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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSix To Sixteen: A Story For Girls - Chapter 16. Eleanor's Reputation...
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Six To Sixteen: A Story For Girls - Chapter 16. Eleanor's Reputation... Post by :kayak33 Category :Long Stories Author :Juliana Horatia Ewing Date :May 2012 Read :2572

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Six To Sixteen: A Story For Girls - Chapter 16. Eleanor's Reputation...


We were not jealous of Eleanor's popularity. She was popular with the girls as well as with the teachers. If she was apt to be opinionated, she was candid, generous, and modest. She was always willing to help any one, and (the firmest seal of friendship!) she was utterly sincere.

She worked harder than any of us, so it was but just that she should be most commended. But of all who lagged behind her, and who felt Madame's severity, and created despair in the mind of the little arithmetic-master, the most unlucky was poor Matilda.

Matilda and I were now on the best of terms, and the credit of this happy condition of matters is more hers than mine.

It was not so much that I had learned more tact and sympathy (though I hope these qualities do ripen with years and better knowledge!) as because Matilda did most faithfully try to fulfil the good resolutions Major Buller's kindness had led her to make.

So far as Matilda's ailments were mental, I think that school-life may have been of some benefit.

Since the torments which have taught me caution in a household haunted by boys, I am less confidential with my diary than I used to be. And if I do not confide all my own follies to it, I am certainly not justified in recording other people's.

Not that Matilda makes any secret of the hero-worship she wasted on the man with the chiselled face and weird eyes, whom we used to see on the Riflebury Esplanade. She never spoke to him; but neither for that matter did his dog, a Scotch deerhound with eyes very like his master's, and a long nose which (uncomfortable as the position must have been) he kept always resting in his master's hand as the two paced up and down, hour after hour, by the sea.

What folly Miss Perry talked on the subject it boots not at this date to record. _I never indulged a more fanciful feeling towards him than wonder, just dashed with a little fear--but I would myself have liked to know the meaning of that long gaze he and the dog sometimes turned on us!

We shall never know now, however, for the poor gentleman died in a lunatic asylum.

I hope, when they shut him up, that they found the deerhound guilty also of some unhydrophobiac madness, and imprisoned the two friends together!

Of course we laugh now about Matilda's fancy for the insane gentleman, though she declares that at the time she could never keep him out of her head--that if she had met him thirty-four successive times on the Esplanade, she would have borne no small amount of torture to earn the privilege of one more turn to meet him for the thirty-fifth--and that her rest was broken by waking dreams of the possible misfortunes which might account for his (and the dog's) obvious melancholy, and of impossible circumstances in which she should act as their good angel and deliverer.

At the time she kept her own counsel, and it was not because she had ever heard of the weird-eyed gentleman and his deerhound that Mrs. Minchin concluded her advice to Aunt Theresa on one occasion by a shower of nods which nearly shook the poppies out of her bonnet, and the oracular utterance--"She's got some nonsense or other into her head, depend upon it. Send her to school!"

One thing has often struck me in reading the biographies of great people. They must have to be written in quite a different way to the biographies of common people like ourselves.

For instance, when a practised writer is speaking of the early days of celebrated poets, he says quite gravely--"Like Byron, Scott, and other illustrious men, Hogg (the Ettrick shepherd) fell in love in his very early childhood." And of course it sounds better than if one said, "Like Smith, and Brown, and Jones, and nine out of every ten children, he did not wait for years of discretion to make a fool of himself."

Not being illustrious, Matilda blushes to remember this early folly; and not being a poet's biographer, Aunt Theresa said in a severe voice, for the general behoof of the school-room, that "Little girls were sometimes very silly, and got a great deal of nonsense into their heads." I do not think it ever dawned upon her mind that girls' heads not being jam-pots--which if you do not fill them will remain empty--the best way to keep folly out was to put something less foolish in.

She would have taken a great deal of trouble that her daughters might not be a flounce behind the fashions, and was so far-seeing in her motherly anxieties, that she junketed herself and Major Buller to many an entertainment, where they were bored for their pains, that an extensive acquaintance might ensure to the girls partners, both for balls and for life when they came to require them. But after what fashion their fancies should be shaped, or whether they had wholesome food and tender training for that high faculty of imagination by virtue of which, after all, we so largely love and hate, choose right or wrong, bear and forbear, adapt ourselves to the ups and downs of this world, and spur our dull souls to the high hopes of a better--anxiety on these matters Mrs. Buller had none.

As to Mrs. Minchin, she would not have known what it meant if it had been put in print for her to read.

Matilda's irritability was certainly repressed in public by school discipline, and from Eleanor's companionship our interests were varied and enlarged. But in spite of these advantages her health rapidly declined. And this without its seeming to attract Miss Mulberry's notice.

Indeed, she meddled very little in the matter of our health. She kept a stock of "family pills," which she distributed from time to time amongst us. They cured her headaches, she said; and she seemed rather aggrieved that they did not cure Matilda's.

