Susan Warner.

What she could ; and, Opportunities, a sequel online

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Produced by Daniel Fromont. HTML version by Al Haines.









[Transcriber's note: This is the first of a series of four novels by
Susan Warner, all of which are in the Project Gutenberg collection:

1. What She Could
2. Opportunities
3. The House in Town
4. Trading]





WHAT SHE COULD.



BY THE AUTHOR OF

"THE WIDE WIDE WORLD," &c.



LONDON:

JAMES NISBET & CO., 21 BERNERS STREET.

MDCCCLXXI.









"WHAT SHE COULD."




CHAPTER I.


"Girls, there's a Band!"

"A what?"

"A Band - in the Sunday-School."

"I am sure there is a careless girl in the house," put in another
speaker. "Go and wipe your feet, Maria; look at the snow you have
brought in."

"But, mamma - - "

"Go and get rid of that snow before you say another word. And you too,
Matilda; see, child, what lumps of snow are sticking to your shoes. Was
there no mat at the door?"

"There was a cold wind there," muttered Maria, as she went to obey
orders. "What harm does a little snow do?"

But while she went to the door again, her sister, a pretty, delicate
child of fewer years, stood still, and adroitly slipped her feet out of
the snowy shoes she had brought in, which she put in the corner of the
fireplace to thaw and dry off; the little stocking feet standing
comfortably on the rug before the blaze. It was so neatly done, the
mother and elder sisters looked on and could not chide. Neatness suited
the place. The room was full of warm comfort; the furniture in nice
order; the work, several kinds of which were in as many hands, though
lying about also on chairs and tables, had yet the look of order and
method. You would have said at once that there was something good in
the family. The child in front of the fire told more for it. Her
delicate features, the refined look and manner with which she stood
there in her uncovered feet, even a little sort of fastidious grace
which one or two movements testified, drew the eyes of mother and
sisters, and manifestly stopped their tongues; even called forth a
smile or two.

"What is all this Maria is talking about, Matilda?"

"Why, we have been to the Sunday-School meeting, mamma."

"I know that; and it was not a night fit for you to go. What ever
possessed you and Maria?" remarked one of the sisters.

"Why, Mr. Richmond wanted to see all the Sunday-School," said Matilda,
thoughtfully. "He wanted you too, I suppose; and you were not there."

"There is no use in having a meeting such a night. Of course, a great
many people could not be there. It ought to have been put off."

"Well, it was not put off," said Matilda.

"What did he want? What was Maria talking about?"

"She is the best one to ask," said the child.

At the same moment Maria came in from getting rid of the snow, and
enquired if Tilly had told them everything? Finding all was right, she
sat down contentedly before the fire and stretched out her feet towards
it.

"We've had a splendid time, I can tell you," she began.

"What was done in particular?" asked one of the older girls, who was
making a bonnet. "More than usual?"

"A great many things in particular, and one in general. We've made a
Band."

"I have made several since you have been away," the other sister
remarked.

"You know we cannot understand that unless you explain," said the
bonnet-maker.

"You must let Maria take her own manner," said their mother.

"Well, now, I'll tell you all about it," said Maria. "There weren't a
great many people there, to begin with."

"Of course not! such a night."

"So there were plenty of empty benches, and it didn't look like a
meeting at all, at first; and I wondered if it would come to anything;
but then Mr. Richmond came in, and I saw _he_ meant something."

"Mr. Richmond always does mean something," interrupted Matilda.

"You hush, Tilly! Well, there were prayers first, of course; and then
Mr. Richmond stood up in the aisle, and said he wanted to know how many
of us all there were willing to be really good."

"The servants of Christ, he said," Matilda explained.

"Yes, the servants of Christ, of course; and he said he didn't know any
better way to get at it than that we should all stand up."

A burst of laughter from all Maria's audience a little confused her.
Only Matilda looked gravely at her sister, as if she were making bad
work of it. Maria coloured, stammered, and began again.

"You all know what I mean! You know what I mean, mamma? Mr. Richmond
did not say that we should _all_ stand up."

"Then why did you say it?"

"I thought you would understand. He said that all those should stand
up, so that he might see who they were, who were willing to be real
workers for Christ; those who were willing to give themselves to the
Lord, and to do everything or anything he gave them to do for Him. So
we stood up, and Mr. Richmond went round and took our names down."

"Everybody who was there?"

"Why, no! - those who were willing to do as Mr. Richmond said."

