Esther was one of the Plymouth Brethren. In their chapel, if the house i_hich they met could be called a chapel, there were neither pictured storie_f saints, nor vestments, nor music, nor even imaginative stimulant in th_hape of written prayers. Her knowledge of life was strictly limited to he_xperience of life; she knew no drama of passion except that which the Gospel_elate: this story in the _Family Reader_ was the first representation o_ife she had met with, and its humanity thrilled her like the first idol se_p for worship. The actress told Norris that she loved him. They were on _alcony, the sky was blue, the moon was shining, the warm scent of th_ignonette came up from the garden below, the man was in evening dress wit_iamond shirt studs, the actress's arm was large and white. They had love_ach other for years. The strangest events had happened for the purpose o_ringing them together, and, fascinated against her will, Esther could not bu_isten. But at the end of the chapter the racial instinct forced reproval fro_er.
"I am sure it is wicked to read such tales."
Sarah looked at her in mute astonishment. Grover said—
"You shouldn't be here at all. Can't Mrs. Latch find nothing for you to do i_he scullery?"
"Then," said Sarah, awaking to a sense of the situation, "I suppose that wher_ou come from you were not so much as allowed to read a tale; … dirty littl_hapel-going folk!"
The incident might have closed with this reproval had not Margaret volunteere_he information that Esther's box was full of books.
"I should like to see them books," said Sarah. "I'll be bound that they ar_nly prayer-books."
"I don't mind what you say to me, but you shall not insult my religion."
"Insult your religion! I said you never had read a book in your life unless i_as a prayer-book."
"We don't use prayer-books."
"Then what books have you read?"
Esther hesitated, her manner betrayed her, and, suspecting the truth, Sarah said:
"I don't believe that you can read at all. Come, I'll bet you twopence tha_ou can't read the first five lines of my story."
Esther pushed the paper from her and walked out of the room in a tumult o_rief and humiliation. Woodview and all belonging to it had grown unbearable, and heedless to what complaint the cook might make against her she ra_pstairs and shut herself into her room. She asked why they should tak_leasure in torturing her. It was not her fault if she did not know how t_ead. There were the books she loved for her mother's sake, the books that ha_rought such disgrace upon her. Even the names she could not read, and th_hame of her ignorance lay upon her heavier than a weight of lead. "Pete_arley's Annual," "Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands," "Children of the Abbey,"
"Uncle Tom's Cabin," Lamb's "Tales of Shakespeare's Plays," a Cooking Book,
"Roda's Mission of Love," the Holy Bible and the Common Prayer Book.
She turned them over, wondering what were the mysteries that this print hel_rom her. It was to her mysterious as the stars.
Esther Waters came from Barnstaple. She had been brought up in the strictnes_f the Plymouth Brethren, and her earliest memories were of prayers, o_arrow, peaceful family life. This early life had lasted till she was te_ears old. Then her father died. He had been a house-painter, but in earl_outh he had been led into intemperance by some wild companions. He was ofte_ot in a fit state to go to work, and one day the fumes of the beer he ha_runk overpowered him as he sat in the strong sunlight on his scaffolding. I_he hospital he called upon God to relieve him of his suffering; then th_rethren said, "You never thought of God before. Be patient, your health i_oming back; it is a present from God; you would like to know Him and than_im from the bottom of your heart?"
John Waters' heart was touched. He became one of the Brethren, renouncin_hose companions who refused to follow into the glory of God. His conversio_nd subsequent grace won for him the sympathies of Mary Thornby. But Mary'_ather would not consent to the marriage unless John abandoned his dangerou_rade of house-painter. John Waters consented to do this, and old Jame_hornby, who had made a competence in the curiosity line, offered to make ove_is shop to the young couple on certain conditions; these conditions wer_ccepted, and under his father-in-law's direction John drove a successfu_rade in old glass, old jewellery, and old furniture.
The Brethren liked not this trade, and they often came to John to speak wit_im on the subject, and their words were——
"Of course this is between you and the Lord, but these things" (pointing t_he old glass and jewellery) "often are but snares for the feet, and lea_eaker brethren into temptation. Of course, it is between you and the Lord."
So John Waters was tormented with scruples concerning the righteousness of hi_rade, but his wife's gentle voice and eyes, and the limitations that hi_ccident, from which he had never wholly recovered, had set upon his life, overruled his scruples, and he remained until he died a dealer in artisti_are, eliminating, however, from his dealings those things to which th_rethren most strongly objected.
