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A Girl in Ten Thousand

L. T. Meade

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  "You are the comfort of my life, Effie. If you make up your mind to goaway, what is to become of me?"

  The speaker was a middle-aged woman. She was lying on a sofa in a shabbylittle parlor. The sofa was covered with horse-hair, the room had afaded paper, and faded chintz covered the shabby furniture. The woman'spleading words were emphasized by her tired eyes and worn face. Shelooked full at the young girl to whom she spoke.

  "What shall I do without you, and what will your father say?"

  "I have made up my mind," said Effie. "I don't want to be unkind to you,mother,--I love you more than words can say,--but I must go out into theworld. I must live my life like other girls."

  "You had none of these ideas until you met Dorothy Fraser."

  "Yes, I have had them for a long time; Dorothy has given them emphasis,that's all. Dorothy's mother did not like her to go away, but now she isglad. She says that nothing has made Dorothy into so fine a woman astaking her life into her own hands, and making the best she can of it.Before I go, mother, I will get Agnes to learn all my duties; she shallhelp you. She is nearly fourteen; she ought to be of use to you, oughtshe not?"

  "She would not be like you," replied Mrs. Staunton. "She is very young,remember, and is at school most of the day. I won't argue with you,Effie, but it tires me even to think of it."

  Effie sighed. She bent down and kissed her mother. Her words had soundedhard and almost defiant, but there was nothing at all hard or defiantabout her sweet face. She was a dark-eyed girl, and looked as if shemight be any age between seventeen and twenty. There was a likenessbetween her and her mother quite sufficient to show their relationship;both faces were softly curved, both pairs of eyes were dark, and themother must have been even prettier in her youth than the daughter wasnow.

  "As I say," continued Mrs. Staunton, "it fills me with terror to thinkof doing without you."

  "Try not to think of it, mother. I am not going yet, I only want to govery much indeed. I am going to talk to father about it. I want to havethe thing arranged while Dorothy is here."

  Here Effie went suddenly on her knees by the sofa and threw one youngarm protectingly round her mother.

  "You do not know what it means to me," she said. "When Dorothy talks ofthe full life, the keen interest, the battle, the thrill of living, Ifeel that I must go into it--I must."

  While Effie was speaking, Mrs. Staunton looked fixedly at her. There aremoments which all mothers know, when they put themselves completely outof sight, when they blot themselves out, as it were. This time had cometo Mrs. Staunton now.

  After a pause, she said, and her words came out even without a sigh:

  "The question, after all, is this, Effie: What will your father say?"

  "When he thinks it out carefully he will be pleased," replied Effie. "Hemust be interested in the profession I want to take up. How often--oh,how often, mother--has he groaned and sighed at the bad nursing whichhis patients get! You know you have always said, and he has said thesame, that I am a born nurse. Won't he be proud and pleased when I comehome and tell him all about the new ways in which things are done inLondon hospitals? You know there are six of us, and Agnes and Katie aregrowing up, and can take my place at home presently. Of course I knowthat father is quite the cleverest doctor in Whittington, but nobodygets ill here, and it is quite impossible to go on clothing and feedingsix of us with no means at all. I do not think I am vain, mother, and Ido not really care very much about dress, but mine is shabby, is it not?I think I should look pretty--as pretty as you must have looked longago--if I were better dressed."

  "No dress can change your face," said Mrs. Staunton, with suddenpassion. "You have the sweetest and dearest face in the world to me.When you go away the sunshine will go out of my life; but, my darling,my darling, I won't--you shall never have it to say that your motherstood in your way. I must think, however, of what your father will sayto this. I can only warn you that if there is one person your fatherdreads and dislikes more than another, it is the modern girl. He said tome, 'Thank God, Effie has none of that hideous modernity about her. Sheis fairly good-looking; she does not think about Girton or Newnham, orany of the women's colleges; in short, she has no advanced ideas.'"

  "That is all he knows," replied Effie. "The fact is, I must and will dosomething to earn my living. You are sending George out into the worldto win his spurs, and I am going to win mine."

