The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
by Ada M. Trotter.
Hester stared back tearless, with round wide-open eyes, until the last of the rock-laden pastures was hidden by the dip of the road to the valley. Weeping—nature's safety valve for anguish—was denied her. Accustomed to immolate [sacrifice] self, to repress outward signs of emotion, she now accepted her fate in silence, with a dull, lifeless aspect, not even by a downward curve of the set lips denoting her misery. Hester's heart, rather than her brain, had regulated her actions hitherto, being the more practiced upon by the exigencies of daily life, and now, poor heart, it bled with pitiful longing for the place in the old homestead, which she had not time as yet to realize she had left behind for ever. Oh! to be back in the old farm kitchen, working at mother's command! Oh! to grasp the trial of her life, that wearing twin, in loving arms! The child lacked imagination, therefore she could not forecast a future; could not dream of other, more effectual ways of serving mother and the "Children of Israel," than by skill in those menial tasks, which had earned her the title of mother's right hand. At present she could not rise above the consciousness that mother had sent her away, that in some mysterious way she was to become the deliverer of her family, from the bondage imposed by isolation and poverty, and that the cold unsympathetic woman seated beside her was to indicate the line of work by which the path should be opened, the track to be followed through the wilderness of life by the "Children of Israel." She did not understand the grand large nature of Aunt Almira, or appreciate her share of the task, when she undertook the education of one so unattractive, so dull, as she now knew herself to be. Hester glanced occasionally at the majestic presence with awed, almost frightened eyes, as the miles grew longer separating her from her home folk, and throwing her more completely into the power of this stranger.
Ten miles at length were passed, and the station came in sight, with a train far away on the track, greedily eating up the miles in minutes. Mrs. Dyke then turned to the broken-hearted child beside her for the first time, not for a moment conceiving the tender nature of the child she had transported from the hill pastures. Hester had suffered in quiet strength which would have gained her the deep respect of her companion, but had given no token whereby this suffering could be read by unaccustomed eye, and the interim had been passed by her benefactor in planning means by which she could reduce the child's disabilities ere she produced her in her own home of refinement and culture. No one must see her under the present conditions of dress and manner.
"Here's our train, Hester," she said, kindly enough. "I guess you have never taken a train ride before, eh?"
The words seemed to come to Hester from a voice far off, and she made no reply. Her aunt then left her in charge of the small bag in which she had carried some trifles for the children, and went to the ticket office. By the time she returned the train was drawing in to the station, and there was a rush for the car.
"We are going to Boston first," said Mrs. Dyke as she indicated a seat to Hester. "We shall stay a week there, and then go home. You will like to see Boston, I am sure."
Hester only stared in reply. Boston meant no more than any other place to her at this moment of misery. Her eyes were following the familiar outlines of the hills on the horizon, which, however, began to alter, shift about, and at length disappear as the train changed in direction. The child's head spun round dizzily. "Car-sick? what a nuisance," groaned Almira to herself, opening a window near the drooping head. But her diagnosis was wrong.
Hester ever looked back upon that week in Boston, which followed the rupture of all her old ties, with horror, as a nightmare of misery. She strove laboriously to attend to each direction as to her table manners, but so nervously that she failed ignominiously, shewing herself at her worst, clumsy, awkward, at length densely stupid. Daintily clothed and shod, she was afraid to move freely, lest she should ruin such fine materials, and the new hat, like the rest of her wardrobe, elegant in its simplicity, would not stay on her hear now the sunburnt hair was cut short. Almira had indeed undertaken a task when she elected Hester as the founder of the fortunes of the "Children of Israel," instead of the charming little Cis.
But Hester was as difficult of moulding as Amos her father could have been under the same circumstances. She, heretofore selfless in her absolute abnegation to the necessities of the "tribe," in her newly awakened consciousness became stupid, dull, blundering to an incredible degree. The mirrors of the luxurious hotel reflected a fresh personality to the child, who stolidly, even defiantly, met the gaze of this apparition in dainty gowns, shoes on which she feared to tread, and short cropped hair on which the broad plumed hat seemed a stranger in a strange land, as was its owner. Hester, brought up short on the broad corridors, in the parlours, in the bedroom, by this unwonted reflection, stared at it awesomely, solemnly; for under the present critic of her every action, her very bulwark, her grin, was a forbidden weapon of defence.
The week's drilling in the habits and customs of polite society, however painful it might be, had an end. The dreary time was not relieved for Hester by word from home. Roxany lacked time to write; Amos, ideas to transcribe. The child felt the bitterness of this isolation intensely, she could not eat or sleep. Aunt Almira, striving in season and out of season to improve the bearing and appearance of her charge, realized at length that Hester could not take in another idea, and resolved to return home.