"Did _you_ stand up?" asked one of her sisters.

"Yes; I did."

"Who else?"

After a pause - -

"Oh, a great many people! All the members of the church, of course; and
then a good many more that aren't. Esther Trembleton rose, and Ailie
Swan, and Mattie Van Dyke, and Frances Barth, and Mrs. Rice. And little
Mary Edwards, she was there, and she rose, and Willie Edwards; and Mr.
Bates got up and said he was happy to see this day. I think he was
ready to cry, he was so glad."

"And is this the 'Band' you spoke of?"

"This is the Sunday-School Working Band; that is what Mr. Richmond
called it."

"What work are you going to do?"

"I don't know! Mr. Richmond said he could not tell just yet; but we are
to have meetings and all sorts of things. And then Mr. Richmond talked."

"What about?"

"Oh, I can't tell. You know how he talks."

"He said what the Band were to do," remarked Matilda.

"I told what that was."

"You did not tell what he said."

"Why, yes, I did; he said they were to do all the work for Christ that
they could; and they were to pray a great deal, and pray for each other
a great deal; and they were to live right."

"Uncompromising Christian lives, he said. Mamma, what does
'uncompromising' mean?"

"Why, you know!" put in her sister.

"Tell, then, Maria," said the mother.

"Matilda must know, mamma; for Mr. Richmond explained it enough."

"Then certainly you must."

"I can't talk like Mr. Richmond, though," said Maria. "Letty, you'll
spoil that bonnet if you put red flowers in."

"That's as _you_ think," said Letty. "Blue would be very dull."

"Mamma, what is uncompromising?" pursued Matilda, a pair of large,
serious brown eyes fastening on her mother's face to await the answer.

"Did not Mr. Richmond tell you?"

"If he did, I did not understand, mamma."

"Then he ought to use words you _can_ understand; that is all I have to
say. I cannot undertake to be Mr. Richmond's dictionary. Uncompromising
means different things at different times. It isn't a word for you,
Tilly," the mother added, with a smile at the child.

"There is only one thing Tilly will ever be uncompromising about," her
oldest sister remarked.

"What is that?" the little one asked quick.

"Girls, stop talking and go to bed," said their mother. "Letitia and
Anne, put up work; I am tired. Maria, you and Tilly go at once and be
out of the way."

"I can't see how I am in the way," remarked Maria. "Letty has not done
her bonnet yet, and she will not go till she has."

"Letty, I am not going to wait for that bonnet."

"No, ma'am; there is no need."

"I am not going to leave you up, either. I know how that works. The
bonnet can be finished to-morrow. And, Anne, roll up your ruffles.
Come, girls!"

"What a lovely mantilla that is going to be; isn't it, mamma?" said
Maria. "Won't Anne look nice when she gets it on? I wish you'd let me
have one just like it, mamma."

"I do not care about your having one just like it," said Anne. "What
would be the use of that?"

"The same use, I suppose - - "

"Maria, go to bed!" said her mother "And Matilda. Look what o'clock it
is."

"I can't go, mamma, unless somebody will bring me some shoes. Mine are
wet."

"Maria, fetch Tilly a pair of shoes. And go, children."

The children went; but Maria grumbled.

"Why couldn't you come up-stairs in your stocking feet? _I_ should."

"It isn't nice," said the little one.

"Nice! you're so terribly nice you can't do anything other people do.
There is no use in our coming to bed now; Anne and Letty will sit up
till eleven o'clock, I shouldn't wonder; and we might just as well as
not. Mamma can't get them to bed. Letty and Anne ought to have been at
the meeting to-night. I wonder if they would have risen? Why did not
you rise, Matilda?"

"I had not thought about it."

"Can't you do anything without thinking about it first?"

"I do not understand it yet."

"Understand! why, nothing is easier than to understand. Of course, we
are all to be as good as we can be, that's all."

"You don't think that is much," said the little one, as she began
slowly to undress herself. The work of undressing and dressing was
always slow with Tilly. Every article of clothing taken off was to be
delicately folded and nicely laid away at night; and taken out and put
on with equal care and punctiliousness in the morning. Maria's
stockings went one way and her shoes another; while Tilly's were put
exactly ready for use under her chair. And Maria's clothes presently
lay in a heap on the floor. But not till some time after Matilda's neat
arrangements had been made and she herself was safe in bed. Maria had
dallied while the other was undressing.

"I think you are very curious, Matilda!" she exclaimed, as she followed
her sister into bed. "I shouldn't think it required much _thinking_, to
know that one ought to be good."

