NELLY'S FIRST SCHOOL-DAYS
by JOSEPHINE FRANKLIN
Boston: Brown and Taggard, 1860
Scanned by Deidre Johnson for her 19th-century Girls' Series website; please do not use on other sites without permission
NOT very far from Nelly's home, stood a small, time-worn, wooden house.
It was not a pleasant object at which to look. A few vines that had been trained over one of the front windows, and a stunted currant-bush which stood by the door, were the only green things within the broken fence. In summer, the cottage looked bald and hot, from its complete exposure to the sun (no trees grew near to shade it), and in winter, the rough winds rattled freely around its unprotected walls.
In this house lived a family by the name of Harrow. It consisted of the widowed mother, a woman who had once moved in a far higher sphere of life, and her two daughters, Milly and Elinor. There was a son, too, people said, but he did not live at home, having had the ingratitude, some time before the Harrows moved to the village, to desert his home and run away to sea.
Mrs. Harrow and her children were very poor. No one knew but them- selves how hard they found it to get work enough to earn their daily bread. The neighbors, among whom they were much respected, had long supposed from many outward signs that the family had no means to spare, but they were - far from conjecturing that often,, the mild, patient-looking Mrs. Harrow, and her two gentle girls, were losing their strength from actual famine. The little money they had, came to them through their own exertions; their needle-work was celebrated far and near for its delicacy and exquisite finish. In that small neighborhood, however, the sewing which was brought to them to undertake, did not amount to much, and the prices, too, were low, and provision-rates very high.
At last, just as despair was dawning on the household, Elinor, the eldest daughter, heard of a situation as domestic in the family of a farmer, who lived over the mountains, near Nancy's old home. The poor girl's pride was dreadfully wounded at the thought of applying for such a place, she a lady born and bred, - but necessity knew no law, and a few days only elapsed before pretty Miss Elinor was located at the farm as a servant. It was a hard trial; mournful tears forced themselves from her eyes whenever she gave herself time to think about such a state of affairs.
The farmer was a poor, hard-working, painstaking man, and his wife was quite as thrifty and industrious, so that between them they managed to lay by a little money, every year, in the Savings Bank.
When Elinor came to them, the bustling farmer's wife could not realize that the tall, pale, elegant-looking creature was not quite as able to rub and scrub from morning to night as she was her- self. She did not take into consideration that the girl was unaccustomed to much hard labor, and that her frame was not equal to the burdens that were put upon it.
The consequence was that when Elinor went to her room at night, she was too completely worn out to sleep, and in the mornings, rose feeling sick and weary. She did not complain, however, but went about her duties day after day, growing gradually more pale and feeble, and storing in her system the seeds of future disease.
When the farmer's wife saw her moving slowly around her tidy, spotless kitchen, she thought her a lazy girl, and often told her so in a loud, sharp tone, that was a very great trial to hear patiently, which Elinor always did, and then set about working more steadily than ever.
So the weeks went on, till, one morning, the maid of all work was missing from her place. She had been seized with a sickness, that had long been secretly hanging over her, and now she could not rise from her bed.
Martin, a boy who lived at Mr. Brooks', told Nelly that Miss Elinor fell at her post like a sentinel wounded on duty.
When the doctor came, he informed the farmer and his wife that their servant had lost the use of her limbs, through an affection of the spine, which had been brought on by lifting too heavy burdens, and she was indeed as unable to move hand or foot to help herself as a baby could be. Her mind, however, was not impaired. The farmer thought it would have been fortunate if it had been, for she seemed to suffer such terrible mental anguish about her misfortune, and the new care and misery she was bringing on her mother and sister.
The farmer took her home in his wagon, a confirmed cripple. Her mother and Milly helped him to carry her up to her old bedroom, and there she lay, suffering but little pain, it is true, but at the time of our story, having no hope of recovery.
The days were very long to Elinor now. She despised herself for ever having repined at fate before. What was all she had endured previously, to this trial? There was no light work of any kind, not even sewing, which she could do, as she lay on her bed, and this made the time seem longer. She was forced to be idle from daylight till dark. She could have read, it is true, but she had no books, and to buy any was an extravagance, of which, with the scanty means of the family, she did not allow herself to dream.
The neighbors were shocked to hear of Elinor's misfortune. They visited her, and at first, sent her little delicacies to tempt her appetite, but by and by, although they pitied her as much as ever, they forgot her in the events of their own domestic circles. One. very cold winter night Milly came into Mrs. Brooks's kitchen, and asked Comfort, a colored woman who worked for the family, where her mistress was. Comfort promptly led the way to the sitting-room, where grouped coseyly [sic] around the centre-table were the different members of the farmer's family. A bright fire blazed on the hearth, and the woolen curtains were tightly drawn to ' keep out the winds ' that whistled around the farm-house.
At the sight of this picture of comfort, Milly 's pretty lips quivered. She took kind-hearted Mrs. Brooks aside. I
"Dear Mrs. .Brooks," said Milly, "I must say it; we are starving! Elinor lies, dying with cold and hunger, in her bed. Mother has not tasted a mouthful since yesterday, and she is so proud she would not let me beg. What are we to do? I have run over here to ask your sympathy and aid, for we have not one friend to whom we feel as though we might apply."
