Read CHAPTER VII - ROSE GOES WEST AND ANNIE GOES EAST of A Houseful of Girls , free online book, by Sarah Tytler, on ReadCentral.com.

In the end it was settled, to Annie and Rose’s great satisfaction, and no less to the temporary relief of Dora and May’s quaking hearts, that the two former were to take the first plunge into unknown waters. If things had been as they were formerly, and there had been leisure to spare from rougher rubs for highly delicate considerations, it might, as has been hinted, have been held that Dora should have been the sister selected to go away from Redcross at least for a time.

But a great deal had happened since Tom Robinson’s unsuccessful suit and all connected with it had been in honour hushed up. People had too many weighty matters to think of to keep in mind that small sentimental episode between a couple of young people.

Rose’s fate was chalked out from the first. She was to be an artist that went without saying. She had certainly artistic talent, she might have genius. But though she had been tolerably well trained so far, by a good drawing-master at Miss Burridge’s, and by the lessons she had received from the wandering exhibitor at the Academy and the Grosvenor, neither she nor her family could be sufficiently infatuated to imagine she wanted no more teaching. Their conceptions of art might be crude, and their faith in Rose unbounded, but they did not suppose that she had only to open her portfolio and sell its contents as often as it was full. Dr. and Mrs. Millar made up their minds, Rose agreeing with them, that she should have at least a year in a London studio.

All the three considered it very fortunate when the artist who had given her lessons at Redcross, hearing of her intention, and of what had rendered it incumbent on her to work for her living, not only recommended a studio in which art classes were held, but good-naturedly gave her a testimonial and helped her to a post as assistant drawing-mistress in a ladies’ school, a situation which she could fill on two days of the week, while she attended the art classes on the remaining four. The salary thus obtained was of the smallest, but it would supplement Mrs. Millar’s allowance to Rose, and help to pay her board in some quiet, respectable family living midway between the school and the studio. Rose was a lucky girl, and she thought herself so. Indeed that minimum salary raised her to such a giddy pinnacle in her own estimation that it nearly turned her head. It was only her sisters, the wise Annie among them, who regarded the assistant drawing-mistress-ship with impatience as a waste of Rose’s valuable time and remarkable talents.

A qualification came soon to Rose’s exultation and to her pride in being the first of her father’s daughters and she the third in point of age who had just left school, and had hardly been reckoned grown-up by Annie till quite lately to earn real tangible money, gold guineas, however few. For something better still befell Annie. If Rose was lucky, Annie was luckier. True, she would never be a great artist, she would never get hundreds and thousands for a picture. At the utmost she would only be at the head of a charitable institution. She might save the greater part of her income then, and hand it over to her father, but that was a very different prospect from the other. Still, from the beginning Annie would be, so to speak, self-supporting; she need not cost her mother or anybody else a penny, her very dress would be provided for her. Above all Annie was going to do a great deal of good, to be a comfort and blessing, not only to her people, but to multitudes besides. She was, please God, to help to lessen the great crushing mass of pain and misery in the world, not by passive, sentimental sympathy, not by little fitful, desultory doles of practical aid, but by the constant daily work of her life. Young as Rose was, and enamoured of art in her way, she was able to comprehend that if Annie could do that worthy deed, her life would be greater in a sense, fuller in its humanity, perhaps also sweeter than that of the most famous and successful painter.

Annie had always taken a lively interest in her father’s profession, and he had liked her to do so. He had been fond of talking to her about it, and enlightening her on some of its leading principles. He had even pressed her into his service in little things, and been gratified by the hereditary firmness and lightness of grasp and touch, the control over her own nerves and power of holding those of others in check, the quick and correct faculty of observation she had displayed. But with all his loyal allegiance to the calling which had been his father’s before it was his, which he would have liked to see his son fill, if a son had been born to him, he was taken aback and well-nigh dismayed, as her mother was, when Annie came and told them quietly that she had made up her mind, if they would consent, to go into an hospital and be trained for a nurse. He laid before her as calmly and clearly as he could the conditions of the undertaking, and reminded her that it could not be gone into by halves, while he thought, as he spoke, that Annie was not the style of young woman to go into anything by halves.