But poor Matilda's headaches brought more than their own pain to her. They seemed to stupefy her, and make her quite incapable of work. Her complexion took a deadly, pasty hue, one eye was almost entirely closed, and to a superficial observer she perhaps did look--what Madame always pronounced her--sulky. Then, no matter how fully any lesson was at her fingers' ends, she stumbled through a series of childish blunders to utter downfall; and Madame's wrath was only equalled by her irony. To do Matilda justice, she often used almost incredible courage in her efforts to learn a task in spite of herself. Now and then she was successful in defying pain; but by some odd revenge of nature, what she learned in such circumstances was afterwards wiped as completely from her memory as an old sum is sponged from a slate.

To headache and backache, to vain cravings for more fresh air, and to an inequality of spirits and temper to which Eleanor and I patiently submitted, Matilda still added a cough, which seemed to exasperate Madame as much as her stupidity.

Not that our French governess was cruelly disposed. When she took Matilda's health in hand and gave her a tumbler of warm water every morning before breakfast, she did so in all good faith. It was a remedy that she used herself.

Poor Matilda was furious both with Madame's warm-water cure and Miss Mulberry's pill-box. She had a morbid hatred of being "doctored," which is often characteristic of chest complaints. She struggled harder than ever to work, in spite of her headaches; she ceased to complain of them, and concealed her cough to a great extent, by a process known amongst us as "smothering." The one remedy she pined for--fresh air--was the last that either Miss Mulberry or Madame considered appropriate to any form of a "cold."

This craving for fresh air helped Matilda in her struggle with illness. Our daily "promenade" was dull enough, but it was in the open air; and to be kept indoors, either as a punishment for ill-said lessons, or as a cure for her cough, was Matilda's great dread.

Night after night, when Madame had paid her final visit to our rooms, and we were safe, did Eleanor creep out of bed and noiselessly lower the upper sash of our window to please Matilda; whilst I sat (sometimes for an hour or more) upon the bolster of the bed in which Matilda and I slept together, and "nursed her head."

What quaint, pale, grave little maids we were! As full of aches and pains, and small anxieties, and self-repression, and tender sympathy, as any other daughters of Mother Eve.

Eleanor and I have often since said that we believe we should make excellent nurses for the insane, looking back upon our treatment of poor Matilda. We knew exactly when to be authoritative, and when to sympathize almost abjectly. I became skilful in what we called "nursing her head," which meant much more than that I supported it on my knees. Softly, but firmly, I stroked her brow and temples with both hands, and passed my fingers through her hair to the back of her head. I rarely failed to put her to sleep, and as she never woke when I laid her down, I have since suspected myself of unconscious mesmerism.

One night, when I had long been asleep, I was awakened by Matilda's hysterical sobs. She "couldn't get into a comfortable position;" her "back ached so." Our bed was very narrow, and I commonly lay so poised upon the outer edge to give Matilda room that more than once I have rolled on to the floor.

We spoke in undertones, but Eleanor was awake.

"Come and see if you can sleep with me, Margery," she said. "I lie very straight."

I scrambled out, and willingly crept in behind Eleanor, into her still narrower bed; and after tearful thanks and protestations, poor Matilda doubled herself at a restful angle, and fell asleep.

Happily for me, I was very well. Eleanor suffered from the utter change of mode of life a good deal; but she had great powers of endurance.

Fatigue, and "muddle on the brain," often hindered her at night from learning the lessons for next day. But she worked at them nevertheless; and tasks, that by her own account she "drove into her head" in bed, though she was quite unable to say them that evening, seemed to arrange themselves properly in her memory before the morning.

Matilda's ill-health came to a crisis at last. To smother a cough successfully, you must be able to escape at intervals. On one occasion the smothering was tried too long, and after the aggravated outburst which ensued, the doctor was called in. The Bush House family practitioner being absent, a new man came for him, who, after a few glances at Matilda, postponed the examination of her lungs, and begged to see Miss Mulberry.

Matilda had learned her last lesson in Bush House.

From the long interview with the doctor, Miss Mulberry emerged with a troubled face.

Lessons went irregularly that day. Our quarter of an hour's recreation was as much extended as it was commonly cut short, and Madame herself was subdued. She became a very kind nurse to Matilda, and crept many times from her bed during the night to see if "la pauvre petite" were sleeping, or had a wish that she could satisfy.

Indeed, an air of remorse seemed to tinge the kindness of the heads of Bush House to poor Matilda, which connected itself in Eleanor's mind with a brief dialogue that she overheard between Miss Mulberry and the doctor at the front door:

"I feel there has been culpable neglect," said Miss Mulberry mournfully. "But----"

"No, no. At least, not wilful," said the doctor; "and springing from the best motives. But I should not be doing my duty, madam, towards a lady in your responsible position, if I did not say that I have known too many cases in which the ill-results have been life-long, and some in which they have been rapidly fatal."

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