Ester Ried Part 22

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"O mother, _mother_, you _can not_ understand."

Tone, or words, or both, vexed Mrs. Ried afresh, and she spoke with added sharpness.

"At least I can understand this much, that my daughter is very anxious to do a thing utterly unheard of in its propriety, and I am thoroughly ashamed of you. If I were Ester I should not like to uphold you in such a singularly conspicuous parade. Remember, you have no one _now_ but John to depend upon as an escort."

Ralph had remained a silent, immovable listener to this strange, sad conversation up to this moment. Now he came suddenly forward with a quick, firm tread, and encircled Abbie's trembling form with his arm, while with eyes and voice he addressed his mother.

"In that last proposition you are quite mistaken, my dear mother.

Abbie chances to have a brother, who considers himself honored by being permitted to accompany her any where she may choose to go."

Mrs. Ried looked up at her tall, haughty son in unfeigned astonishment, and for an instant was silent.

"Oh," she said at last, "if you have chosen to rank yourself on this ridiculous fanatical side, I have nothing more to say."

As for Mr. Ried, he had long before this shadded his eyes with his hand, and was looking through half-closed fingers with mournful eyes at the sable robes and pallid face of his golden-haired darling, apparently utterly unconscious of or indifferent to the talk that was going on.

But will Ralph ever forget the little sweet smile which illumined for a moment the pure young face, as she turned confiding eyes on him?

Thenceforth there dawned a new era in Abbie's life. Ralph, for reasons best known to himself, chose to be released from his vacation engagements in a neighboring city, and remained closely at home. And Abbie went as usual to her mission-cla.s.s, to her Bible-cla.s.s, to the teacher's prayer-meeting, to the regular church prayer-meeting, every-where she had been wont to go, and she was always and every-where accompanied and sustained by her brother.

As for Ester, these were days of great opportunity and spiritual growth to her.

So we bridge the weeks between and reach the afternoon of a September day, bright and beautiful, as the month draws toward its closing; and Ester is sitting alone in her room in the low, easy chair by the open window, and in her lap lies an open letter, while she, with thoughtful, earnest eyes seems reading, not it, but the future, or else her own heart. The letter is from Sadie, and she has written thus:

"MY DEAR CITY SISTER,--Mother said to-night, as we were promenading the dining-room for the sake of exercise, and also to clear off the table (Maggie had the toothache and was off duty): 'Sadie, my dear child, haven't you written to Ester yet? Do you think it is quite right to neglect her so, when she must be very anxious to hear from home?' Now, you know, when mother says, 'Sadie, my dear child,' and looks at me from out those reproachful eyes of hers, there is nothing short of mixing a mess of bread that I would not do for her. So here I am--place, third story front; time, 11:30 P.M.; position, foot of the bed (Julia being soundly sleeping at the head), one gaiter off and one gaiter on, somewhat after the manner of 'my son John' so renowned in history. Speaking of bread, how abominably that article can act. I had a solemn conflict with a batch of it this morning. Firstly, you must know, I forgot it. Mother a.s.sured me it was ready to be mixed before I awakened, so it must have been before that event took place that the forgetfulness occurred; however, be that as it may, after I was thoroughly awake, and up, and _down_, I still forgot it. The fried potatoes were frying themselves fast to that abominable black dish in which they are put to sizzle, and which, by the way, is the most nefarious article in the entire kitchen list to get clean (save and excepting the dish-cloth). Well, as I was saying, they burned themselves, and I ran to the rescue. Then Minie wanted me to go to the yard with her, to see a 'dear cunning little brown and gray thing, with some greenish spots, that walked and spoke to her.' The interesting stranger proved to be a fair-sized frog! While examining into, and explaining minutely the nature and character and occupations of the entire frog family, the mixture in the tin pail, behind the kitchen stove, took that opportunity to _sour_. My! what a bubble it was in, and what an interesting odor it emitted, when at last I returned from frogdom to the ordinary walks of life, and gave it my attention. Maggie was above her elbows in the wash-tub, so I seized the pail, and in dire haste and dismay ran up two flights of stairs in search of mother. I suppose you know what followed. I a.s.sure you, I think mothers and soda are splendid! What a remarkable inst.i.tution that ingredient is. While I made sour into sweet with the aid of its soothing proclivities, I moralized; the result of which was that after I had squeezed and mushed and rolled over, and thumped and patted my dough the requisite number of times, I tucked it away under blankets in a corner, and went out to the piazza to ask Dr. Dougla.s.s if he knew of an article in the entire round of Materia Medica which could be given to human beings when they were sour and disagreeable, and which, after the manner of soda in dough, would immediately work a reform.

On his acknowledging his utter ignorance of any such principle, I advanced the idea that cooking was a much more developed science than medicine; thence followed an animated discussion.