  "In what way?" asked Mrs. Staunton. "You know you are not clever."

  "Dorothy thinks I can be a nurse, mother. May she come and see you, andtalk it all over?"

  "There is no harm in talking it over," said Mrs. Staunton. "But now Iwish you would go upstairs and help Susan to put the children to bed.You can bring baby downstairs if you like, and I will undress him. Runalong, Effie--run along, there's a good child."

  "Oh, yes, mother, I'll go; only just answer me one question first. MayDorothy come here after supper to-night?"

  "What is the use of my seeing her? Your father is the one to decide."

  "I will ask father to stay in after supper."

  "I don't think he will. A message has come from the Watson people overat the farm. Mrs. Watson was taken bad with a stitch an hour ago, andthey want your father as quickly as he can go."

  "Well, he will be back in time--he won't spend the whole evening there.Anyhow, Dorothy can come and see you, and if father does come in beforeshe leaves, well and good. I may run and tell her to come, may I not?"

  "Won't you put the children to bed first, and bring me baby?"

  "Oh, yes, yes, if you insist."

  "I do, Effie; while you are at home you must help me all you can. I havenot had a bit of strength since baby was born. It is perfectly dreadfulto feel all your strength going and to know that things are at sixes andsevens, and however hard you try you cannot put them right. Dear me,Effie, I did think when you were grown up that you would stay at homeand be a comfort to me."

  "I shall be a greater comfort to you when I send you money from London.Now, don't speak another word. I will put the children to bed, and Iwill look after baby myself, while you close your eyes and go to sleep."

  Effie pressed her warm young lips on the older woman's brow, and thenran out of the room.

  There was a large nursery upstairs, where everything at the presentmoment was, as Effie's mother had said, at sixes and sevens. Thenursemaid, a young girl of seventeen, was not up to her duties--thechildren ruled her, instead of her ruling the children. Effie, however,could be masterful enough when she liked. She had a natural sense oforder, and she soon put things straight in the nursery. The childrenwere undressed quickly and put to bed; and then Effie, taking the babyin her arms, asked Susan to go downstairs.

  "You can have your supper," she said. "I will look after baby."

  "I thought my missus would like me to take baby to her," said the girl.

  "No; I will look after him for the present," said Effie. "Mother istired, and she must sleep. Run away, Susan, and have your supper, andcome back here as quickly as you can."

  "Yes, Miss Effie; and I am sure I am very much obliged to you. You 'as awonderful way with the children, and I only wish I could learn it."

  Susan left the room. Pressing the baby's soft curly head against herbreast, Effie began to pace
up and down with it. The baby was threemonths old; he was fractious and disinclined to sleep, but when hissister began to purr a soft song into his ear, an old nursery rhymewhich her mother had sung to her long ago, his wide-open eyes closed,and he sank off into peaceful slumber.

  When she saw that he was quite sound asleep, Effie put him in his cot,drew the cot near the crib where Philip, a dark-eyed little boy of five,lay, and bending down to kiss Phil, said:

  "You are to be baby's nurse until Susan comes up; if he wakes or beginsto cry, just pat him on his back. I am most anxious that mother shouldhave a quiet time; she is just worn out, and if she hears baby cry sheis certain to send for him. Now, Phil, you are a very clever little manwhen you like--I trust to you to keep baby from crying until Susan comesback!"

  "'Es, that I will," replied Phil, in a voice of intense importance. "Ido love 'ou, Effie," he said.

  Effie kissed him, and softly left the room. She ran downstairs, andbegan to help the servant to lay supper.

