Ester Ried Part 18

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"Ah, then it's the church that is at fault. If that is the case, I should propose holding prayer meetings in private parlors. Would that obviate your difficulty?"

"No," said Ester sharply, "not if there were gentlemen present. It is their business to conduct a religious meeting."

"Then, after all, it is religion that is at the foundation of this trouble. Pray, Miss Ester, was Mrs. Burton's report irreligious?"

"Mr. Foster," said Ester, with flus.h.i.+ng cheeks, and in a whirl of vexation, "_don't_ you understand me?"

"I think I do, Miss Ester. The question is, do you understand yourself? Let me state the case. You are decidedly not a woman's rights lady. I am decidedly not a woman's rights gentleman--that is, in the general acceptation of that term. You would think, for instance, that Abbie was out of her sphere in the pulpit or pleading a case at the bar. So should I. In fact, there are many public places in which you and I, for what we consider good and sufficient reasons, would not like to see her. But, on the other hand, we both enjoy Mrs.

Burton's reports, either verbal or written, as she may choose. We, in company with many other ladies and gentlemen, listen respectfully; we both greatly enjoy hearing Miss Ames sing; we both consider it perfectly proper that she should so entertain us at our social gatherings. At our literary society we have both enjoyed to the utmost Miss Hanley's exquisite recitation from 'Kathrina.' I am sure not a thought of impropriety occurred to either of us. We both enjoyed the familiar talk on the subject for the evening, after the society proper had adjourned. So the question resolves itself into this: It seems that it is pleasant and proper for fifty or more of us to hear Mrs.

Burton's report in Mrs. Burton's parlor--to hear ladies sing--to hear ladies recite in their own parlors, or in those of their friends--to converse familiarly on any sensible topic; but the moment the very same company are gathered in our chapel, and Mrs. Burton says, 'Pray for my cla.s.s,' and Miss Ames says, 'I love Jesus,' and Miss Hanley says, 'The Lord is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever,'

it becomes improper. Will you pardon my obtuseness and explain to me the wherefore?"

But Ester was not in a mood to explain, if indeed she had aught to say, and she only answered with great decision and emphasis: "_I_ have never been accustomed to it."

"No! I think you told me that you were unaccustomed to hearing poetical recitations from young ladies. Does that condemn them?"

To which question Ester made no sort of answer, but sat looking confused, ashamed and annoyed all in one. Her companion roused himself from his half reclining att.i.tude on the sofa, and gave her the benefit of a very searching look; then he came to an erect posture and spoke with entire change of tone.

"Miss Ester, forgive me if I have seemed severe in my questionings and sarcastic in my replies. I am afraid I have. The subject is one which awakens sarcasm in me. It is so persistently twisted and befogged and misunderstood, some of the very best people seem inclined to make our prayer-meetings into formidable church-meetings, for the purpose of hearing a succession of not _very_ short sermons, rather than a social gathering of Christians, to sympathize with, and pray for and help each other, as I believe the Master intended them to be. But may I say a word to you personally? Are you quite happy as a Christian? Do you find your love growing stronger and your hopes brighter from day to day?"

Ester struggled with herself, tore bits of down from the edge of her fan, tried to regain her composure and her voice, but the tender, gentle, yet searching tone, seemed to have probed her very soul--and the eyes that at last were raised to meet his were melting into tears, and the voice which answered him quivered perceptibly. "No, Mr.

Foster, I am not happy."

"Why? May I ask you? Is the Savior untrue to his promises, or is his professed servant untrue to him?"

Ester's heart was giving heavy throbs of pain, and her conscience was whispering loudly, "untrue," "untrue;" but she had made no answer, when Ralph came with brisk step toward where they sat.

"Two against one isn't fair play," he said, with a mixture of mischief and vexation in his tone. "Foster, don't s.h.i.+rk; you have taught Abbie, now go and help her fight it out like a man. Come, take yourself over there and get her out of this sc.r.a.pe. I'll take care of Ester; she looks as though she had been to camp-meeting."

And Mr. Foster, with a wondering look for Ralph and a troubled one for Ester, moved slowly toward that end of the long parlor where the voices were growing louder, and one of them excited.

CHAPTER XVI.

A VICTORY.

"This is really the most absurd of all your late absurdities," Mrs.

Ried was saying, in rather a loud tone, and with a look of dignified disgust bestowed upon Abbie, as Mr. Foster joined the group.

"Will you receive me into this circle, and enlighten me as regards this particular absurdity," he said, seating himself near Mrs. Ried.

"Oh it was nothing remarkable," that lady replied in her most sarcastic tone. "At least it is quite time we were growing accustomed to this new order of things. Abbie is trying to enlighten her father on the new and interesting question of temperance, especially as it is connected with wedding parties, in which she is particularly interested just at present."

Abbie bestowed an appealing glance on Mr. Foster, and remained entirely silent.

"I believe I can claim equal interest then in the matter," he answered brightly. "And will pet.i.tion you, Mrs. Ried, to explain the point at issue."