So the morrow found them whirling a day's journey farther from the one spot where Hester's heart could have been cured of its wound. Leaning against the car window the child watched the track slide back from the train; nothing in her staring, light eyes, her commonplace personality, appealing to her guardian's sympathies, for Hester lacked facial means of showing that she suffered. Nature had even denied her the usual mirror of the emotions: expressive eyes. Only the mother could have read pathos in those dull round orbs, staring before her unseeing, while her heart broke in silence. Meanwhile her aunt, seriously intent on bringing the ungainly child well within the pale of conventional life, allowed nothing amiss to escape critism. The hat so ill adapted to the bullet head was constantly readjusted, the silk tie pinned into place, the long gloves drawn up and buttoned round the sunburnt wrists. All such kindly meant offices increased the self-consciousness at the root of Hester's undoing. Aunt and niece were both strained to the utmost by the time the journey was ended.
Dull and dumb with misery, Hester scarcely noticed the change from train to carriage, except that she was put to the test of close critism as to her general bearing, hat and tie again adjusted, happily for the last time to-night. For soon, the carriage drove to the suburbs and stopped before an elegant mansion, where lights in the veranda and the open hall showed that the travelers were expected. As the carriage stopped, two young girls flew down the garden, and rushed upon Almira with warm welcome.
"Here is Hester," said their aunt kindly. "You three girls must be the best of friends, for henceforth Hester belongs to us."
Hester, feeling something was required of her, fell back on her hill manner and grinned. Unfortunately, as she did so, the electric light fell upon her face, and Dr. Dyke, father of the girls, who came out to welcome his sister home, gave one glance at the new-comer, shrugging his shoulders meaningly as she passed on into the house. When Hester next came to consciousness that something was required of her, she was standing in the centre of a beautiful room upstairs, and her aunt was addressing some observations to her.
"This is your room, Hester. It gets the morning sun, and has a view of the mountains. Take off your things and come down promptly when the supper bell rings."
Hester remained where her aunt left her, conscious of one thing only; she was alone at last. She stood and gazed around her; the flaring gas showed the fresh daintiness of all the appointments; but these unwonted luxuries failed to awaken any interest in Hester's mind. "It's all so fussy," she said to herself, "I feel as though I'd choke." She sought the window, opened it wide, and leaned out. Where were those mountains of which Aunt Almira had spoken? She drew a long breath unrestrained now by that cool glance on the watch for her social short-comings. Oh! to be back in the old farm kitchen with no manners to mind, again in an atmosphere where her limited powers received full appreciation, invaluable to mother. Hester's longing for just one moment with her own people almost choked her, her chest rose in a suppressed sob, tearless though she might be. Just then when her need seemed greatest as she stood at the open window, her sense of hearing abnormally acute (trained by much converse in the large auditorium of the hill pastures) brought the sound of voices speaking in a distant room.
"What an impossible child! Can she be Roxana's daughter? Why, her mother was a beauty and I was almost in love with her myself when she threw herself away on Amos. You have a Herculean task before you, sister."
"Nay, some of my labours are behind me. Our week in Boston was full enough, as you would realize had you seen her before I began to train her in the amenities of life."
The words fell dully enough on Hester's consciousness, she was already aware that she was "dumb stupid," but a cruel sense of hopelessness added to the burdens she was already carrying, and she became oblivious of time and place as she leaned gaspingly out of the window.
A gentle tap at the door passed unnoticed, as did several which succeeded. At length the door opened, and a girl about her own age entered.
"I'm Mildred, you know," she said, gracefully, as Hester stared at her; then, while paying instant attention to the flaring gas, "Why, not ready yet! let me help you."
Hester, too miserable to resist, permitted Mildred's kindly ministrations. Face and hands were bathed in warm water, the stubble of hair adroitly smoothed. But when the sound of the gong sent its insistent message over the house, Hester drew back. She could not go down and meet the critical glance of the owner of that voice who had so hastily pronounced judgment on her powers. But Mildred would not leave her guest, and taking her hand gently led her downstairs. What a contrast they made as they entered the dining room together. The gracious girl blest with power to express her thoughts, not only in word, but in her actions and expressive countenance, and the alien torn from the rocky fortress of the hill farm, imprisoned in new surroundings, fettered by chains of intolerable weight, which she had not as yet learned to carry, and without power to protest against the sudden transplantation.
A tall youth greeted her kindly enough as she entered the room; "You are the new sister," said he. But kind though the words sounded, Hester was suffering too cruelly from the criticism just overheard, and dreaded the very thoughts which she felt must be forming in the boy's mind as to her stupid looks.
At table she dully tried to remember the things she was not to do, and presently nervously laid down her knife and fork, forgetting which was the forbidden medium between plate and mouth. Then her apparently vacant eyes fell on Mildred, who was seated opposite to her, and she resolved to copy her as nearly as she could. But just as she began to form herself on this model, a stray glance caught the doctor's keen eyes, unfriendly, of course, in their criticism to her nervous apprehension, and she let her weapons fall with a clatter on her plate.