  No one could look more bright than Effie as she performed the thousandand one duties which fell to her lot in this poor home. Dr. Staunton waspoor, there were six children, Effie was the eldest daughter; it needsno more words to explain her exact position. From morning to night Effiewas busy, very busy, doing what she herself called nothing. She wasgetting discontented with her life. A feeling of discontent had stolenover her ever since her eldest brother George had gone to London, tohelp his uncle in a large warehouse. For months the dream of her lifewas to give up the little duties near at hand, and to take some greatduties which nobody wanted her to do, far away from home. She was quiteprepared for the advice which her friend Dorothy Fraser, who lived allthe year round in London, and only came home for the holidays toWhittingham, was able to give her. Effie's conscience was not in theleast pricked at the thought of leaving her mother--it seemed to herquite right. "Had she not to make the most of her youth? Why should shespend all her young days in looking after the children, and makingthings tolerable for her father and mother?"

  These thoughts kept swiftly passing through her brain, as shenoiselessly laid the table and made it look charming and pretty. Whenall was done, she took up a little frock of one of the children's, and,sitting down by the window, began to work. Her pretty dark head was bentover her task; her thick curling lashes lay heavy on her rounded cheek.Mrs. Staunton, who had been having a doze on the sofa, started up nowand looked at her.

  "Oh, Effie dear, I have had such a nice sleep," she said, with a littlesigh; "I am ever so much the better for it. But what have you done withbaby?"

  "I have put him to sleep, mother; he is in his cot now, as comfortableas possible."

  "How good of you, Effie! What a comfort you are to me!"

  Effie smiled. "I think I hear father coming in," she said, "and supperis quite ready."

  Mrs. Staunton started up from the sofa; she pushed back her tumbledhair, and shook out her somewhat untidy dress.

  "Now let me make you trim," said Effie.

  She ran over to her parent, put back her gray hair with an affectionatelittle touch, and then kissed her mother on her flushed cheeks.

  "You look better for your nice sleep, mother," she said.

  "So I am, darling, and for your loving care," replied Mrs. Staunton.

  Her husband came into the room, and she took her place before thetea-tray.

  Supper at the Stauntons' was a nondescript sort of meal. It consisted ofmeat and vegetables, and tea and cakes and puddings, all placed on thetable together. It was the one hearty meal Dr. Staunton allowed himselfin the twenty-four hours. At the children's early dinner he onlysnatched a little bread and cheese, but at peaceful seven o'clock thechildren were in bed, the house was quiet, the toil of the day wassupposed to be over, and Dr. Staunton could eat heartily and enjoyhimself. It was at this hour he used to notice how very pretty Effielooked, and how sweet it was to see her sitting like a little mouse onone side of the table, helping him and his wife in her affectionate way,and seeing to the comforts of all. It did not occur to him as evenpossible that Effie could carry such a dreadful thing as rebellion inher heart. No face could look more perfectly happy than hers. Was itpossible that she was pining for a wider field of usefulness than thelittle niche which she filled so perfectly in the home life? Dr.Staunton never thought about it at all. Effie was just a dear littlegirl--not a bit modern; she was the comfort of her mother's life, and,for that matter, the comfort of his also.

  He looked at her now with his usual grave smile. "Well, Effie, usefuland charming as usual? I see you have not forgotten my favorite dish,and I am glad of it, for I can tell you I am just starving. I have hada hard day's work, and it is nice to feel that I can rest for thisevening at least."

  "Have you been to the Watsons', dear?" inquired Mrs. Staunton. "Theysent a message for you two or three hours ago."

  "Yes; I met the farmer in the High Street, and went straight out to thefarm. Mrs. Watson is better now, poor soul; but it is a bad case, theheart is a good deal implicated. I shall have to go out there again thefirst thing in the morning. It would be a dreadful thing for that familyif anything happened to her."

  "The heart--is it heart trouble?" said Mrs. Staunton.

  "Yes, yes! Don't you begin to fancy that your case is the least likehers; yours is only functional, hers is organic. Now, why have I brokenthrough my rule of saying nothing about my patients? You will befancying and fretting all night that you are going to shuffle off thismortal coil just as quickly as poor Mrs. Watson will have to do beforelong, I fear. Why, Effie, what is the matter? Why are you staring at mewith those round eyes?"

  Mrs. Staunton looked also at Effie, and the sudden memory of her recentconversation with her returned.

