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  ― 40 ―

Esther.

ESTHER was a frail little girl, with a face so thin and wan that the freckles seemed to have fallen like a merciful veil upon it. She was not pretty. Her hair was too short to plait, not long enough to hang gracefully loose, and its fibre was altogether too contrary for curls. So it hung miserably about her ears, ragged and tattered like the remnant of a flag that might have issued from the fire and smoke of battle.

She was a friendless orphan, which fact made her a born servant to somebody. Old Mrs. MacSmith had secured her services from the State when she first began to toddle on two legs—two legs that soon became bowed under the pots and pans she had to carry in her small arms—and next to her heart.

Thenceforth the MacSmith household was perpetually in a state of war. Her mistress beat her. Esther screamed, and fought fiercely. But Mrs. MacSmith had a duty to perform. So she would grip the little rebel by the windpipe, and call for “Mac.” He always came, swift and sure, and the enemy was routed.

Thus, for all the eight years of her life, Esther's existence had been one of screams and pain. She was such a bold, bad girl,—a mere handful, but with a stubborn heart, primed so full of foolish courage that it must surely have burst, were it not for the vent-pipes that relieved the pressure when Esther called people names, and wouldn't work, and scratched the collective face of the MacSmith family with finger-nails kept sharp for that purpose. And she had two other safety-valves to her feelings. One was to laugh hysterically when, for exhibition purposes, she was expected to cry; and the other was to sob heart-breakingly when someone


  ― 41 ―
tried to cheer her with a kind word. Mr. Giles, the parson, once said of her:

“A regular passion-flower, my dear; but not quite so pretty.” A simile so vague that Esther resentfully poked out her tongue.

The MacSmith family had only one greeting to bestow—“You little wretch!”

The canker grew in Esther's heart. At times, she stole in through the window of the empty cottage next door, and, alone and unobserved, began talking to herself. It was the one little sociable break in her martyrdom.

“Why don't I die?” she asked herself once.

She was eating a green apple. She took another bite, and swallowed it.

“That's why,” she said. “Because I'm a greedy-guts.”

And then, after a pause, and looking wistfully at the cold fire-place, she added:

“Oh, I do wish I didn't eat!”

“Why don't I run away?” was the next question.

She waxed violent at this.

“Because I'm a looney; and here goes for squashing old Mother MacSmith, anyway.” She brought down the heel of her boot on a large black spider, creeping on the floor.

“That's forty-three times I've killed her now!” she commented, surveying the remains with satisfaction. “And it was twice a frog, and once a mary-bug.” She laughed shrilly. “Oh, I'll kill her yet,” she added.

The helpless buzzing of a fly, caught in a spider's web, came from a corner. Esther investigated. She killed the spider, and threw the rescued fly out of the window.

Soon after this the cottage found a tenant. Mr. and Mrs. Mullampy, a pair newly wed, brought in their furniture.

Their honeymoon had been a very nice luminary while it lasted. The cheers of their friends, and the rice, and the proverbial old


  ― 42 ―
shoe, had given them entrance to married life with quite a violent propulsion. But the law of gravitation told, and they slowed down. Then the rainbow lost the glory of its tints; the mantle of chimney-smoke fell on their air-castles; and they themselves came right down to the bed-rock of the prosaic. When they couldn't get down any further they commenced to argue. Then the price of meat went up; the milkman began to call regularly; and married life on a solid basis had begun.

Esther took a great interest in their arguments. Tiptoeing her way on to the very threshold of the Mullampys' kitchen at meal-time, she would listen attentively. And she learnt many things. She found that she was not the only unhappy person in the world. Once she saw the husband lift his hand to strike his wife. “Don't!” Esther screamed. The hand was arrested. Esther ran away.

After that, the child's presence came to be one of the subconscious details of their domestic dramas. Nor did they resent it. In their inmost hearts they felt that Esther's shadow, falling athwart the doorway, was to them Love's decoy-bird, a creature swaying them with such a strange influence that more than once the man was tempted to crush his pride and call the child in to plead for a kiss with the woman he really loved. And the woman, being weaker, could not keep the pain out of her eyes. Yet she, too, was very proud.

Often, in the midst of bitter recrimination, the husband would suddenly stop short and glance fearfully at the door. Esther's ragged head would pop quickly back, and the man, with increased colour, would get up awkwardly from the table and vanish through the opposite doorway.

