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little ways, having a hundred little trials which _she_ had never been
called upon to endure. In short, Ester had discovered that the mere
fact of living in a great city was not in itself calculated to make
the Christian race more easy or more pleasant. She had begun to
suspect that it might not even be quite so easy as it was in a quiet
country home; and so one by one all her explanations of Abbie's
peculiar character had become bubbles, and had vanished as bubbles do.
What, then, sustained and guided her cousin? Clearly Ester was shut
up to this one conclusion - it was an ever-abiding, all-pervading
Christian faith and trust. But then had not _she_ this same faith?
And yet could any contrast be greater than was Abbie's life contrasted
with hers?

There was no use in denying it, no use in lulling and coaxing her
conscience any longer, it had been for one whole week in a new
atmosphere; it had roused itself; it was not thoroughly awake as yet,
but restless and nervous and on the alert - and _would not_ be hushed
back into its lethargic state.

This it was which made Ester the uncomfortable companion which she
was this morning. She was not willing to be shaken and roused; she
had been saying very unkind, rude things to Abbie, and now, instead
of flouncing off in an uncontrollable fit of indignation, which course
Ester could but think would be the most comfortable thing which could
happen next, so far as she was concerned, Abbie sat still, with that
look of meek inquiry on her face, humbly awaiting her verdict. How
Ester wished she had never asked that last question! How ridiculous it
would make her appear, after all that had been said, to admit that
her cousin's life had been one continual reproach of her own; that
concerning this very matter of the concert, she had heard Uncle Ralph
remark that if all the world matched what they did with what they
said, as well as Abbie did, he was not sure but he might be a
Christian himself. Then suppose she should add that this very pointed
remark had been made to her when they were on their way to the concert
in question.

Altogether, Ester was disgusted and wished she could get back to where
the conversation commenced, feeling certain now that she would leave a
great many things unsaid.

I do not know how the conversation would have ended, whether Ester
could have brought herself to the plain truth, and been led on and on
to explain the unrest and dissatisfaction of her own heart, and thus
have saved herself much of the sharp future in store for her; but one
of those unfortunate interruptions which seem to finite eyes to be
constantly occurring, now came to them. There was an unusual bang to
the front door, the sound of strange footsteps in the hall, the
echo of a strange voice floated up to her, and Abbie, with a sudden
flinging of thimble and scissors, and an exclamation of "Ralph has
come," vanished.




CHAPTER XIV.

THE LITTLE CARD.


Left to herself, Ester found her train of thought so thoroughly
disagreeable that she hastened to rid herself of it, and seized upon
the new comer to afford her a substitute.

This cousin, whom she had expected to influence for good, had at last
arrived. Ester's interest in him had been very strong ever since
that evening of her arrival, when she had been appealed to to use her
influence on him - just in what way she hadn't an idea. Abbie had never
spoken of it since, and seemed to have lost much of her eager desire
that the cousins should meet. Ester mused about all this now; she
wished she knew just in what way she was expected to be of benefit.
Abbie was evidently troubled about him. Perhaps he was rough and
awkward; school-boys often were, even those born in a city. Very much
of Ralph's life had been spent away from home, she knew; and she had
often heard that boys away from home influences grew rude and coarse
oftentimes. Yes, that was undoubtedly it. Shy, too, he was of course;
he was of about the age to be that. She could imagine just how he
looked - he felt out of place in the grand mansion which he called
home, but where he had passed so small a portion of his time. Probably
he didn't know what to do with his hands, nor his feet; and just
as likely as not he sat on the edge of his chair and ate with his
knife - school was a horrid place for picking up all sorts of ill
manners. Of course all these things must annoy Abbie very much,
especially at this time when he must necessarily come so often in
contact with that perfection of gentlemanliness, Mr. Foster. "I wish,"
thought Ester at this point, growing a little anxious, "I wish there
was more than a week before the wedding; however I'll do my best.
Abbie shall see I'm good for something. Although I do differ with her
somewhat in her peculiar views, I believe I know how to conduct myself
with ease, in almost any position, if I have been brought up in the
country." And by the time the lunch-bell rang a girl more thoroughly
satisfied with herself and her benevolent intentions, than was this
same Ester, could hardly have been found. She stood before the glass
smoothing the shining bands of hair, preparatory to tying a blue satin
ribbon over them, when Abbie fluttered in.

"Forgive me, a great many times, for rushing off in the flutter I did,
and leaving you behind, and staying away so long. You see I haven't
seen Ralph in quite a little time, and I forgot everything else. Your
hair doesn't need another bit of brushing, Ester, it's as smooth as
velvet; they are all waiting for us in the dining-room, and I want to
show you to Ralph." And before the blue satin ribbon was tied quite to
her satisfaction, Ester was hurried to the dining-room, to take up her
new role of guide and general assistant to the awkward youth.

"I suppose he hasn't an idea what to say to me," was her last
compassionate thought, as Abbie's hand rested on the knob. "I hope he
won't be hopelessly quiet, but I'll manage in some way."