  "By the way," she said, "if you are likely to be at home this evening,John, Effie would like to ask her friend Dorothy Fraser to come in foran hour or two. She wants to introduce her to you."

  "She is one of those modern girls, is she not?" said the doctor.

  "Oh, father, she is just splendid," said Effie. "If you only knew her,if you could hear her speak----"

  "Well, my dear, don't get into a state, and above all things, don'tlearn that dreadful habit of exaggeration. I dare say Miss Fraser isvery well, but there are few prodigies in the world, my little Effie;and, for my part, give me the home birds--they are the girls for myworld; they are the girls who will make good wives by and by. There, mylove, I shall be pleased to welcome any friend of yours, so ask herover, by all means. She won't mind the old doctor's pipe, I hope?"

  "Oh, no, father!" Effie could not help smiling. She knew perfectly wellthat Dorothy thought it no harm to indulge in a tiny cigarette herself,not often, nor every day, but sometimes when she was dead beat, as sheexpressed it. Effie had to keep this knowledge of her friend'sdelinquencies to herself. If Dr. Staunton knew that Dorothy did notconsider smoking the unpardonable sin in woman, he would not allow herinside his doors. "I will go and fetch her," Effie said, jumping up andputting on her hat. "She is longing to know you, father, and you cansmoke two or three pipes while she is here."

  Effie left the room. Mrs. Staunton looked at her husband. "I doubt ifDorothy Fraser is the best of friends for our Effie."

  "Eh!" said the doctor, taking his pipe out of his mouth for a moment."What ails the girl?"

  "Oh, nothing at all," replied Mrs. Staunton. "Effie is very fond of her,and I believe she really is a fine creature. You know she is educatingher two brothers."

  "What is she doing--how does she earn her living?"

  "Oh, she is a nurse in a hospital. She has been in St. Joseph's Hospitalfor years, and is now superintendent of one of the wards. She gets agood salary."

  The doctor rubbed his hands together in a somewhat impatient way. "Youknow my opinion of lady nurses," he said, looking at his wife.

  "Well, dear, make the best of Dorothy for Effie's sake. I hear the stepsof the two girls now. You will do what you can to be agreeable, won'tyou?"

  "No," said the doctor;
"I shall growl like a bear with a sore head, whenI see women who ought to be content with sweet home duties strugglingand pining to go out into the world."

  The last words had scarcely left the doctor's lips before thedining-room door was opened, and Effie, accompanied by her friend,entered the room.

  Dorothy Fraser was about twenty-eight years of age; she was tall; shehad a fair, calm sort of face; her eyes were large and gray, her mouthsweet. She had a way of taking possession of those she spoke to, and shehad not been two minutes in the shabby little sitting-room before Dr.and Mrs. Staunton were looking at her earnestly and listening to herwords with respect.

  Dorothy sat near Mrs. Staunton.

  "I am very glad to know you," she said, after a pause. "Effie has talkedto me over and over again about you."

  "May I ask how long you have known Effie?" interrupted Dr. Staunton.

  "Well, exactly a week," replied Miss Fraser. "I have been home a week,and I am going to stay another week. I met Effie the night I came home,and---- But one can cultivate a friendship in a week; don't you thinkso, Dr. Staunton?"

  "Perhaps, perhaps," said the doctor in a dubious voice. "I am slow inmaking friends myself. It is the old-fashioned way of country folk."

  "Oh, pray don't speak of yourself as old-fashioned, Dr. Staunton; anddon't run down country folk, I see so many of them at the hospital. Formy part, I think they are worth twenty of those poor London people, whoare half starved in body, and have only learned the wicked side oflife."

  "Poor creatures!" said Mrs. Staunton. "I wish you would tell ussomething about the hospital, my dear. It is vastly entertaining to hearall about sick people."

