly after Mab, who ran lightly ahead to meet her aunt. "Never mind, I'll carry it in my hand."
But Mildred, with tokens of most evident nervousness, stopped, took a book out of Mab's bag, which she put in Hester's hand, slipping the other into its place. It was a needless precaution, for when had her aunt ever challenged her nieces, suspected them of deceiving her? Hester's mind was a slow one, but it was sure. She saw that Mildred had done something which had made her afraid to expose her conduct to the light of those rather severe, even if kind eyes. She was not enough versed in literature to know that such poison existed as that which lay snugly cloaked amid Mab's lesson books. Why should Mildred be afraid? What had she done? She looked the inguiry several times as they walked silently home together, but Mildred pretended not to understand: her own simple face grew much troubled as they walked on side by side.
"I'll wait and give Mab her bag," said Mildred when they arrived at the garden gate.
"No," said Hester, "I've carried it, and I'll do that myself."
"Then let me take my book. You can put back Mab's in its place."
At this moment Mab caught up with them. As her eyes rested on the title of the volume in Mildred's hands, which her sister had not time to hide, she turned up her dainty nose and gave Mildred a lazily contemptuous glance. She said nothing. Mab would not have thought it worth while to bother herself with her sister's taste in reading, but her face expressed eloquently her thought. Hester suddenly comprehended and was grievously troubled.
"Mab," she cried, "what is this book that Mildred was so careful to hide from aunty?"
"Low trash," replied Mab, "I would not touch it with the tongs. I suppose that silly Silvie lent it to you—eh, Mildred?"
Hester turned on Mildred with a severe countenance; she had not been leader of the "Children of Israel" for nothing, accustomed to constitute herself judge and jury of their vagaries.
"Is that book Silvie's, Mildred?"
But Mildred, very much ashamed to be found out, began to cry with mortification. Mab answered for her, contemptuously indifferent.
"Of course it is hers. Silvie is an idiot of the first water."
"Then," said Hester, gently but firmly, "if that's Silvie's book, she's got to have it—right off, and I'll take it to her."
Without a moment's hesitation, she took the book from Mildred's hand, tied it up in brown paper, and set off to walk the mile to the owner's house. She knew this would make her late for lunch, but for once she did not mind breaking a rule of the house.
When she came in, Almira reproved her for being late. Hester replied, "I had a book I was bound I'd return to the owner."
Almira, ever unsuspicous, and knowing, besides this, that Hester was no book lover, asked no questions, simply saying, "Never borrow books, Hester. If you ever take a fancy to one, let me have the title, and if I approve I will buy it for you."
"I've got too many books as it is," was the uncompromising reply.
Hester did not mean to be ungracious, but her way of expressing that she considered herself to be well provided with reading material was certainly not a graceful one.
It entertained Bob exceedingly.
"When Hester comes to you to beg a book, aunt," said he, "may I be there to see."
There was a general laugh at Hester's expense, but she ate her belated lunch without an idea wherein she had furnished amusement to the others; and Mildred covered her feeling of discomfiture, her dread lest Hester should blurt out that the book returned had not been her own borrowing, with a laugh.
Relations were a little strained between the cousins for some time after this event, but things gradually righted themselves. If Mildred continued her practice of reading forbidden books, she certainly concealed the fact very cleverly from the other girls.
Perhaps there was something in the pure atmosphere which clung to this child of the Hill Farm that had a bracing effect on the less robustly nurtured maid. Certainly the strong affection which soon welded these two so unlike in their characteristics together, was as much to the advantage of the hothouse plant as to the wild flower plucked so rudely from its surrounding in the woodlands on the heights.
(To be concluded in our December number.)
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, September 2008
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