"You haven't put out the candle, Maria."

Maria bounced from her bed, and bounced in again.

"O Maria!" said Matilda in a moment or two, plaintively; "you've
_blown_ it out! and the room is all filled with smoke."

"It doesn't make any difference," said Maria.

"It is very disagreeable."

"It will be gone in a minute."

"No, it won't, for I can see the red spark on the end of the candle
now."

"You are so particular, Tilly!" said her sister. "If _you_ ever take a
notion to be good, you'll have to leave off some of your ways, I can
tell you. You needn't mind a little smell of candle-smoke. Go to sleep,
and forget it."

"Don't good people mind disagreeable things?" said Matilda.

"No, of course, they don't. How could they get along, you know? Don't
you remember what Mr. Richmond said?"

"I don't remember that he said _that_. But then, Maria, would you mind
getting up to snuff out that candle? It's dreadful!"

"Nonsense! I shan't do it. I've just got warm."

Another minute or two gave tokens that Maria was past minding
discomfort of any sort. She was fast asleep. Tilly waited, panted,
looked at the glimmering red end of the candle snuff; finally got out
of bed and crept to the dressing-table where it stood, and with some
trouble managed to put a stop to smoke for that night.




CHAPTER II.


The house in which these things happened was a brown house, standing on
the great high-road of travel which ran through the country, and just
where a considerable village had clustered round it. From the upper
windows you caught a glimpse of a fine range of blue mountains, lying
miles away, and with indeed a broad river flowing between; but the
river was too far off to be seen, and hidden behind intervening ground.
From the lower windows you looked out into the village street; clean
and wide, with comfortable houses standing along the way, not crowded
together; and with gardens between and behind them, and many trees
shielding and overhanging. The trees were bare now; the gardens a
spread of snow; the street a white way for sleigh-runners;
nevertheless, the aspect of the whole was hopeful, comfortable,
thriving, even a little ambitious. Within this particular house, if you
went in, you would see comfort, but little pretension; a neat look of
things, but such things as had been mended and saved, and would not be
rashly replaced. It was very respectable, therefore, and had no look of
poverty. So of the family gathered around the breakfast-table on the
morning after the Sunday-School meeting. It was a fair group, healthy
and bright; the four girls and their mother. They were nicely dressed;
and good appetites spoke of good spirits; and the provision on the
table was abundant though plain.

Maria asked if Letty had finished her bonnet last night. Letty said she
had.

"And did you put those red flowers in?"

"Certainly."

"That will be gay."

"Not too gay. Just enough. The bonnet would be nothing if it had not
flowers."

Maria's spoon paused half way to mouth. "I wonder," she said, gravely,
"if Mr. Richmond likes red flowers?"

"He has nothing to do with _my_ bonnet," said Letitia. "And no more
have you. You need not raise the question. I shall wear what becomes
me."

"What is the difference whether one wears red or blue, Maria?" said her
mother. "Do you think one colour is more religious than another? - or
more wicked? What do you mean?"

"Nothing, ma'am," Maria answered, a little abashed. "I was only
thinking."

"I think Mr. Richmond likes flowers everywhere," said Matilda; "and all
colours."

"People that are very religious do not wear flowers in their bonnets
though, do they?" said Maria.

"Mr. Richmond did not say any such thing!" said Matilda, indignantly.

"What did he say? What was all this last night's talk about?" said
Anne. "I did not understand half of it. Was it against red flowers, or
red anything?"

"I did not understand any of it," said Mrs. Englefield.

"Why, mamma, I told you all, as plain as could be," said Maria. "I told
you he made a Band - - "

"He didn't," interrupted Matilda; "the Band made themselves."

But at this, the shout that went round the breakfast-table threatened
to endanger the dishes.

"It's no use trying to talk," said Maria, sullenly, "if you laugh so. I
told you there was a Band; ever so many of us rose up and agreed that
we would belong to it."

"Matilda, are you in it too?" the mother asked.

"No, mamma."

"Why not? How comes that?"

"She wasn't ready," her sister said.

"Why not, Tilly?"

"Mamma, I want to understand," said the child.

"Quite right; so do I."

"Wouldn't you do what Mr. Richmond says, whether you understand or
not?" inquired Maria, severely.

"I would rather know what it is, first," said Matilda, in her way,
which was a compound of cool and demure, but quite natural.