Mrs. Millar followed with a trembling recital of the painfulness, the absolute horror to a young girl of many of the details of the office. But Annie was not shaken in the least. “I should not mind that,” she asserted with conviction. “I know there must be strict discipline and hard trying work, with no respite or relaxation to speak of; but I am young and strong, fitter to stand such an ordeal than most girls of my age are qualified. I am too young, you say? Yes, I admit that; it is a pity at least I know I have always reckoned myself too young when the thought crossed my mind six months a year ago, of leaving home and becoming trained for a nurse.”

“You don’t mean to say, Annie, that you ever thought of going out into the world before our misfortunes in connection with the bank?” cried both father and mother in one breath.

Annie hung her shapely head a little, then held it up, and confessed frankly, “Yes, I have. Oh, you must forgive me. It was not from any failure of kindness on your part, or, I trust, any failure on mine to appreciate your kindness, for I believe you are the best, dearest father and mother in the world,” she cried, carried out of herself, and betrayed into enthusiasm. “But what were you to do with a houseful of girls, when one would have served to give you all the help you need, mother, in your housekeeping and the company you see? I have hated the idea of being of no use in the world, unless I chanced to marry,” ended Annie, with a quick, impatient sigh.

“My dear, you are talking exaggerated nonsense.” Mrs. Millar reproved her daughter with unusual severity, dislodging her cap by the energy of her remonstrance, so that Annie had to step forward promptly, arrest it on its downward path, and set it straight before the conversation went any further. “Nobody said such things when I was young. I was one of a household of girls, far enough scattered now, poor dears!” parenthetically apostrophizing herself and her youthful companions with unconscious pathos “I would have liked to hear any one say to us, or to our father and mother, that we were no good in the world. I call it a positive sin in the young people of this generation to be so restless and dissatisfied, and so ready to take responsibilities upon themselves. It is a temptation of Providence to send such calamities as the one we are suffering from. You will know more about life when you are forced to work for yourself, and do not set about it out of pure presumption and self-will, with a good home to fall back upon when you are tired of your fad.”

Mrs. Millar had been hurt and mortified by Annie’s avowal. She had been further nettled by the slighting reflection on a houseful of girls, made by one of themselves, while she, their mother, the author of their being, poor unsophisticated woman! had always been proud of her band of bright, fair young daughters, and felt consoled by their very number for the lack of a son.

“Come, come, mother,” said Dr. Millar, “you must make allowance for the march of ideas.”

“I cannot help it,” said Annie, with another quick sigh. “I suppose girls are not so easily satisfied as they once were, or they have been taken so far, and not far enough, out of their place. I could not have remained content with tennis-playing and skating, or réchauffe school music, French and German, or fancy work, however artistic not even with teaching once a week in the Rector’s Sunday-school for my object in life. But after the way in which things have turned out, there is no need to discuss former views. Mother dear, it is surely well that I had not a hankering after idleness, after lying in bed half the forenoon, as people say the Dyers do, getting up only to read the silliest and fastest of novels, with secret aspirations after diamonds and a carriage and pair, if not a coach and six. Of course I should not have been contented with a one-horse shay, a mere doctor’s pill-box, such as you have put down, father, which Rose and May are determined to set up for you again before they are many year’s older.”

“Good little chits!” exclaimed the little Doctor, blowing his nose suspiciously. “Tell them, Annie, that I like walking above all things. I find it a great improvement on driving. I have been troubled with let me see, oh! yes, cold feet a deficiency in the circulation, not at all uncommon when one gets up in years, and after walking a bit I feel my toes all tingling and as warm as a toast.”

“I should prefer nursing to any other mode of earning my living,” said Annie, keeping to her point. “I may be presumptuous, like the girls of my day, as mother says, but I really think that I have a natural turn for nursing, derived from you father, and grandfather, no doubt, which might have made me also a good doctor supposing I had been a man, or supposing I had sought from the first to be a medical woman and had been educated accordingly. If I am wrong, you will set me right, won’t you?”

In place of contradicting her, he simply nodded in acquiescence, while he linked his hands across the small of his back.