How little she dreamed that, in spite of his hasty word concerning his first impression, the one being who had power to sympathize with her position was this same great man. For Dr. Dyke was great in his profession, a man of keen brain, a skillful surgeon, and possessed with wonderful gifts as a healer. He was taking an unprejudiced view of the new comer, quite ready to concede any point in her favour did he find one. But Hester's personality, from an intellectual point of view, was hopeless. There was a lack of symmetry in the closely-cropped head, betraying the small brain development, the face was of the most commonplace type, the round staring eyes without beauty, and the cheeks occasionally distended with a perplexed grin. But the doctor was a kind-hearted man, who, despite too many demands on his sympathies, found there was something interesting in this unpromising new-comer. Certainly not in her looks. It must be confessed that the doctor had a weakness for good looks; his own children, like himself, were very handsome; they had their faults—grave faults, too, his sister declared, but at least they were not mentally deficient. Challenged now by the children on some knotty point, he temporarily forgot Hester, but when supper was over and the young people were leaving the room, he again turned his keen gaze upon her, and called her to his side.
Hester approached unwillingly enough, and ungracefully as possible, but the doctor was not thinking of her appearance when he called her. He took her hand, and looked down curiously at the brown thin fingers, thence to the dull inanimate face whose utter lack of expression to-night her mother's eyes would have read as indicative of a depth of woe inexpressible.
"Sleep well," said he, kindly, after a pause adding, "I hope you will be very happy here with us."
Again came the stricture of the chest, held down with a force of character worthy of a long strain of ancestors who had lived on rock, fought rock, endured what they could not better. The doctor's fingers stole their way to her pulse.
As she left the room, he said to her sister, "Her pulse shows a feverish condition. Do you suppose the child is homesick?"
"I should say not. She has not shed a tear, nor indeed mentioned her family since we left. She does not seem capable of putting words together in a sentence. 'Yes,' and 'No,' is all I have heard from her."
"She has a very able hand," he continued. "It redeems her insignificance in a measure. Her cranium is unpromising to a degree."
"She's Roxanny's daughter, that's her saving grace in my mind," said Almira, "and she'll have some qualities strong as rock if she's the least bit of her mother in her. She's got her father's looks, but it does not follow that she has his shiftless character. In fact, I know she has energy and perseverance, qualities only too rare in some bright children I know."
"I should like to have had the other one, the pretty child like the mother."
"Oh! of course," said Almira smiling mischievously, "Don't I know you by heart? But I have a larger outlook. You have enough handsome faces at your table, brother, and must put up with one less favoured."
The doctor laughed as he rose and went out. "But after all," said he to himself, "you do not, cannot know me, sister Almira nor do you know that child."
Next day Mildred found Hester giddy and tired, quite unable to sit up. The doctor looked in on his way down stairs.
"Well, little girl," said he, stooping over her, "what's wrong with you?"
His fingers on her pulse read in the uncertain throbs something of what the poor heart was feeling. Still keeping his fingers on her wrist, he asked carelessly, "Heard from home, I suppose, since you left?"
Hester shook her head, her pale eyes staring at the healer, her deprecatory grin widening her mouth.
"I'll send a wire presently," he volunteered, "and ask how they are getting along."
"Will you?" Voice and face were in perfect control, but, unconscious to herself, her fingers listlessly lying in the doctor's palm gripped his fingers as in a vice.
"Have you written home since you left?"
Hester shook her head.
"Your mother will be anxious to know how you like us all. Mildred shall bring you paper and pencil when you have eaten some breakfast, and perhaps before your letter is ready for the mail I shall get an answer to my telegram."
"I guess I could get up," cried the child eagerly, possessing no words to thank the doctor for his goodness, yet with fingers clinging to his as to a lifebuoy, eloquent as speech to one who understood such indication.
"Well, is she really sick?" asked Almira, as she poured out the coffee.
"Heartsick, homesick!" was the brief reply. "But I have given her a prescription. Have not you a picture of the old homestead or of her people any of them to hang in her room?"
Almira stared, unable to follow the complexity of her brother's thoughts.
"People of few ideas," said he seriously, "and those few established on the emotions are very hard to transplant. You tear their roots and they bleed to death."
"You speak as if I had committed a crime in adopting the child."
"Well," he said, smiling, "I am not sure you did not, that the end will justify the means—but I reserve judgment, especially as I have made a powerful prescription which should be benign in its workings. All the child's life hitherto has been subjective, her mental processes dormant—"
"Oh, if you are going to make a psychological study of the child," cried Almira, much amused, "you have chosen rather an uninteresting subject, however!"
"On the contrary, were the transition period not so painful to the subject, I could thank you for the opportunity you give me for verifying and correcting certain theories I may have formed on the result of like transplantations. But, for the present, the surgery bell is imperative."
The doctor was too busy to return in time for the mid-day lunch, but he did not forget his promise to Hester. A special messenger appeared, with the answer to his dispatch. It was brief, but to the point evidently indited by Amos. "Ma's well, so's the twins, and t'others," signed, "Pa."