At first he was nowhere to be seen; but as Abbie said eagerly:
"Ralph, here is Cousin Ester!" the door swung back into its place,
and revealed a tall, well-proportioned young man, with a full-bearded
face, and the brightest of dancing eyes. He came forward immediately,
extending both hands, and speaking in a rapid voice.

"Long-hoped-for come at last! I don't refer to myself, you understand,
but to this much-waited-for, eagerly-looked-forward-to prospect of
greeting my Cousin Ester. Ought I to welcome you, or you me - which
is it? I'm somewhat bewildered as to proprieties. This fearfully near
approach to a wedding has confused my brain. Sis" - turning suddenly
to Abbie - "Have you prepared Ester for her fate? Does she fully
understand that she and I are to officiate? that is, if we don't
evaporate before the eventful day. Sis, how could you have the
conscience to perpetrate a wedding in August? Whatever takes Foster
abroad just now, any way?" And without waiting for answer to his
ceaseless questions he ran gaily on.

Clearly whatever might be his shortcomings, inability to talk was
_not_ one of them. And Ester, confused, bewildered, utterly thrown out
of her prepared part in the entertainment, was more silent and awkward
than she had ever known herself to be; provoked, too, with Abbie, with
Ralph, with herself. "How _could_ I have been such a simpleton?"
she asked herself as seated opposite her cousin at table she had
opportunity to watch the handsome face, with its changeful play of
expression, and note the air of pleased attention with which even her
Uncle Ralph listened to his ceaseless flow of words. "I knew he was
older than Abbie, and that this was his third year in college. What
could I have expected from Uncle Ralph's son? A pretty dunce he must
think me, blushing and stammering like an awkward country girl. What
on earth could Abbie mean about needing my help for him, and being
troubled about him. It is some of her ridiculous fanatical nonsense, I
suppose. I wish she could ever talk or act like anybody else."

"I don't know that such is the case, however," Ralph was saying, when
Ester returned from this rehearsal of her own thoughts. "I can simply
guess at it, which is as near an approach to an exertion as a fellow
ought to be obliged to make in this weather. John, you may fill my
glass if you please. Father, this is even better wine than your cellar
usually affords, and that is saying a great deal. Sis, has Foster made
a temperance man of you entirely; I see you are devoted to ice water?"

"Oh, certainly," Mrs. Ried answered for her, in the half contemptuous
tone she was wont to assume on such occasions. "I warn you, Ralph, to
get all the enjoyment you can out of the present, for Abbie intends to
keep you with her entirely after she has a home of her own - out of the
reach of temptation."

Ester glanced hurriedly and anxiously toward her cousin. How did this
pet scheme of hers become known to Mrs. Ried, and how could Abbie
possibly retain her habitual self-control under this sarcastic
ridicule, which was so apparent in her mother's voice?

The pink on her cheek did deepen perceptibly, but she answered with
the most perfect good humor: "Ralph, don't be frightened, please. I
shall let you out once in a long while if you are very good."

Ralph bent loving eyes on the young, sweet face, and made prompt
reply: "I don't know that I shall care for even that reprieve, since
you're to be jailer."

What could there be in this young man to cause anxiety, or to wish
changed? Yet even while Ester queried, he passed his glass for a third
filling, and taking note just then of Abbie's quick, pained look, then
downcast eyes, and deeply flushing face, the knowledge came suddenly
that in that wine-glass the mischief lay. Abbie thought him in danger,
and this was the meaning of her unfinished sentence on that first
evening, and her embarrassed silence since; for Ester, with her filled
glass always beside her plate, untouched indeed sometimes, but oftener
sipped from in response to her uncle's invitation, was not the one
from whom help could be expected in this matter. And Ester wondered if
the handsome face opposite her could really be in absolute danger, or
whether this was another of Abbie's whims - at least it wasn't pleasant
to be drinking wine before him, and she left her glass untouched that
day, and felt thoroughly troubled about that and everything.

The next morning there was a shopping excursion, and Ralph was
smuggled in as an attendant. Abbie turned over the endless sets of
handkerchiefs in bewildering indecision.

"Take this box; do, Abbie," Ester urged. "This monogram in the corner
is lovely, and that is the dearest little sprig in the world."

"Which is precisely what troubles me," laughed Abbie. "It is
entirely too dear. Think of paying such an enormous sum for just
handkerchiefs!"

Ralph, who was lounging near her, trying hard not to look bored,
elevated his eyebrows as his ear caught the sentence, and addressed
her in undertone: "Is Foster hard up? If he is, you are not on his
hands yet, Sis; and I'm inclined to think father is good for all the
finery you may happen to fancy."

"That only shows your ignorance of the subject or your high opinion
of me. I assure you were I so disposed I could bring father's affairs
into a fearful tangle this very day, just by indulging a fancy for
finery."

"Are his affairs precarious, Abbie, or is finery prodigious?"

Abbie laid her hand on a square of cobwebby lace. "That is
seventy-five dollars, Ralph."

"What of that? Do you want it?" And Ralph's hand was in his pocket.