“Mother, I do not think I should shrink from dressing wounds, if I only knew the best thing to do to avoid danger and give relief. You remember when Bella burnt her arm badly from the elbow to the wrist, I tied it up to keep out the air, before father came in, and he said it was rightly done, and would not change the dressing. And when poor Tim, who has lost his place with the putting down of the brougham, gave his hand the terrible hack with the axe in breaking wood for cook, I was able to stop the loss of blood, and did not get in the least faint myself. Yes, I know it would be very pitiful to see a human creature die whom we could not save,” she added, in a lower tone, “and very sad to prepare such a one for the grave. But, dear mother, somebody has to do it at some time, and I may be the somebody one day, anyhow I shall have to be indebted to my neighbour to do the last charitable offices for me. It might be all the easier to look forward to in my own case if I had done it for other people, not merely because they were my own, just because they were God’s creatures, and He had set me, among other women, to do the sorrowful work, and would lend me strength for the task.”

“I believe it, Annie,” said Dr. Millar firmly, as he looked at the reverently bent head, and listened to the faltering yet faithful words.

Mrs. Millar said no more, though the poor lady still shivered, as she looked at the girl in her brilliant youthful bloom. It was too terrible to think of her associated with disease and death, she whom her father and mother would have sheltered from every rough wind. Yet what was pretty Annie in the ranks of humanity, in the march of history? The frivolous product of a heathen world, the feminine counterpart of some

“Idle singer of an empty day”?

or

“A creature breathing thoughtful breath,
A traveller ’twixt life and death”

a Christian girl who with all true Christians had the Lord Christ, who went about doing good, for an everlasting example? And had there not all along been something fine in Annie, under her superficial hardness and inclination to conceal her feelings, something which her family had not suspected, brought to light by their troubles? something of which everybody connected with her would be prouder in all humility, with reason, in the days to come, than they had ever been proud of her supreme prettiness and lively tongue in times past.

“It is a pity about my age,” went on Annie ingenuously, lamenting over her deficiency in years as other people lament over their superfluity in that respect, “but it is a fault which will mend every day. I have found out that there are two hospitals which make twenty-three just a year older than I am the age of admission for probationers, and there is one hospital that admits them at twenty. Would not the fact of my being a doctor’s daughter go for something? Have you not interest, father, if you care to exert it, to get the hospital authorities to stretch a point where I am concerned? You might tell them that I am the eldest of the family,” drawing up her not very tall figure, “that I have been treated as grown-up for years and years, and that I have several younger sisters whom I have tried to keep in order.” There was a returning twinkle in Annie’s brown eyes and a comical curve of her rosy lips.

But she relapsed into extreme gravity the next moment; indeed, she was more agitated than she had yet been, and for Annie to betray an approach to tearfulness was a rare spectacle.

“There is something worse than my age. I am afraid I am not half good enough. I have a hasty temper; you have frequently said so, mother. I often speak sharply, and am not always aware when I am doing it. I hurt people, as I hurt myself, without being able to help it something seems to come over me and impel me to do it. Often I cannot resist making game of people. I am so silly and fond of fun, like a child, a great deal worse than ‘little May’ ever is, when the fit is upon me. Now, if I could think that I should lose patience with poor sick people, and wound instead of comforting them, or that I should find them food for my love of the ridiculous, and forget and neglect their wants in following my own amusement, I should hate myself I would die sooner than so disgrace a nurse’s calling.”

“You would not do it, my dear,” said Dr. Millar, with calm conviction.

“Why, what treason is this you are speaking against yourself?” cried Mrs. Millar, bristling up in her daughter’s defence, the assailant being that daughter. “You unkind or unfeeling when there was any call for kindness whoever heard of such a thing? I should as soon suspect Dora of harshness or levity in the same circumstances. Don’t you remember my bad eyes last winter, when I had to get that tincture dropped into them so often that your father could not always be at home to do it? You dropped the tincture as well as your father could, and though I know I must have made faces wry enough to frighten a cat, you never vouchsafed a remark, and I did not hear the ghost of a laugh. Poor Dora was ready to read to me by the hour, and to fetch and carry for me all day long, but when she tried to drop the tincture her hand shook so that she sent the liquid down my cheeks; and she was so frightened for giving me pain that I could see when I opened my eyes she was as white as a sheet, and fit to faint herself.”