When he died his widow strove to carry on the business, but her father, wh_as now a confirmed invalid, could not help her. In the following year sh_ost both her parents. Many changes were taking place in Barnstaple, ne_ouses were being built, a much larger and finer shop had been opened in th_ore prosperous end of the town, and Mrs. Waters found herself obliged to sel_er business for almost nothing, and marry again. Children were born of thi_econd marriage in rapid succession, the cradle was never empty, and Esthe_as spoken of as the little nurse.
Her great solicitude was for her poor mother, who had lost her health, whos_lood was impoverished by constant child-bearing. Mother and daughter wer_een in the evenings, one with a baby at her breast, the other with a_ighteen months old child in her arms. Esther did not dare leave her mother, and to protect her she gave up school, and this was why she had never learn_ow to read.
One of the many causes of quarrel between Mrs. Saunders and her husband wa_er attendance at prayer-meetings when he said she should be at home mindin_er children. He used to accuse her of carrying on with the Scripture-readers, and to punish her he would say, "This week I'll spend five bob more in th_ublic—that'll teach you, if beating won't, that I don't want none of you_ypocritical folk hanging round my place." So it befell the Saunders family t_ave little to eat; and Esther often wondered how she should get a bit o_inner for her sick mother and her hungry little brothers and sisters. Onc_hey passed nearly thirty hours without food. She called them round her, an_nelt down amid them: they prayed that God might help them; and their prayer_ere answered, for at half-past twelve a Scripture lady came in with flower_n her hands. She asked Mrs. Saunders how her appetite was. Mrs. Saunder_nswered that it was more than she could afford, for there was nothing to ea_n the house. Then the Scripture lady gave them eighteen pence, and they al_nelt down and thanked God together.
But although Saunders spent a great deal of his money in the public-house, h_arely got drunk and always kept his employment. He was a painter of engines, a first-rate hand, earning good money, from twenty-five to thirty shillings _eek. He was a proud man, but so avaricious that he stopped at nothing to ge_oney. He was an ardent politician, yet he would sell his vote to the highes_idder, and when Esther was seventeen he compelled her to take servic_egardless of the character of the people or of what the place was like. The_ad left Barnstaple many months, and were now living in a little street of_he Vauxhall Bridge Road, near the factory where Saunders worked; and sinc_hey had been in London Esther had been constantly in service. Why should h_eep her? She wasn't one of his children, he had quite enough of his own.
Sometimes of an evening, when Esther could escape from her drudgery for a fe_inutes, her mother would step round, and mother and daughter, wrapped in th_ame shawl, would walk to and fro telling each other their troubles, just a_n old times. But these moments were few. In grimy lodging-houses she worke_rom early morning till late at night, scrubbing grates, preparing bacon an_ggs, cooking chops, and making beds. She had become one of those London girl_o whom rest, not to say pleasure, is unknown, who if they should sit down fo_ few moments hear the mistress's voice, "Now, Eliza, have you nothing to do, that you are sitting there idle?" Two of her mistresses, one after the other, had been sold up, and now all the rooms in the neighbourhood were unlet, n_ne wanted a "slavey," and Esther was obliged to return home. It was on th_ast of these occasions that her father had taken her by the shoulders, saying——
"No lodging-houses that want a slavey? I'll see about that. Tell me, first, have you been to 78?"
"Yes, but another girl was before me, and the place was taken when I arrived."
"I wonder what you were doing that you didn't get there sooner; dangling abou_fter your mother, I suppose! Well, what about 27 in the Crescent?"
"I couldn't go there—that Mrs. Dunbar is a bad woman."
"Bad woman! Who are you, I should like to know, that you can take a lady'_haracter away? Who told you she was a bad woman? One of the Scripture- readers, I suppose! I knew it was. Well, then, just get out of my house."
"Where shall I go?"
"Go to hell for all I care. Do you hear me? Get out!"
Esther did not move—words, and then blows. Esther's escape from her stepfathe_eemed a miracle, and his anger was only appeased by Mrs. Saunders promisin_hat Esther should accept the situation.
"Only for a little while. Perhaps Mrs. Dunbar is a better woman than you thin_or. For my sake, dearie. If you don't he may kill you and me too."
Esther looked at her one moment, then she said, "Very well, mother, to-morro_'ll take the place."
No longer was the girl starved, no longer was she made to drudge till th_hought of another day was a despair and a terror. And seeing that she was _ood girl, Mrs. Dunbar respected her scruples. Indeed, she was very kind, an_sther soon learnt to like her, and, through her affection for her, to thin_ess of the life she led. A dangerous point is this in a young girl's life.
Esther was young, and pretty, and weary, and out of health; and it was at thi_ritical moment that Lady Elwin, who, while visiting, had heard her story, promised Mrs. Saunders to find Esther another place. And to obviate al_ifficulties about references and character, Lady Elwin proposed to tak_sther as her own servant for a sufficient while to justify her i_ecommending her.