Tears gathered in Milly's eyes.
"And pray," said the farmer's wife, "what do you consider me, Milly, if not a friend? You ought not to have delayed so long in this matter. I feel really hurt. Why did you not come to me before ? "
She led the way into the kitchen that the young girl's sad tale might not draw upon her too close attention from the children.
Milly Harrow sank upon a seat, before the fire on the hearth, and wept such bitter, heart-breaking tears as it is to be hoped no one who reads her story has ever known. She was a gentle, refined, well-educated girl of twenty, and had met much more sorrow than happiness.
" Milly," said the farmer's wife kindly, and advancing as she spoke, from. the open door of the pantry, " come here to the table and see how a bit of this roast fowl tastes. And try this glass of currant wine,—you need not be afraid of it, it is home-made. While you are busy with it, I'll get a little basket ready, and put on my cloak to run over with you when you go back."
Milly blushed, crimson. It was difficult to her to learn the hard lessons of poverty. Nevertheless, she ate some bread and cold chicken, and was quite ready to praise the delicate wine for the grateful warmth it sent thrilling through- out her frame.
When she had finished, Mrs. Brooks was ready to accompany her, and Comfort too, having received private instructions, stood with her shawl over her head, and a large basket of wood in her hand.
So they set out together, Milly leading the way, the snow crunching under their feet, along the path.
In a short time, a bright fire was burning in patient Elinor's room, while the remains of a little feast on a table in the centre, showed that the family suffered no longer from the pangs of actual starvation.
Elinor was bolstered up in bed, looking like a wan, despairing woman of fifty, instead of a girl of twenty-two. Care and sickness had aged her before her time. A faint, sweet flush was dawning on her cheeks to-night, however, for she was not now enduring hunger, and Mrs. Brooks sat there by the cheerfully blazing hearth with her mother and sister, and talked hope into all their hearts.
"I tell you what it is, Mrs. Harrow," said the farmer's wife, in a pleasant, hearty tone, "we must set this Milly of yours to work. Things ought not to go on this way with your family any longer."
"Work!" echoed Milly, a little bitterly; "I've seen the time, dear Mrs. Brooks, when I would have given anything for a month's work. Only tell me something to do, and see how grateful I shall be."
"Well," said the farmer's wife, "the darkest hour is just before day, Milly; who knows but that yours is now over, and dawn is coming. I have been thinking about your opening a school." Mrs. Harrow clasped her hands eagerly.
" Oh, if she could ! oh, if she could!" she cried. "But who would think of sending their children to us, when there are already two or three other schools in the village ? "
"Miss Felix is just giving hers up, and is going to the city," said Mrs. Brooks. "I know it to be a fact, be- cause I went to see her about taking Nelly last week. That will be quite an opening. I can go to her to-morrow, get a list of her pupils, and call on the parents to secure their good-will, if you say so, Milly."
Milly could scarcely answer for sobbing. At last she said in a broken voice, " dear, dear Mrs. Brooks, this is more than I have any reason to hope. How can I ever repay you for your kindness?"
"By taking good care of Nelly when I send her to you as your first pupil," was the cheerful reply. "And now let me see what are your accommodations. You must have our Martin for a day or two, to knock you together some long benches with backs, and Comfort can help you cover and cushion them with some old green baize that I have in the garret. What room can you give to the use of the schoolmistress, Mrs. Harrow?"
"Well," said the old lady, smiling for the first time in a month, " the front room, down-stairs, is best, I think, be- cause it opens directly on the road. I can take the furniture out, (what there is of it!) and clean it up like a June pink, in a day or two."
"The carpet is rather shabby and threadbare," suggested Milly. "And little pegged shoes will soon spoil it completely," added Mrs. Brooks. " I should say a better plan will be to take it up entirely. A clean board floor, nicely swept and sanded every morning, is plenty good enough. What books have you, Milly?"
"All my old school-books, and brother's, and Elinor's too," said the young girl. "That will do to begin on till the pupils purchase their own."
"I could teach French," put forth Elinor's voice from the bed,—"that is, if it would answer for the class to come up here. You know, mother, I used to speak it fluently when I was at Madame Thibault's. Don't you think I might try ? My voice and my patience , are strong, if I am not;" and she smiled, oh, such a smile! It brought tears into the eyes of all in that poor, little, desolate apartment.
" Try! " said the farmer's wife; " why, Elinor, that is just the. thing for you! You may count me as one in your class. It was only yesterday I was regretting having no opportunity to practise what little of the language I know already. We must arrange your room a little, Ellie, and have everything looking spruce, and Frenchified, eh?" At this Elinor herself began to cry. " You are so, s-o-o g-o-o-o-d," she exclaimed.
"Good! Not at all!" said Mrs. Brooks; and by way of proving how far from good she was really, she hopped up like a bird, and was at the bedside in a minute, smoothing-out the pillows and kissing Elinor's pale forehead.
"I'll take my first lesson to-morrow afternoon," she said, "if you have no objections; and your kind mother here, can begin to profit herself at once by your labor, and send over to our meal- bag and dairy as often as she pleases."
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