“Dora’s hand will get steadier and her heart harder by and by,” said Dr. Millar, laughing. “Not that she has the knack of the operator, any more than you have, Maria. I don’t think one of you has it, except Annie here.”

“That was nothing,” said Annie quickly. She added in a lower tone, “And oh, mother, how could you imagine that I should laugh at your pain?”

“It was only for a moment, and I daresay it was not agonizing, as I was tempted to call it; very likely your father and you would not have so much as winced at it. Then there was Miss Sill, poor old Miss Sill. Annie, I am afraid you girls laughed at her. Girls will be girls, and she does dress outrageously. You all said her mantles were worse than my cap,” tenderly touching that untrustworthy piece of head-gear. “When she sent for your father all of a sudden, just when he had been summoned to Dr. Hewett’s brother, who was very ill, as we knew, while we thought Miss Sill had only one of her maiden-lady fancies, your father told you to go over and say he would be with her in the course of the day. But you found her nearly choking with bronchitis. How you were not frightened out of your senses, I, who am a great deal more than twice your age, and the mother of a family, cannot tell. You propped her up in exactly the right position, saw to the temperature of the room, and caused her cook to bring in the kitchen boiler and set it to steam on the hob, before another doctor could be found. Miss Sill told me all about it afterwards; she believes she owes her life to you.”

“Oh, nonsense,” protested Annie, “I was a little better than her two servants, who stood looking at her, and beginning to sob and cry; but I made several gross mistakes. You told me about them afterwards, father; it was a great mercy that I did not cause her death.”

“So far from that,” continued Mrs. Millar, in triumphant defiance, “she calls you her young doctor to this day, and says she will send for you in preference to your father or any other doctor the next time she has an attack.”

“Infatuated woman!” declared Annie.

“I have not needed to talk to you in order to get you to go with your sisters and see her since then. You have gone of your own accord twice as often, and I am sure you have not laughed at her half so much. In fact, I believe you are becoming quite attached to her.”

“I suppose I am grateful to her for not dying in my unskilled hands. I am afraid I still think her rather fantastic and foolish; but it does make a difference in one’s judgment of a person to have really rendered him or her a service. I ought to be fond of Miss Sill, after all, if she is to rank as my first patient.”

Mrs. Millar sank into silence on the instant. She stood convicted in her own eyes. What had she been doing? Proving to her daughter’s satisfaction that she had the special talents of a nurse!

“I am very glad that mother and you think me not by any means good enough, of course, not that, but not too impatient, sarcastic, and trifling to be a nurse,” said Annie brightly, addressing her father, who simply acquiesced in an absent-minded fashion.

After that there was no serious objection made to Annie’s wish, great as the wonder was at first a shock to her relations no less than to her acquaintances. The former reconciled themselves sooner to it than did the latter, with an entire faith in Annie and an affectionate admiration which was genuine homage. It swelled Dora’s heart well-nigh to bursting with sister-worship. How good Annie was showing herself, how capable of great acts of self-denial and self-consecration, while she was prettier than ever with her graceful head, her merry brown eyes, and that soft, warm colour of hers!

Only Mrs. Millar lay awake at night and cried quietly over what lay before her young daughter, her first-born, the flower of the flock, as people had called her in reference to her beauty. Annie’s pretty Grand-aunt Penny had at least enjoyed her day; she had had her triumph, however short-lived, in marrying the man of her heart, who was also a Beauchamp of Waylands, and in being raised for even a brief space to the charmed circle of the county. What she had to go through whether she would or not in the end, was not worse than Annie was proposing to encounter in the beginning, to live in an hospital, to spend her blooming life amidst frightful accidents, raging fevers, the spasm of agony replaced by the chill silence and stillness of death. Annie’s father’s time and strength had been given in much the same cause, ever since he was a young man passing his examinations and taking his diploma. But he was a man, which changed the whole aspect of affairs; besides he had always had a cheerful home to come back to, with the command of all the social advantages which Redcross, his native town, could afford. He had not lived among his patients with no life to speak of separate from theirs.

At the same time Mrs. Millar felt herself powerless. She dared no more interfere to keep back Annie from her calling than a good Roman Catholic mother would forbid her daughter’s “vocation.”