"And when is the next meeting?" said Letitia. "I guess I'll go."

"It won't be for a week," said Matilda.

"And will you join the Band, Letty?" Maria asked somewhat eagerly.

"How, join it?"

"Why, rise up, when you are asked."

"What does 'rising up' mean, Maria? What do you rise for?"

"Why, it means just that you promise to be good, you know."

"But I have heard you promise that a number of times, it seems to me;
without 'rising up,' as you call it. Will the promise not better, if
you make it on your feet instead of sitting?"

"Now, mamma," said Maria, flushing, "isn't that just wicked in Letitia?"

"My dear, I do not understand one word at present of what this is all
about," her mother answered.

Perhaps Matilda was in the same mood, for she was a thoughtful little
child all the way to school that morning. And at the close of the
school day, when the children were going home, she went slowly and
demurely along the icy street, while her sister and companions made a
merry time. There had been a little thaw in the middle of the day, and
now it had turned cold again, and the sidewalks were a glare of ice.
Matilda was afraid, and went cautiously; Maria and the others took the
opportunity for a grand slide, and ran and slipped and slid and sailed
away homewards, like mad things. One after another, they passed her and
rushed along, till Matilda was left the last, slowly shuffling her
little feet over the track the feet of the others had made doubly
slippery; when quick steps came up behind her, and a pleasant voice
spoke -

"Are you afraid you are going to tumble down?"

Matilda started, but lifted her eyes very contentedly then to the face
of the speaker. They had a good way to go, for he was a tall young man.
But he was looking down towards her with a bright face, and two good,
clear blue eyes, and a smile; and his hand presently clasped hers.
Matilda had no objection.

"Where is everybody else? how come you to be all alone?"

"They have gone ahead, sliding on the ice."

"And you do not practise sliding?"

"I am always afraid I shall fall down."

"The best way is not to be afraid; and then you don't fall down. See;
no! hold fast. I shall not let you slip!"

And the gentleman and Matilda slid along the street for half a block.

"How do you like that?"

"Very well, Mr. Richmond, with you holding me."

"It doesn't give you courage, eh? Well, we will walk on soberly
together. I didn't see you stand when Maria did last night?"

"Mr. Richmond, I did not know just what it all meant; and so I sat
still."

"You did not know just what it all meant?"

"No, sir."

"Then you were perfectly right to sit still. But that means that I did
not speak so that you could understand me? Was it so?"

"I did not understand - - " said Matilda.

"It comes to that, I suppose. It is my fault. Well, I shall remember
and be very careful what I say the next time. I will speak so that you
will understand. But in that case, I want you to do one thing for me,
Tilly; will you?"

"If I can, Mr. Richmond."

"Do you think I would ask something you could not do?"

Matilda looked up to the blue eyes again; they were fastened upon her
gravely, and she hesitated.

"Mr. Richmond - I don't know. You might."

"I hope not," he said, smiling. "I will try not. You won't promise me?"

"If I can I will, Mr. Richmond."

"I am only going to ask you, when you hear what I have to say next
time, if you understand it, will you do what you think you ought to do?"

There fell a silence upon that. Mr. Richmond's firm step on the icy
ground and Matilda's light footfall passed by house after house, and
still the little one's tongue seemed to be tied. They turned the
corner, and went their way along Matilda's own street, where the light
of afternoon was now fading, and the western sky was throwing a
reflection of its own. Past the butcher's shop, and the post-office,
and house after house; and still Matilda was silent, and her conductor
did not speak, until they stopped before the little gate leading to the
house, which was placed somewhat back from the road. At the gate Mr.
Richmond stood still.

"What about my question, Matilda?" he said, without loosing his hold of
the little hand which had rested so willingly in his all the way.

"Aren't you coming in, Mr. Richmond?"

"Not to-night. What about my question?"

"Mr. Richmond," said the child, slowly, - "I do not always do the things
I ought to do."

"No; I know you do not. But will you do _that_ thing, which you will
think you ought to do, when you have heard me, and understood what I
say, the next time the Band has a meeting?"

Matilda stood silent, her hand still in Mr. Richmond's.

"What's the matter?"

"Perhaps I shall not want to do it," she said, looking up frankly.

"I ask you to do it all the same."

Matilda did not move, and now her face showed great perplexity.

"Well?" said Mr. Richmond, smiling at last.

"Perhaps I _cannot_ do it, Mr. Richmond?"

"Then, if you think you cannot do it, will you come and tell me?"