  "No; now pardon me," said the doctor; "you will do nothing of the kind,Miss Fraser. There are not many sick folk about here, but what few thereare I have got to look after, and my thoughts are bothered enough aboutthem and their sicknesses, so I would rather, if you please, turn ourconversation to people who are not ill. The wife here is a bit nervous,too, and she is never the better for hearing people talk about what theycall 'bad cases.' I think it is the worst thing in the world for peopleto keep talking of their maladies, or even about other people'smaladies. My motto is this, 'When you are ill, try and see how soon youcan get well again, and when you are well, try to keep so. Never thinkof illness at all.'"

  Miss Fraser looked fully at the doctor while he was talking. A slightfrown came between her eyebrows. Effie's bright dark eyes were fixed onher friend.

  "Illness interests me, of course," Dorothy said, after a pause; "but Iwon't talk of it. There are many other things, as you say, just asvital."

  "Well, at any rate," said Mrs. Staunton, "Miss Fraser can tell us howshe came to be a nurse----"

  "For my part," interrupted Dr. Staunton, "I think it is a great pitythat girls like you, Miss Fraser, should take up that sort of life. Ladygirls are not suited to it; for one who is fitted for the life, thereare fifty who are not. If you could only guess how doctors hate to seelady nurses in possession of a case. She is a fine lady through it all;she thinks she is not, but she is. Do you suppose she will wash up thecups and plates and spoons as they ought to be washed and kept in a sickperson's room? and do you fancy she will clean out the grate, and godown on her knees to wash the floor? Your fine lady nurse won't. Thereis a case of infection, for instance,--measles or scarlet fever,--andthe nurse comes down from London, and she is supposed to takepossession; but one of the servants of the house has to go in to cleanand dust and arrange, or the sickroom is not dusted or cleaned at all.That is your lady nurse; and I say she is not suited to the work."

  Miss Fraser turned pale while the doctor was speaking.

  "You must admit," she said, when he stopped and looked at her,--"youmust admit, Dr. Staunton, that every lady nurse is not like that. If youhave an infection case in your practice, send for me. I think I canprove to you that there are some ladies who are too truly women to thinkanything menial or beneath them." She colored as she spoke, and loweredher eyes.

  The conversation drifted into other channels. After a time Dorothy gotup and went away; and Effie, yawning slightly, went up to her room to goto bed. She slept in a little room next to the nursery. Instead ofundressing at once, as was her wont, she went and stood by the window,threw it open, and looked out. "What would father say if he knew mythoughts?" she said to herself. "He despises ladies who are nurses; hethinks it wrong for any lady girl to go away from home; but I amgoing--yes, I am going to London. Dorothy is my friend. She is aboutthe grandest, noblest creature I ever met, and I am going to follow inher steps. Mother will consent in the end--mother will see that I cannotthrow away my life. Dear mother! I shall miss her and father awfully,but, all the same, I shall be delighted to go. I do want to get out ofthis narrow, narrow life; I do want to do something big and grand. Oh,Dorothy, how splendid you are! How strong you look! How delightful it isto feel that one can live a life like yours, and do good, and be lovedby all! Oh, Dorothy, I hope I shall be able to copy you! I hope----"

  Effie's eager thoughts came to a sudden stop. A tall dog-cart dasheddown the street and pulled up short at her father's door. A young man ina Norfolk suit jumped out, threw the horse's reins to his groom, andpulled the doctor's bell furiously. Effie leaned slightly out of herwindow in order to see who it was. She recognized the man who stood onthe doorstep with a start of surprise, and the color flew into her face.He was the young Squire of the neighborhood. His name was Harvey. Hisplace was two miles out of Whittington. He was married; his wife was themost beautiful woman Effie had ever seen; and he had one little girl.The Harveys were rich and proud; they spent the greater part of theirtime in London, and had never before condescended to consult the villagedoctor. What was the matter now? Effie rushed from her room and knockedfuriously at her father's door.

  "Father, do you hear the night-bell? Are you getting up?" she called.

  "Yes, child, yes," answered the doctor.

  The bell downstairs kept on ringing at intervals. Effie stood tremblingon the landing; she felt positively sure that something dreadful musthave happened.