And now, as she turned over her books—the books she could not read—her pur_nd passionate mind was filled with the story of her life. She remembered he_oor little brothers and sisters and her dear mother, and that tyran_evenging himself upon them because of the little she might eat and drink. No, she must bear with all insults and scorn, and forget that they thought her a_irt under their feet. But what were such sufferings compared to those sh_ould endure were she to return home? In truth they were as nothing. And ye_he girl longed to leave Woodview. She had never been out of sight of hom_efore. Amid the violences of her stepfather there had always been her mothe_nd the meeting-house. In Woodview there was nothing, only Margaret, who ha_ome to console and persuade her to come downstairs. The resolution she had t_all out of her soul to do this exhausted her, and she went downstair_eedless of what anyone might say.
Two and three days passed without anything occurring that might suggest tha_he Fates were for or against her remaining. Mrs. Barfield continued to b_ndisposed, but at the end of the week Esther, while she was at work in th_cullery, heard a new voice speaking with Mrs. Latch. This must be Mrs.
Barfield. She heard Mrs. Latch tell the story of her refusal to go to work th_vening she arrived. But Mrs. Barfield told her that she would listen to n_urther complaints; this was the third kitchen-maid in four months, and Mrs.
Latch must make up her mind to bear with the faults and failings of this las_ne, whatever they were. Then Mrs. Barfield called Esther; and when sh_ntered the kitchen she found herself face to face with a little red-haire_oman, with a pretty, pointed face.
"I hear, Waters—that is your name, I think—that you refused to obey cook, an_alked out of the kitchen the night you arrived."
"I said, ma'am, that I would wait till my box came up from the station, s_hat I might change my dress. Mrs. Latch said my dress didn't matter, but whe_ne is poor and hasn't many dresses——"
"Are you short of clothes, then?"
"I have not many, ma'am, and the dress I had on the day I came——"
"Never mind about that. Tell me, are you short of clothes?—for if you are _aresay my daughter might find you something—you are about the sam_eight—with a little alteration——"
"Oh, ma'am, you are too good. I shall be most grateful. But I think I shall b_ble to manage till my first quarter's wages come to me."
And the scowl upon Mrs. Latch's long face did not kill the pleasure which th_ittle interview with that kind, sweet woman, Mrs. Barfield, had created i_er. She moved about her work, happy at heart, singing to herself as sh_ashed the vegetables. Even Mrs. Latch's harshness didn't trouble her much.
She felt it to be a manner under which there might be a kind heart, and sh_oped by her willingness to work to gain at least the cook's toleration.
Margaret suggested that Esther should give up her beer. A solid pint extra _ay could not fail, she said, to win the old woman's gratitude, and perhap_nduce her to teach Esther how to make pastry and jellies.
True that Margaret joined in the common laugh and jeer that the knowledge tha_sther said her prayers morning and evening inspired. She sometimes unite_ith Grover and Sarah in perplexing Esther with questions regarding he_revious situations, but her hostilities were, on the whole, gentle, an_sther felt that this almost neutral position was the best that Margaret coul_ave adopted. She defended her without seeming to do so, and seemed genuinel_ond of her, helping her sometimes even with her work, which Mrs. Latch mad_s heavy as possible. But Esther was now determined to put up with every tas_hey might impose upon her; she would give them no excuse for sending he_way; she would remain at Woodview until she had learned sufficient cooking t_nable her to get another place. But Mrs. Latch had the power to thwart her i_his. Before beginning on her jellies and gravies Mrs. Latch was sure to fin_ome saucepans that had not been sufficiently cleaned with white sand, and, i_er search proved abortive, she would send Esther upstairs to scrub out he_edroom.
"I cannot think why she is so down upon me," Esther often said to Margaret.
"She isn't more down upon you than she was on the others. You needn't expec_o learn any cooking from her; her plan has always been to take care that sh_hall not be supplanted by any of her kitchen-maids. But I don't see why sh_hould be always sending you upstairs to clean out her bedroom. If Grove_asn't so stand-offish, we might tell her about it, and she could tell th_aint—that's what we call the missis; the Saint would soon put a stop to al_hat nonsense. I will say that for the Saint, she do like everyone to hav_air play."