"Indeed, Mr. Foster, I'm not a temperance lecturer, and do not consider myself competent to perform the awful task. I refer you to Abbie, who seems to be thoroughly posted, and very desirous of displaying her argumentative powers."

Still silence on Abbie's part, and only a little tremble of the lip told a close observer how deeply she felt the sharp tones and unmotherly words. Mrs. Ried spoke at last, in calm, measured accents.

"My daughter and I, Mr. Foster, differ somewhat in regard to the duties and privileges of a host. I claim the right to set before my guests whatever _I_ consider proper. She objects to the use of wine, as, perhaps, you are aware. Indeed, I believe she has imbibed her very peculiar views from you; but I say to her that as I have always been in the habit of entertaining my guests with that beverage, I presume I shall continue to do so."

Mr. Foster did not seem in the mood to argue the question, but responded with genial good humor. "Ah but, Mrs. Ried, you ought to gratify your daughter in her parting request. That is only natural and courteous, is it not?"

Mrs. Ried felt called upon to reply. "We have gratified so many of her requests already that the whole thing bids fair to be the most ridiculous proceeding that New York has ever witnessed. Fancy a dozen rough boys banging and shouting through my house, eating cake enough to make them sick for a month, to say nothing of the quant.i.ty which they will stamp into my carpets, and all because they chance to belong to Abbie's mission cla.s.s!"

Ralph and Ester had joined the group in the meantime, and the former here interposed.

"That last argument isn't valid, mother. Haven't I promised to hoe out the rooms myself, immediately after the conclusion of the solemn services?"

And Mr. Foster bestowed a sudden troubled look on Abbie, which she answered by saying in a low voice, "I should recall my invitations to them under such circ.u.mstances."

"You will do no such thing," her father replied sharply. "The invitations are issued in your parents' names, and we shall have no such senseless proceedings connected with them When you are in your own house you will doubtless be at liberty to do as you please; but in the meantime it would be well to remember that you belong to your father's family at present."

Ralph was watching the flus.h.i.+ng cheek and quivering lip of his young sister, and at this point flung down the book with which he had been idly playing, with an impatient exclamation: "It strikes me, father, that you are making a tremendous din about a little matter. I don't object to a gla.s.s of wine myself, almost under any circ.u.mstances, and I think this excruciating sensitiveness on the subject is absurd and ridiculous, and all that sort of thing; but at the same time I should be willing to undertake the job of smas.h.i.+ng every wine bottle there is in the cellar at this moment, if I thought that Sis' last hours in the body, or at least in the paternal mansion, would be made any more peaceful thereby."

During this harangue the elder Mr. Ried had time to grow ashamed of his sharpness, and answered in his natural tone. "I am precisely of your opinion, my son. We are making 'much ado about nothing.' We certainly have often entertained company before, and Abbie has sipped her wine with the rest of us without sustaining very material injury thereby, so far as I can see. And here is Ester, as stanch a church member as any of you, I believe, but that doesn't seem to forbid her behaving in a rational manner, and partaking of whatever her friends provide for her entertainment. Why can not the rest of you be equally sensible?"

During the swift second of time which intervened between that sentence and her reply Ester had three hard things to endure--a sting from her restless conscience, a look of mingled pain and anxiety from Mr.

Foster, and one of open-eyed and mischievous surprise from Ralph. Then she spoke rapidly and earnestly. "Indeed, Uncle Ralph, I beg you will not judge of any other person by my conduct in this matter. I am very sorry, and very much ashamed that I have been so weak and wicked.

I think just as Abbie does, only I am not like her, and have been tempted to do wrong, for fear you would think me foolish."

No one but Ester knew how much these sentences cost her; but the swift, bright look telegraphed her from Abbie's eyes seemed to repay her.

Ralph laughed outright. "Four against one," he said gaily. "I've gone over to the enemy's side myself, you see, on account of the pressure.

Father, I advise you to yield while you can do it gracefully, and also to save me the trouble of smas.h.i.+ng the aforesaid bottles."

"But," persisted Mr. Ried, "I haven't heard an argument this evening.

What is there so shocking in a quiet gla.s.s of wine enjoyed with a select gathering of one's friends?"

John now presented himself at the door with a respectful, "If you please, sir, there is a person in the hall who persists in seeing Mr.

Foster."

"Show him in, then," was Mr. Ried's prompt reply.

John hesitated, and then added: "He is a very common looking person, sir, and--"

"I said show him in, I believe," interrupted the gentleman of the house, in a tone which plainly indicated that he was expending on John the irritation which he did not like to bestow further, on either his children or his guests.

John vanished, and Mr. Ried added: "You can take your _friend_ into the library, Mr. Foster, if it proves to be a private matter."

There was a marked emphasis on the word _friend_ in this sentence; but Mr. Foster only bowed his reply, and presently John returned, ushering in a short, stout man, dressed in a rough working suit, twirling his hat in his hand, and looking extremely embarra.s.sed and out of place in the elegant parlor. Mr. Foster turned toward him immediately, and gave him a greeting both prompt and cordial. "Ah, Mr. Jones, good evening.

I have been in search of you today, but some way managed to miss you."

Ester Ried Part 18

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Ester Ried Part 18 summary

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