The child eagerly read the message over and over. Coming from her father, it expressed everything in brief—and how quick it had come. She was not, then, divided by such an interval of country as she had imagined. Why, it was possible to get news of them in a few hours! Oh, the relief of that realization. Tears flowed from her eyes as from a fountain, and burying her head in the pillows, scarcely conscious of what she was doing under the stress of her irrepressible emotion, she gasped between her sobs, "Ma's well, so's the twins, and t'others."
Aunt Almira, herself brought up in a stern school, held such "giving way" to tears as beneath contempt, but the experiment was of her brother's responsibility, and as such she did not feel justified in interfering. She bade Mildred, who had called her on the scene, leave the child alone. Thus Hester, left to Nature's healing, wept and revived.
After lunch, she rose and dressed herself. Her eyes were red and swollen, but she was too busy conning over and over the good news in her telegram to care for appearances. The paper, by this time blurred with tears, was set up on the mirror, and she gloated over it as she put on her clothes. Then it occurred to her to open the window and look for the hills of which Aunt Almira had spoken the previous evening. She was disappointed to find them so different in shape from the rugged ridges amongst which she had drawn her first conscious breath. "But they are hills, any way," she said, as she turned away and made the tour of her room, touching curiously the artistic objects she designated as so fussy.
"I wonder if she'd mind if I pulled the curtains down," she thought; "seems to me I'd breath easier."
Pending the question, knitting in hand (a winter sock for her twin) and telegram in her pocket, whence it seemed to send rays of warm comfort to her heart, Hester hesitatingly set foot on the polished stair.
The walls of the wide spacious hall were hung with pictures, amongst which was a large photograph of the Forum of Rome.
"Pretty much all to pieces," was Hester's mental comment. "What's the use of hanging up pictures of a place burnt over like that? What's left of it will be down before they know where they are."
Nor did the Pantheon please her any better which took rank on the left side of the door.
"I spose it's a jail, well if ever! Couldn't no one get out of that!" Further criticism of the family taste in pictures was interrupted by the appearance of Mildred, who genially took Hester's hand and led her into the library.
"We sit here and do pretty much what we've a mind to, so long as we don't disturb father when he is at home; his room, you see, opens out of this. But there is another entrance from the hall."
Hester took the seat offered her and gazed about the room.
The walls were fitted with bookshelves enclosed in glass cases. Books were strewn on tables in two large bow windows. It was an ideal room in which to read or study, light and well aired. But Hester did not like books, and would rather far have been taken into the kitchen. Her wandering eyes at length rested on the two girls who were busy with some fancy work. They had pushed the books on one table aside, and occupied the space with ribbons and laces.
"Mab and I are making things for Mrs. Crab's table at the Church Fair," said Mildred. Hester took some of the finished work in her strong fingers, with her grin of perplexity.
"What's the use of them?" she asked, bluntly. "Should think they'd clutter up lots of dust."
The room pealed with laughter. Hester's grin grew broader, but where lay the joke?
"Do they only make useful things in your country?" asked Mildred presently.
"Mostly," replied Hester, gravely, holding the knick-knacks in contemptuous regard. "Some make tidies. They ain't much account, always catching to folk's coat-tails. Pa, he says, wisht them as made 'em had to put up with them. But there's bed spreads and pillow shams, things as stay put. They're real useful, you know."
"But pretty things like these sell best at our fair," said Mildred, amiably.
"Should think they'd cost too much to make," objected Hester, sturdily. "That ribbon is good, and there's a good two yards on that basket."
"Just two yards," said Mab, opening her sleepy eyes with the faintest touch of admiration at the precise guess.
But at this moment the doctor's voice was heard in the hall. Hester dropped her knitting and ran out, clumsily upsetting a chair in her haste and banging the door after her. She reached the middle of the hall, then stood looking at the doctor, who very weary with his protracted morning's work, was laying off his overcoat, preparing for his delayed lunch. At the sound of this bungling entrance he turned and gave one quick look at Hester. The swollen face betrayed the relief of tears, and she waved the telegram in her hand in triumph. He took the hand and telegram both, his fingers seeking her pulse. Then he smiled genially.
"Capital," he said. "So they are all well?"
Hester nodded. Almira had forbidden her to use this mode of expressing thought, but she forgot. Again, her hand spoke for her what words could not, as she squeezed the doctor's fingers in a close grip. He gave her a kind glance which seemed to say to the child that he understood all she wanted to explain to him of her past misery and her present relief, patted her on the head, and went in to his lunch.
"There are a dozen people waiting for me, little girl," said he as he left her.
"He seemed tuckered out," said Hester briefly to the girls as she returned to the library.
They looked up surprised. It seemed to them that it was nothing out of the common for their father to overwork himself in his profession; they supposed all fathers did the same thing.
"He's used to it by this time," said Mab, crawling. "I mean," as Hester looked surprised, "everyone wants him."