"But in the meantime what do you suppose that bread was doing? Just spreading itself in the most remarkable manner over the nice blanket under which I had cuddled it! Then I had an amazing time. Mother said the patting process must all be done over again; and there was abundant opportunity for more moralizing. That bread developed the most remarkable stick-to-a-tive-ness that I ever beheld. I a.s.sure you, if total depravity is a mark of humanity, then I believe my dough is human.

"Well, we are all still alive, though poor Mr. Holland is, I fear, very little more than that. He was thrown from his carriage one evening last week, and brought home insensible. He is now in a raging fever, and very ill indeed. For once in their lives both doctors agree. He is delirious most of the time; and his delirium takes the very trying form which leads him to imagine that only mother can do any thing for him. The doctors think he fancies she is his own mother, and that he is a boy again. All this makes matters rather hard on mother. She is frequently with him half the night; and often Maggie and I are left to reign supreme in the kitchen for the entire day.

Those are the days that 'try men's souls,' especially women's.

"I am sometimes tempted to think that all the book knowledge the world contains is not to be compared to knowing just what, and how, and when, to do in the kitchen. I quite think so for a few hours when mother, after a night of watching in a sick room, comes down to undo some of my blundering. She is the patientest, dearest, lovingest, kindest mother that ever a mortal had, and just because she is so patient shall I rejoice over the day when she can give a little sigh of relief and leave the kitchen, calm in the a.s.surance that it will be right-side up when she returns. Ester, how _did_ you make things go right? I'm sure I try harder than I ever knew you to, and yet salt will get into cakes and puddings, and sugar into potatoes. Just here I'm conscience smitten. I beg you will not construe one of the above sentences as having the remotest allusion to your being sadly missed at home. Mother said I was not even to _hint_ such a thing, and I'm sure I haven't. I'm a _remarkable_ housekeeper. The fall term at the academy opened week before last. I have hidden my school-books behind that old barrel in the north-east corner of the attic. I thought they would be safer there than below stairs. At least I was sure the bread would do better in the oven because of their ascent.

"To return to the scene of our present trials: Mr. Holland is, I suppose, very dangerously sick; and poor Mrs. Holland is the very embodiment of despair. When I look at her in prospective misery, I am reminded of poor, dear cousin Abbie (to whom I would write if it didn't seem a sacrilege), and I conclude there is really more misery in this world of ours than I had any idea of. I've discovered why the world was made round. It must be to typify our lives--sort of a tread-mill existence, you know; coming constantly around to the things which you thought you had done yesterday and put away; living over again to-day the sorrows which you thought were vanquished last week.

I'm sleepy, and it is nearly time to bake cakes for breakfast. 'The tip of the morning to you,' as Patrick O'Brien greets Maggie.

"Yours nonsensically; SADIE."

CHAPTER XX.

AT HOME.

Over this letter Ester had laughed and cried, and finally settled, as we found her, into quiet thought. When Abbie came in after a little, and nestled on an ottoman in front of her, with an inquiring look, Ester placed the letter in her hands, without note or comment, and Abbie read and laughed considerably, then grew more sober, and at last folded the letter with a very thoughtful face.

"Well," said Ester, at last, smiling a little.

And Abbie answered: "Oh, Ester."

"Yes," said Ester, "you see they need me."

Then followed a somewhat eager, somewhat sorrowful talk, and then a moment of silence fell between them, which Abbie broke by a sudden question:

"Ester, isn't this Dr. Dougla.s.s gaining some influence over Sadie?

Have I imagined it, or does she speak of him frequently in her letters, in a way that gives me an idea that his influence is not for good?"

"I'm afraid it is very true; his influence over her seems to be great, and it certainly is not for good. The man is an infidel, I think. At least he is very far indeed from being a Christian. Do you know I read a verse in my Bible this morning which, when I think of my past influence over Sadie, reminds me bitterly of myself. It was like this: 'While men slept his enemy came and sowed tares--.' If I had not been asleep I might have won Sadie for the Savior before this enemy came."

"Well," Abbie answered gently, not in the least contradicting this sad statement, but yet speaking hopefully, "you will try to undo all this now."

"Oh, Abbie, I don't know. I am so weak--like a child just beginning to take little steps alone, instead of being the strong disciple that I might have been. I distrust myself. I am afraid."

"I'm not afraid for you," Abbie said, speaking very earnestly.

"Because, in the first place you are unlike the little child, in that you must never even try to take one step _alone_. And besides, there are more verses in the Bible than that one. See here, let me show you mine."

And Abbie produced her little pocket Bible, and pointed with her finger while Ester read; "When I am weak, then am I strong." Then turning the leaves rapidly, as one familiar with the strongholds of that tower of safety, she pointed again, and Ester read: "What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee."