  "May I go down stairs and say you are coming, father?" she called againthrough the key-hole.

  "Yes, I wish you would. Say I will be downstairs in a minute."

  Effie ran off; she took the chain off the heavy hall door and threw itopen.

  "Is Dr. Staunton in?" asked the Squire. He stared at Effie's whitetrembling face. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair in disorder; he lookedlike a man who is half distracted.

  "Yes," said Effie, in as soothing a voice as she could assume; "myfather will be down in a minute."

  Harvey took off his cap.

  "You are Miss Staunton, I presume? Pray ask your father to be as quickas possible. My little girl is ill--very ill. We want a doctor to cometo The Grange without a moment's delay."

  "All right, Squire; here I am," said the hearty voice of Dr. Staunton onthe stairs.

  The Squire shook hands with him, made one or two remarks in too low avoice for Effie to hear, sprang into his dog-cart, the doctor scrambledup by his side, and a moment later the two had disappeared. Effie stoodby the open hall door looking up and down the quiet village street. Thegreat man of the place had come and gone like a flash. The thing Mrs.Staunton had longed for, dreamed of, and almost prayed for, had come topass at last--her husband was sent for to The Grange. Effie wondered ifFortune were really turning her wheel, and if, from this date they wouldbe better off than they had been.

  Dorothy Fraser's people lived in the house nearly opposite. From whereEffie stood she could see a light still burning in her friend's window.The thought of Dorothy raised the girl's state of excitement almost tofever pitch. She longed to go over and see her friend; she knew she mustnot do that, however. She shut the hall door, and went slowly back toher bedroom. She wanted to sleep, but sleep was far away. She laylistening during the long hours of the summer night, and heard hourafter hour strike from the church clock close by. Between two and threein the morning she dropped o
ff into a troubled doze. She awoke in broaddaylight, to start to her feet and see her father standing in the room.

  "Get up, Effie," he said. "I want you; dress yourself as quickly as youcan."

  There was an expression about his face which prevented Effie's utteringa word. She scrambled into her clothes--he waited for her on thelanding. When she was dressed he took her hand and went softly downthrough the house.

  "I do not want your mother to be disturbed," he said. "There is a verybad case of illness at The Grange."

  "What is it, father?" asked Effie.

  "Well, I fear that it is a complication of scarlet fever and diphtheria.The child will have an awful fight for her life, and at the presentmoment I am afraid the odds are terribly against her."

  "Oh, father, and she is the only child!" said Effie.

  "Yes, yes, I know all that; but there is no use in going into sentimentjust now--the thing is to pull her through if possible. Now, look here:I can send to London, of course, for a nurse, but she would not arrivefor several hours--do you think your friend Miss Fraser would undertakethe case?"

  "Yes, I am sure she would," said Effie.

  "That's just like you women," said the doctor impatiently; "you jump toconclusions without knowing anything at all about the matter. Thechild's case is horribly infectious. In fact, I shall be surprised ifthe illness does not run right through the house. The mother has beensitting up with this baby day and night for the last week, and they wereso silly they never sent for a doctor, imagining that the awful state ofthe throat was due to hoarseness, and that the rash was what they werepleased to call 'spring heat.' The folly of some people is enough todrive any reasonable man to despair. They send for the doctor, forsooth,when the child is almost in the grip of death! I have managed to relieveher a bit during the night, but I must have the services of a good nurseat once. Go over and awake Miss Fraser, Effie, and bring her to see me.If she has the pluck she gave me to understand she had, she will come inas a stop-gap until I get somebody else. And now, look here: the case isso infectious, and your mother is so weak just now, that I am going todevote myself altogether to it for the next few days. I am going to takeup my abode at The Grange, and I shall wire to my old friend Edwards tolook after the rest of my patients. There are only half a dozen to beseen to, and he will keep them quiet until I am free again. Now go overand bring Miss Fraser for me to see. I have driven down on the Squire'sdog-cart, and will take her back with me if she will come. Run along,Effie, and wake her up."