"I should think they would," was Hester's reply, "but that don't hinder him from working to death."
Mildred laid aside her work and glided away to the dining room.
"Hester believes you are very tired, father," she said, "can I do anything for you?"
"If you could prescribe for the room full of patients waiting me at this moment, my child, I must confess I should be glad."
"Then Hester was right, you are very tired."
He seemed much amused.
"So I owe this solicitude to a stranger, Mildred?"
"Yes," she said, frankly. "We are so used to see you always at work."
"I should not be happy without my hands full," he said, consolingly, " but there are times when the too much is felt even by a doctor, Mildred."
He rose, stretched himself and went into the consulting room.
The curtain question was broached by Hester with the utmost simplicity. Her aunt had taken pains to prepare her room in every respect like that of the children of the house. Everything was there, bric-a-brac, dainty curtains, pictures. Secure as to the answer, therefore, Almira asked perfunctorily that day at dinner—
"I hope you are comfortable in your room, my dear."
But Hester had to be trained to like high art, or any art, and being absolutely truthful, said seriously, "I can't turn round for fear of breaking something, and I've knocked the little tables over twice this morning. Do you suppose you could find a place for the crockery, aunt Almira? and might I take down the curtains? seems like they choke me nights."
Bob lead a general hearty laugh, perhaps he sympathized not a little with this honest expression of opinion.
Almira frowned a little, more with perplexity than anger, however. "Why Hester," said she, "have you no love of pretty things?" Think how bare your windows will look without the curtains, and your room will be quite dismantled if I take all the hangings and that pretty bric-a-brac away."
The doctor, who had laughed with sly enjoyment, now put in his word to support Hester,
"Curtains keep out the air, and collect dust, and are unhealthy in bedrooms, and I quite agree with Hester as to the crockery nuisance. Tables are for use, not to be covered with useless rubbish."
"Oh! you are in your utilitarian mood, I perceive," said Almira, slyly.
"And—" continued the doctor, addressing Hester, "do you dislike the carpet too?"
"Why no," she replied, "there is so little of it just in the middle of the room. I'd as soon have it as not."
There was another laugh, in which Almira joined this time.
"The carpet shall stay," said the doctor, his eyes twinkling suspiciously, "but curtains and crockery are doomed. Will you have a holocaust made of them, my dear?"
"But," objected Almira later, when she was alone with her brother. "You thwart my efforts to develop love of art in our country maid, by always surrounding her with refinements and pretty things."
"I am simply acting as Hester's physician," was the reply. "She will suffocate under the rubbish of centuries of civilizations. Besides, her simple taste rings true. Bedrooms ought to be free of all dust harbingers. You know, my dear sister, I have told you more than once that you are inclined to follow the luxurious trend of the times too closely. Our house is really becoming an art museum rather than a living house."
Curtains, crockery, small tables—all disappeared from Hester's room, and instead of these impediments, a large round table was placed in a good light, and the child, feeling at home at last in her new surroundings, sat in comfort at her table without fear of breaking some work of art, and penned a long letter to the dear mother at the hill farm.
Dear Ma and Pa and everyone,—I guess I've got fixed now, my clothes is all straight in my bureau. I'm goin' to begin school next week. Your wire came before lunch. Seemed as though you was all dead, and I was never goin' to hear how you was. He sent the wire. The children are pretty good here. Bob's oldest, most twenty. He aint much account so far as I see, not so good with the girls. He goes to college, but he gets mixed up with the wrong set, Mildred says. Mildred's the best girl and so pretty. I guess she thinks what to do for other folks most of the time. Mab's selfish and so lazy—seems half asleep except when there's candy round; she's real greedy—but then she's a beauty, and everywhere she goes, they say, 'what a lovely child'; 'that's what I call a beautiful child'—I should think they'd have more sense. The doctor is best of all; everyone flies round to do what he says; even Bob's meek as Moses when he speaks real stern. I spose you know he's a great surgeon. Mildred says he gets presents every day, fruit and flowers. His waiting room is full of truck sent him by grateful patients—G. P.'s, Mildred calls them. Here's a G.P. and it's solid silver, or else some piece of crockery (no mortal use as I can see) bricky brac they call them things as can't never be used and only clutter up the dust and have to keep one at work dusting them off with a tiny feather broom. I've finished the socks, and Aunt Almira says she'll send them in the next parcel to you. I've got lots of time here—no sweeping or dish-washing. I'd as 'lieve knit as read. I don't like reading so much; I told the doctor when he asked me. He said folks read too much and thought too little, and asked me what I thought about when I was not reading. I told him I wondered how soon I'd be educated and able to help you as you said I must. He said lots of ways was open now for educated women to work and make money, and he said, 'If you want to help your folks, you have got to do what is hardest to you, set your wits to work as well as your fingers.' So I asked Mab to give me books to read, for she never reads rubbish, Mildred says. I'm goin' to read a spell when I've done this."