Mrs. Barfield, or the Saint, as she was called, belonged, like Esther, to th_ect known as the Plymouth Brethren. She was the daughter of one of th_armers on the estate—a very old man called Elliot. He had spent his life o_is barren down farm, becoming intimate with no one, driving hard bargain_ith all, especially the squire and the poor flint-pickers. He could be see_till on the hill-sides, his long black coat buttoned strictly about him, hi_oft felt hat crushed over the thin, grey face. Pretty Fanny Elliot had wo_he squire's heart as he rode across the down. Do you not see the shy figur_f the Puritan maiden tripping through the gorse, hastening the hoofs of th_quire's cob? And, furnished with some pretext of estate business, he ofte_ode to the farm that lay under the shaws at the end of the coombe. The squir_ad to promise to become one of the Brethren and he had to promise never t_et again, before Fanny Elliot agreed to become Mrs. Barfield. The ambitiou_embers of the Barfield family declared that the marriage was social ruin, bu_ore dispassionate critics called it a very suitable match; for it was no_orgotten that three generations ago the Barfields were livery-stable keepers; they had risen in the late squire's time to the level of county families, an_he envious were now saying that the Barfield family was sinking back whenc_t came.
He was faithful to his promises for a time. Race-horses disappeared from th_oodview stables. It was not until after the birth of both his children tha_e entered one of his hunters in the hunt steeplechase. Soon after the racin_table was again in full swing at Woodview. Tears there were, and some famil_isunion, but time extorts concessions from all of us. Mrs. Barfield ha_eased to quarrel with her husband on the subject of his racehorses, and he i_is turn did not attempt to restrict her in the exercise of her religion. Sh_ttended prayer-meetings when her soul moved her, and read the Scriptures whe_nd where she pleased.
It was one of her practices to have the women-servants for half-an-hour ever_unday afternoon in the library, and instruct them in the life of Christ. Mrs.
Barfield's goodness was even as a light upon her little oval face—reddish hai_rowing thin at the parting and smoothed back above the ears, as in an ol_ngraving. Although nearly fifty, her figure was slight as a young girl's.
Esther was attracted by the magnetism of racial and religious affinities; an_hen their eyes met at prayers there was acknowledgment of religious kinship.
A glow of happiness filled Esther's soul, for she knew she was no longe_holly among strangers; she knew they were united—she and her mistress—unde_he sweet dominion of Christ. To look at Mrs. Barfield filled her, somehow, with recollections of her pious childhood; she saw herself in the old shop, moving again in an atmosphere of prayer, listening to the beautiful story, i_he annunciation of which her life had grown up. She answered her mistress'_uestions in sweet light-heartedness of spirit, pleasing her with he_nowledge of the Holy Book. But in turn the servants had begun to read verse_loud from the New Testament, and Esther saw that her secret would be tor_rom her. Sarah had read a verse, and Mrs. Barfield had explained it, and no_argaret was reading. Esther listened, thinking if she might plead illness an_scape from the room; but she could not summon sufficient presence of mind, and while she was still agitated and debating with herself, Mrs. Barfiel_alled to her to continue. She hung down her head, suffocated with the sham_f the exposure, and when Mrs. Barfield told her again to continue the readin_sther shook her head.
"Can you not read, Esther?" she heard a kind voice saying; and the sound o_his voice loosed the feelings long pent up, and the girl, giving way utterly, burst into passionate weeping. She was alone with her suffering, conscious o_othing else, until a kind hand led her from the room, and this hand soothe_way the bitterness of the tittering which reached her ears as the doo_losed. It was hard to persuade her to speak, but even the first words showe_hat there was more on the girl's heart than could be told in a few minutes.
Mrs. Barfield determined to take the matter at once in hand; she dismissed th_ther servants and returned to the library with Esther, and in that dim roo_f little green sofas, bookless shelves, and bird-cages, the women—mistres_nd maid—sealed the bond of a friendship which was to last for life.
Esther told her mistress everything—the work that Mrs. Latch required of her, the persecution she received from the other servants, principally because o_er religion. In the course of the narrative allusion was made to the race- horses, and Esther saw on Mrs. Barfield's face a look of grief, and it wa_lear to what cause Mrs. Barfield attributed the demoralisation of he_ousehold.
"I will teach you how to read, Esther. Every Sunday after our Bibl_nstruction you shall remain when the others have left for half-an-hour. It i_ot difficult; you will soon learn."
Henceforth, every Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Barfield devoted half-an-hour to th_nstruction of her kitchen-maid. These half-hours were bright spots o_appiness in the serving-girl's weeks of work—happiness that had been an_ould be again. But although possessing a clear intelligence, Esther did no_ake much progress, nor did her diligence seem to help her. Mrs. Barfield wa_uzzled by her pupil's slowness; she ascribed it to her own inaptitude t_each and the little time for lessons. Esther's powerlessness to put syllable_ogether, to grasp the meaning of words, was very marked. Strange it was, n_oubt, but all that concerned the printed page seemed to embarrass and elud_er.