Almost five o'clock of a sultry October day, one of those days which come to us sometimes during that golden month, like a regretful turning back of the departing summer. A day which, coming to people who have much hard, pressing work, and who are wearied and almost stifled with the summer's heat, makes them thoroughly uncomfortable, not to say cross. Almost five o'clock, and in the great dining-room of the Rieds Sadie was rus.h.i.+ng nervously back and forth, very much in the same manner that Ester was doing on that first evening of our acquaintance, only there was not so much method in her rus.h.i.+ng. The curtains were raised as high as the tapes would take them, and the slant rays of the yellow sun were streaming boldly in, doing their bravest to melt into oil the b.a.l.l.s of b.u.t.ter on the table, for poor, tired, bewildered Sadie had forgotten to let down the shades, and forgotten the ice for the b.u.t.ter, and had laid the table cloth crookedly, and had no time to straighten it. This had been one of her trying days. The last fierce look of summer had parched anew the fevered limbs of the sufferer up stairs, and roused to sharper conflict the bewildered brain. Mrs. Ried's care had been earnest and unremitting, and Sadie, in her unaccustomed position of mistress below stairs, had reached the very verge of bewildered weariness. She gave nervous glances at the inexorable clock as she flew back and forth.

There were those among Mrs. Ried's boarders whose business made it almost a necessity that they should be promptly served at five o'clock. Maggie had been hurriedly summoned to do an imperative errand connected with the sick room; and this inexperienced b.u.t.terfly, with her wings sadly drooping, was trying to gather her scattered wits together sufficiently to get that dreadful tea-table ready for the thirteen boarders who were already waiting the summons.

"What _did_ I come after?" she asked herself impatiently, as she pressed her hand to her frowning forehead, and stared about the pantry in a vain attempt to decide what had brought her there in such hot haste. "Oh, a spoon--no, a fork, I guess it was. Why, I don't remember the forks at all. As sure as I'm here, I believe they are, too, instead of being on the table; and--Oh, my patience, I believe those biscuits are burning. I wonder if they are done. Oh, dear me!" And the young lady, who was Mr. Hammond's star scholar, bent with puzzled, burning face, and received hot whiffs of breath from the indignant oven while she tried to discover whether the biscuits were ready to be devoured. It was an engrossing employment. She did not hear the sound of carriage wheels near the door, nor the banging of trunks on the side piazza. She was half way across the dining-room, with her tin of puffy biscuits in her hands, with the puzzled, doubtful look still on her face, before she felt the touch of two soft, loving arms around her neck, and turning quickly, she screamed, rather than said: "Oh, Ester!" And suddenly seating her tin of biscuit on one chair and herself on another, Sadie covered her face with both hands and actually cried.

"Why, Sadie, you poor dear child, what _can_ be the matter?"

And Ester's voice was full of anxiety, for it was almost the first time that she had ever seen tears on that bright young face.

Sadie's first remark caused a sudden revulsion of feeling. Springing suddenly to her feet, she bent anxious eyes on the chair full of biscuit.

"Oh, Ester," she said, "_are_ these biscuits done, or will they be sticky and hateful in the middle?"

_How_ Ester laughed! Then she came to the rescue. "_Done_--of course they are, and beautifully, too. Did you make them? Here, I'll take them out. Sadie, where is mother?"

"In Mr. Holland's room. She has been there nearly all day. Mr. Holland is no better, and Maggie has gone on an errand for them. Why have you come? Did the fairies send you?"

"And where are the children?"

"They have gone to walk. Minie wanted mother every other minute, so Alfred and Julia have carried her off with them. Say, you _dear_ Ester, how _did_ you happen to come? How shall I be glad enough to see you?"

Ester laughed. "Then I can't see any of them," she said by way of answer. "Never mind, then we'll have some tea. You poor child, how very tired you look. Just seat yourself in that chair, and see if I have forgotten how to work."

And Sadie, who was thoroughly tired, and more nervous than she had any idea she could be, leaned luxuriously back in her mother's chair, with a delicious sense of unresponsibility about her, and watched a magic spell come over the room. Down came the shades in a twinkling, and the low red sun looked in on them no more; the table-cloth straightened itself; pickles and cheese and cake got out of their confused proximity, and marched each to their appropriate niche on the well-ordered table; a flying visit into well-remembered regions returned hard, sparkling, ice-crowned b.u.t.ter. And when at last the fragrant tea stood ready to be served, and Ester, bright and smiling, stationed herself behind her mother's chair, Sadie gave a little relieved sigh, and then she laughed.

"You're straight from fairy land, Ester; I know it now. That table-cloth has been crooked in spite of me for a week. Maggie lays it, and I _can not_ straighten it. I don't get to it. I travel five hundred miles every night to get this supper ready, and it's never ready. I have to bob up for a fork or a spoon, or I put on four plates of b.u.t.ter and none of bread. Oh there is witch work about it, and none but thoroughbred witches can get every thing, every little insignificant, indispensable thing on a table. I can't keep house."

Ester Ried Part 22

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Ester Ried Part 22 summary

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