But Hester's good intentions were frustrated by Almira, who bade her jump into bed or the doctor would be coming to look after his patient. Pleased with Hester's prompt obedience as she rose and put away her ink-bottle, her aunt left her with a kind "good-night, my child."
Hester, when ready for her couch, knelt by the window, now clear of obstructions, gazed out on the distant hills, and felt her way to her first real prayer.
"Let me grow up to help them all, dear God," she prayed. "I'll do my level best."
A month elapsed; the doctor, unusually occupied during this period by an outbreak of typhoid, scarcely saw his family. When he appeared again at table his penetrating glance dwelt on each face in turn. Enough! two struck him as being very unsatisfactory, in urgent need of attention. Bob's languid air betokened dissipation, that of Hester, exhaustion of mental force. The child's countenance, always lacking expression, now seemed to have hardened into a block. The pale eyes deep sunken, half-open mouth and apparent deafness to the chit-chat going on around her, as well as her lack of appetite, added to the painful impression she made on the healer, who had probed the shallows of the new comer once before and found himself in deep waters.
"Well, sister," said he after luncheon was over, "what of your experiment?"
"Uphill work, I expected that. Dense stupidity, but intense perseverance. I've got to respect, even if I cannot love, the child."
"Why can you not love her?" asked the doctor, curiously.
"She is not attractive to me," said Almira, kindly enough. "She has no winning traits of character."
"Well, it is something if she wins your respect," said he, "for I know that is not gained without effort. I wish you could say as much of Bob. He's smoking again and keeping late hours at the club."
"Yes, he takes advantage of your pre-occupation. I confess I am most anxious about him."
"Can't the girls amuse him at home? I believe in counter attractions," said her brother.
"The girls have their lessons. I won't have them sacrificed to Bob," said Almira. "There is no more reason why they should lay themselves out to entertain Bob than that he should do the same for them."
"Then I will put it another way. I wish we had a genial home circle in which young people would find pleasure and desire to stay there instead of going outside for their fun."
"If my Margaret had only lived," he said to himself with a sigh. "No one in the world is as good as Almira, but genial and amusing she cannot be."
In the hall he pounced on Bob, put him through a brief but formidable catechism, and leaving him to digest a few words to the point which he could not possible disobey, the doctor ran up to Hester's room.
His light step was unheard on the soft carpet, so that he stood at the half-open door of Hester's room, and looked at the owner, himself unseen.
The child sat at her table with a pile of books before her, nervously opening one after another, her dull eyes hopelessly conning words and sentences. Presently the doctor's hand intervened between her eyes and the page, and turning a wan look on him, she seemed to feel the necessity to explain herself, and the power.
"I can't do it," she said, "I shall have to give it up. I've tried. I get stupider and duller every minute. Seems as though I'd forget my own name next, and I say it over and over instead of my lesson. Mother says Dave is looking forward to vacation for me to help him, and I can't remember a single thing she says (the teacher). And to-day she said I was obstinater than a mule, because I said something all wrong over and over. I couldn't hear what she said or what I said. Guess I'm dumb stupid."
She took up and put down the books flurriedly.
"Time's going, most two o'clock, and I ain't learnt a single thing."
The doctor took the books one after another and tossed them cleverly into a heap in the corridor.
"Let them be," said he, cheerily, "I'll send Thomas up to carry them away for me. You won't want them for awhile any way, for I can't spare you to go to school. I'm pretty busy just now and want you to give me a helping hand."
"Me!" cried Hester springing to her feet, grasping the doctor's outstretched hand with both hers, as she might have done with a lifebuoy when drowning. Once more did the forbidden grin widen her cheeks.
It was catching; the doctor himself grinned as he thought of what his sister would say to him.
"I see I shall have a willing helper," said he. "Now, away with study, get your hat and cloak, something warm—I'm going to take my girls ten miles into the country this bright afternoon, Be ready in four minutes and a half."
His daughters, used to these sudden invitations, were ready in a thrice, and Mildred had time to run up and give Hester a helping hand, for she was trembling so with the excitement of the moment that all her fingers were thumbs.
"I wish you had asked me before you took Hester from her work," said Almira, " she is not so quick as other children and has to put more time on her studies to get them ready. She will only have double work to-morrow."
"Jump in, girls," was the reply, then motioning Hester forward, for at Almira's words she had paused obediently, he stooped over his sister and said a few words in her ear.
"Why, who would ever have thought she'd turn out nervous and weakly?" was the surprised whisper.
"Power of mind over matter," said he, whimsically. "A devouring flame that swallows up even bucolic strata. Besides your school marm has no sense to heap tasks on the child in this way."
"Oh, well; she has to keep up with her grade," was the reply.
"Horrible system! Crushing mill: that is what it is. The teacher takes a blank page and covers it with hieroglyphics to which its owner has no cipher. Before Hester returns to the mill, someone has to find her mind for her, introduce her to her own mental machinery and show her the key to its powers."