Matilda hesitated and pondered and hesitated.

"Do you wish it very much, Mr. Richmond?" she said, looking up
appealingly into his face.

"I do wish it very much."

"Then I will!" said Matilda, with a sigh.

He nodded, shook her hand, and turned away with quick steps. Matilda
went in and climbed the stairs to the room she and Maria shared
together.

"What were you talking to Mr. Richmond so long about?" said Maria.

"I wasn't talking to Mr. Richmond. He was talking to me."

"What's the difference? But I wish he would talk to Ailie Swan; she
wants it, I know. That girl is too much!"

"What has she done?"

"Oh, _you_ don't know; she isn't in your set. _I_ know. She's just
disagreeable. I think people ought to be civil, if they are ever so
good."

"I thought good people were civil always."

"Shows you don't know much."

"Isn't Ailie Swan civil?"

"I do not call it civility. What do you think, Tilly? I asked her if my
South America wasn't good? and she said she thought it was not. Isn't
that civility?"

"What did you ask her for?"

"Because! I knew my South America was good."

"Let me see it."

"Nonsense! You do not know the first thing about it." But she gave her
little sister the sheet on which the map was drawn. Matilda took it to
a table under the window, where the dying light from the western sky
fell brightest; and putting both elbows on the table and her head in
her hands, studied the map.

"Where is the atlas?"

"What do you want of the atlas?"

"I want to see if it is like."

"It is like, of course, child."

"I can't tell without seeing," Matilda persisted. And Maria grumblingly
brought the atlas, open at the map in question. Matilda took it and
studied anew.

"It is getting dark," said she at length. "But your South America is
crooked, Maria."

"It isn't!" said Maria, vehemently. "How should it be crooked, when we
angle it on, just according to the rules?"

"Angle it on?" repeated Matilda, looking at her sister.

"Yes. Oh, you don't understand, child; how should you? I told you you
didn't know anything about it. Of course, we have rules and things to
go by; and my South America was put on just right."

"It is not straight, though," said Matilda.

"Why, no, it isn't straight; it is not meant to be straight; it is all
crookly crawly, going in and out, all round."

"But it don't stand straight," said Matilda; "and it looks _thin_, too,
Maria; it don't puff out as much as the real South America does."

"Puff out!" Maria repeated. "It's as good as Ailie's, anyhow; and a
great deal better than Frances Barth's. Frances got a great blot on
hers; she's so careless. George Van Dyke is making a nice one; and Ben
Barth is doing a splendid map; but then Ben does everything - - "

Here there was a great call to tea from below, and the girls went down.
Down-stairs there was excitement. A letter had come from Mrs. Candy,
Mrs. Englefield's sister, saying that she herself with her daughter
Clarissa would be with them the beginning of the week. .

"To stay, mamma? O mamma, is Aunt Candy coming to stay? Do tell me. Is
she coming to stay?" Maria exclaimed and questioned.

"She will stay a night with us, Maria. Don't be so eager."

"Only a night, mamma? Won't she be here longer?"

"She is coming to stay till summer, Maria," said her eldest sister. "Do
be reasonable."

"I think it is reasonable to want to know," said Maria. "_You_ knew; so
you didn't care about it."

"I care a great deal; what do you mean?" said Anne.

"I mean you didn't care about knowing. O mamma, can't I have my dress
finished before they come?"

"What dress, Maria?" her sister went on; for Mrs. Englefield was busy
with the letter.

"My new merino. It is almost done; it only wants finishing."

"There's all the braid to put on, isn't there?"

"Well, that isn't much. Mamma, cannot I have my red merino finished
before they come? I have got nothing to wear."

"What can you mean, Maria? You have everything you want. That is only
for your best dress."

"But, mamma, it is just when I should want it, when they come; you'll
be having everybody to tea. Won't you have it done for me? please,
mamma?"

"I think you can do it for yourself, Maria. I have no objection to your
finishing it."

"I cannot put on that braid - in that quirlicue pattern, mamma; I never
did such work as that; and I haven't time, besides."

"Nor inclination," said Letitia, laughing. "Come, Maria, it is time you
learned to do something for yourself. Matilda, now, might plead
inexperience, and have some reason; but you are quite old enough."

The dispute would have gone on, but Mrs. Englefield desired silence,
and the family drew round the tea-table. Other plans for the following
weeks filled every tongue. Mrs. Candy was well off; a widow with one
child, her daughter Clarissa; she had been in Europe for several years;


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