On one of these occasions, when the husband had left the room, Esther dropped something heavily on the floor. Mrs. Mullampy looked up from the table, and her visitor, looking very red and guilty, advanced towards her. In one hand, which hung limp and passive by her side, a large horse-shoe dangled.




  ― 43 ―

“Whatever do——”

“Please, don't; I know I'm wicked.”

“What's that for?” Mrs. Mullampy pointed at the horse-shoe.

“'Cos if I don't tell no lies I won't go to heaven,” said Esther, a little mixed, and trying to nerve herself, in a roundabout way, for a momentous admission. She drew a long breath.

To brain him with, please!” she said.

“Who?”

Him. 'Cos he wanted to hit you.”

Mrs. Mullampy looked at her in silence for a while. Esther hated to be pitied. She gave her head a proud toss, calculated to change the compassionate expression of the woman's eyes.

“I hate him!” she said, spitefully. She tossed her head again. This time two gum-leaves and a twig dropped from her tangled hair to the floor.

“My dear child!” the woman said, softly.

Esther's lip quivered. Then she thought of the spider she had killed on the very spot where she was standing. The recollection made her more cheerful. Mrs. Mullampy picked up the horse-shoe.

“Would you hit me with this, Esther?” she asked.

The child shook her head.

“Well, then, don't hit him! If you do, you'll hit me.”

Esther's mouth opened wide.

“'Tain't a boomerang like Joe MacSmith's,” she said, sharply.

Mrs. Mullampy made an impatient gesture. She bit her lip, as though restraining an exclamation.

“You don't understand,” she said.

A sweet temptation came over her, and she lifted the child on to her knees, and with all the patience of a loving teacher commenced to explain. She outpoured the long pent-up secrets of her heart to Esther Anon a querulous note crept into her voice—a compromise of sweet and bitter—a woman's sense of being wronged struggling with the unreasoning vagaries of a forgiving heart.

Esther was not listening. Once or twice she fancied she heard


  ― 44 ―
Mrs. MacSmith's voice calling her from the next yard. She was tired of sitting on Mrs. Mullampy's knee. The shrill cry of her mistress rang out unmistakably now. She felt uneasy.

“Let me down, please.”

“Don't go yet, Esther!” the woman pleaded, “I want to say something.”

But Esther had reached the door.

Mrs. Mullampy, after all, was little more than a girl herself. The romantic story and the coy admissions seemed to linger about every ornament in the room when the child had gone. A china peacock over the mantel-piece, with tail outspread, repeated distinctly, she thought, her own words:

“I love him, Esther!”

And the voice of that peacock overwhelmed her. She sat aghast. Then slowly, like an apple ripening in an hour, her cheeks grew red. She snatched at the tablecloth and buried her face in it, like a school-girl trying to hide her blushes.

Esther had not gone. She cautiously peeped round the doorway. The horse-shoe was dangling with one end poked through a tear in her skirt. She couldn't keep her thoughts off that spider. She was tracing with her eyes the different routes it might have taken if she had not intercepted it. Her conjectures brought her glance to the corner door. It was ajar, and she saw Mr. Mullampy looking at his wife through the opening. And she saw Mrs. Mullampy start and cry out when she uncovered her head and found her husband standing beside her.

“Jane,” he said, softly, “I heard all. Forgive me!”

The woman was too happy to trust herself yet. With the blind instinct of her sex, which always makes a show of flying in the face of Fate, however friendly it may be, she pretended to be angry at being found out.

“Oh,” she said pettishly, “it's all Esther's fault. She made me say it.”

“Then God bless Esther!” said the man.




  ― 45 ―

The girl had run round the back way, and was peeping through the window. She saw them kiss. The woman's arms were round the man's neck.

Then Esther began to cry. She felt that she alone was miserable and unhappy.

“I've a good mind to throw it,” she said, raising the horse-shoe threateningly. “Only I can't hit him without hitting her.”

“Anyway, for luck!” she added, throwing it over her left shoulder. It fell heavily on a stray fowl belonging to Mrs. MacSmith. Esther clapped her hands in glee.

Then she took a farewell peep through the window, and that which she saw, whatever it was, made her say:

“Crikey!”

J. J. O'MEARA.

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