"I declare I never saw you so exercised before," said Almira, half annoyed. "You treat a child brought up in a farm kitchen as though she were a princess in disguise. I tell you she is used to take hardship and does not need all this tenderness. I believe in being kind to her, but you are going the way to spoil the very best in her, brother."
"I wish you could understand the wherefore," was the reply. "As you cannot, accept my word for it. You have gathered a sensitive plant at the hill farm, approach it with caution or it will wither at your touch. You have every sense but the sixth, sister."
"And as no one can prove that to exist, I shall do very well without it," she replied, laughing. "Well, I know you have got to have your own way when you take the bit in your mouth, so I will wait until you have driven your hobby to the stone wall, and take it up where you put it down."
But she stood with a puzzled expression on her serene, fine countenance as the happy party drove away. She intended so well by the child, it was provoking to be handicapped in her efforts by this very dominant brother.
The doctor's spirited bays soon left city streets and suburban villas alike behind, and brought to view remote farmhouses dotting the hill sides or nestling in the valleys. Colour came into Hester's cheeks in the rapid transit through the fresh air, her eyes were attracted by the peaks of distant mountains, where snow glittered in the autumn sunlight. Home, to her ignorant fancy, lay somewhere there.
"Winter comes apace. Can you skate, Hester?"
"No sir, hadn't good enough ice. Plenty snow, though, for coasting."
"You must teach our lazy Mab to coast," said the doctor, "and Mildred, too, if she is not too much grown up."
"Oh! no," said Mildred, "not too grown up, but my legs are too long, and I keep growing taller too."
"I don't like it," said Mab, "the pleasure isn't worth the bother. Uphill you toil, come down like a flash and up again—it's always up, and the downs too short."
Even Hester's sense of humour was touched by the picture drawn by this lazybones; her laugh rang out quite merrily.
"Dave always pulls the little ones up on his big sled," she said; "why don't you hire somebody?"
"Better still, Dave shall come at Christmas, and Mab can write beforehand and pre-empt his services." The doctor glanced at Hester as he spoke, but it was evident she did not take his words seriously.
"Well, Hester, shall Dave come? I mean what I say."
"Guess he'd like it real well. He's good as they make 'em is our Dave," was the calm reply.
A stranger might have been deceived by her indifferent manner, but the doctor knew where to look for expression of her feelings; her strong fingers were intertwined with restrained eagerness.
"Some people's expression is all facial," he reflected, "and some are only capable of showing themselves when under the excitement of moving to music, dancing. Hester's hands are her medium. Dave shall come."
The ten miles passed as a dream, only too soon was the objective point, the comfortable dwelling house reached.
"Now, girls, go indoors. I will send Jerusha to you. I expect to be here at least an hour. I need not tell you to be very quiet."
The girls obeyed, and finding the parlour door open, entered and took possession. It was a stiff formal-looking room evidently seldom used, with a dismal atmosphere which would have required a host of cordial folk to warm it up to a sense of comfort. Faded wax flowers a century old had the position of honour in the middle of the table, while modern life was represented by a few albums containing galleries of family portraits. Mab walked about touching everything with her dainty fingers, Mildred went into convulsions over one of the albums, and Hester sat bolt upright on the edge of her chair, as she had seen company do in the absence of a rocking chair wherewith to work off the nervous apprehensions incident to meeting strangers.
"I think," said Mab, when she had exhausted the resources of the parlour, "as there is absolutely no entertainment for me, I shall go to sleep." With this she stretched herself gracefull on the horse-hair sofa."
"Good-lands! Is the child sick?" cried a strident voice, as a brisk middle-aged woman bounced into the room. "You're the doctor's children, eh! He promised he'd bring you next time he come. I've heerd of you; pretty-looking girls you be as ever I see. But who is this? Not a sister, eh?"
"That's our cousin Hester, she's come to live with us now, so that makes her a kind of sister," said kind Mildred, seeing the unflattering glance with which the good woman had accompanied her inquiry. "Mab's on the sofa, she's always lazy; and I am Mildred."
"Want to know!" said the good woman staring at Mab. "Born tired, eh?" Then after a pause, "But you had better come into the back of the house. The kitchen's the best room to my thinking, gets all the sun, and is ever so much more cheerful. When I've good help I might set here all day if I'm a mind to, but I never darken the doors unless there's company or it's sweeping day."
The girls gladly exchanged dullness for cheer. The kitchen was flooded with sunshine; gay with flowers.
The doctor's hour devoured the afternoon, but the girls were having such a good time, they never once thought of his limit. Jerusha, short of help, had to continue her work in barnyard and dairy, and this she did with a delightful leisurely manner, and flow of narrative that effectually entertained the young people. They went out with her to visit the cows in the stalls, into the dairy to see the cream and inspect the new churn, then to visit the fowls and hear that Jerusha "fed to them" to make them lay straight along through the cold weather when fresh eggs were gold.
Now, all this had the flavour of novelty to the city-bred children, but was as a mine of gold to her other listener. Hester knew what life on a farm meant where there were no conveniences, no aids to work, where every bucket of water must be carried into and out of the house; where all the drinking water must be brought from the spring in the ten-acre lot; where the fowls fed hap-hazard, migrated, their nests only discovered by the detective skill of the "Children of Israel"; where washing or churning day meant labour, labour, labour to the slender industrious mother. To Hester, every labour-saving device came as a revelation. She went about with bated breath hanging on Jerusha's words, examining everything, storing up the simple, ingenious methods which yet meant to save of physical exertion, asking pertinent questions which raised her to Jerusha's high esteem. Next came the model kitchen in review, the cupboards proudly thrown open for inspection. Also on certain shelves ancient copper vessels glowed amongst modern blue saucepans and valuable old china, making an incomparable picture in the owner's eyes.
"You're real handy," she exclaimed, as Hester assisted her to set the supper table. "Now you beat up those eggs, and we'll have pop-overs for supper. I've got my oven red hot, and guess we can have them ready as soon as the doctor comes back."
"Why, is he gone out again?"
"Yes," said Jerusha, "a neighbour sent for him an hour ago; child sick, I believe."
"He ought to be hungry by time he gets back," said Hester, "he hardly touched his lunch."
"The new hospital and lectures keep him so busy, and there has been so much typhoid this autumn," said Mildred, "we scarcely see him from week's end to week's end."
"Want to know! wall, doctors, clergymen, and donkeys never are supposed to want regular hours of feeding. What are you laughing at?" inquired Jerusha, seriously, as Mildred and Mab fell into fits of laughter.
"Donkeys! oh, I must tell father," cried Mab.
Hester had taken Jerusha seriously, as was intended, but now the joke dawned upon her, and her grin gave way to a guffaw of appreciation.
Just at that moment, when her cheeks were distended their widest, the door opened and the doctor entered. He was quick to see the cosy, cheerful atmosphere in which his young people had been "let down" from the stilts of too much civilization, and at once declared he was not going to be company. He had been brought up in a farm kitchen not half so good as this, and was perfectly at home amongst pots and pans. Hester's eagerness in finding him an arm-chair and attending to his material wants at table, gratified him not a little.
"Oh, such coffee and cream!" he exclaimed. "Well, I must indulge in a cup, even if I keep awake for a week to come; and Jerusha's pop-overs and Graham gems are enough to turn any doctor into a gourmand. Hester, child, sit down, and show me how many pop-overs you can eat. I've lost count so far as Mab is concerned."
"Hester's real handy," said Jerusha, beaming at her guests, "I wouldn't want better help."
"Great minds think alike," said the doctor, merrily, "I've put in a prior claim, however, Jerusha, so you can't have her. Now, child, I want to see whether you are as hungry as a little girl ought to be after a drive over the hills, and an afternoon with Jerusha in the barn-yard."
This afternoon of absolute let-down to material things, in a way a return to the kind of life she was used to, had done more to heal Hester's wounds than a month spent otherwhere. The strain, the paralysis of mind disappeared, and the doctor told himself as he quietly watched her so happy in this genial atmosphere, that never again should she be subjected to such cruel brain pressure.
"Now, girls; hats and shawls! I see Obadiah has the team ready."
Supper was over, even Mab could eat no more, and farewells were hastily exchanged with the kindly Jerusha. Obadiah stood at the window looking in and grinning his pleasure at the cheerful group.
"Obadiah is Jerusha's husband," said the doctor, as they drove away from the farm. "He is not over bright, but she makes up for his deficiencies, and keeps him stirred up to do his work."
Hester was very silent during that return drive. Presently she asked, "Do engineers have to learn how to put waterworks in houses?"
"What do you mean, little girl?"
"Do they show folks how to bring water from meadows into folks' houses?"
Hester asked no more questions, but she sat up late at night writing to Dave.
"My Dear Dave,—He says you can come for a week at Christmas. I'm real glad I came here now. I was sorry before. I've learnt lots to-day. I can't write it all out to-night. Hens 'ull pay when you feed 'em right. I'll send you how to do. Guess you'll work it out. And she's got her water brought into the house; it runs all round the dairy; she sets her pans in it. Her wash-tubs are under taps—hot and cold. They've got holes at the bottom and stoppers. She never moves her tubs. Washing aint a mite of bother. You soak 'em over-night in the tubs. I'm going to ask Bob how you bring in the water. He's learning it. There's plenty in the ten-acre lot. When you come he'll show you, per'aps."
This letter, incomplete as it was, was no puzzle to Dave, who, having imagination, read largely between the lines and filled in the gaps with lavish hand. "My! but our Hester's goin' ahead," was his comment, and he grinned with pride and pleasure.
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Hana 'ia i Hawai'i, October 2008
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