Abbie turned with almost a shiver from the counter. "I hope not,
Ralph," she said with sudden energy. "I hope I may never be so
unworthy of my trust as to make such a wicked use of money." Then
more lightly, "You are worse than Queen Ester here, and her advice is
bewildering enough."

"But, Abbie, how can you be so absurd," said that young lady,
returning to the charge. "Those are not very expensive, I am sure,
at least not for you; and you certainly want some very nice ones. I'm
sure if I had one-third of your spending money I shouldn't need to
hesitate."

Abbie's voice was very low and sweet, and reached only her cousin's
ear. "Ester, 'the silver and the gold are _His_,' and I have asked Him
this very morning to help me in every little item to be careful of
His trust. Now do you think - " But Ester had turned away in a vexed
uncomfortable state of mind, and walked quite to the other end of the
store, leaving Abbie to complete her purchases as she might see fit.
She leaned against the door, tapping her fingers in a very softly, but
very nervous manner against the glass. How queer it was that in the
smallest matters she and Abbie could not agree? How was it possible
that the same set of rules could govern them both? And the old
ever-recurring question came up to be thought over afresh. Clearly
they were unlike - utterly unlike. Now was Abbie right and she wrong?
or was Abbie - no, not wrong, the word would certainly not apply; there
absolutely _could_ be no wrong connected with Abbie's way. Well, then,
queer! - unlike other people, unnecessarily precise - studying the right
and wrong of matters, which she had been wont to suppose had no moral
bearing of any sort, rather which she had never given any attention
to? While she waited and queried, her eye caught a neat little
card-receiver hanging near her, apparently filled with cards, and
bearing in gilt lettering, just above them, the winning words: "FREE
TO ALL. TAKE ONE." This was certainly a kindly invitation; and Ester's
curiosity being aroused as to what all this might be for, she availed
herself of the invitation, and drew with dainty fingers a small, neat
card from the case, and read:

I SOLEMNLY AGREE,

_As God Shall Help Me_:

1. To observe regular seasons of secret prayer, it least in the
morning and evening of each day.

2. To read daily at least a small portion of the Bible.

3. To attend at one or more prayer-meetings every week, if I have
strength to get there.

4. To stand up for Jesus always and everywhere.

5. To try to save at least one soul each year.

6. To engage in no amusement where my Savior could not be a guest.

Had the small bit of card-board been a coal of fire it could not have
been more suddenly dropped upon the marble before her than was this,
as Ester's startled eyes took in its meaning. Who could have written
those sentences? and to be placed there in a conspicuous corner of a
fashionable store? Was she never to be at peace again? Had the world
gone wild? Was this an emanation from Cousin Abbie's brain, or were
there many more Cousin Abbies in what she had supposed was a wicked
city, or - oh painful question, which came back hourly nowadays, and
seemed fairly to chill her blood - was this religion, and had she none
of it? Was her profession a mockery, her life a miserably acted lie?

"Is that thing hot?" It was Ralph's amused voice which asked this
question close beside her.

"What? Where?" And Ester turned in dire confusion.

"Why that bit of paper - or is it a ghostly communication from the
world of spirits? You look startled enough for me to suppose anything,
and it spun away from your grasp very suddenly. Oh," he added, as he
glanced it through, "rather ghostly, I must confess, or would be if
one were inclined that way; but I imagined your nerves were stronger.
Did the pronoun startle you?"

"How?"

"Why I thought perhaps you considered yourself committed to all this
solemnity before your time, or willy-nilly, as the children say. What
a comical idea to hang one's self up in a store in this fashion. I
must have one of these. Are you going to keep yours?" And as he spoke
he reached forward and possessed himself of one of the cards. "Rather
odd things to be found in our possession, wouldn't they be? Abbie now
would be just one of this sort."

That cold shiver trembled again through Ester's frame as she listened.
Clearly he did not reckon her one of "that sort." He had known her but
one day, and yet he seemed positive that she stood on an equal footing
with himself. Oh why was it? How did he know? Was her manner then
utterly unlike that of a Christian, so much so that this young man
saw it already, or was it that glass of wine from which she had sipped
last evening? - and at this moment she would have given much to be back
where she thought herself two weeks ago, on the wine question; but she
stood silent and let him talk on, not once attempting to define her
position - partly because there had crept into her mind this fearful
doubt, unaccompanied by the prayer:

"If I've never loved before,
Help me to begin to-day" -

and partly, oh poor Ester, because she was utterly unused to
confessing her Savior; and though not exactly ashamed of him, at least
she would have indignantly denied the charge, yet it was much less
confusing to keep silence, and let others think as they would - this
had been her rule, she followed it now, and Ralph continued:

"Queer world this? Isn't it? How do you imagine our army would have
prospered if one-fourth of the soldiers had been detailed for the
purpose of coaxing the rest to follow their leader and obey orders?
That's what it seems to me the so-called Christian world is up to.
Does the comical side of it ever strike you, Ester? Positively I can
hardly keep from laughing now and then to hear the way in which Dr.
Downing pitches into his church members, and they sit and take it as
meekly as lambs brought to the slaughter. It does them about as much
good, apparently, as it does me - no not so much, for it amuses me, and
serves to make me good-natured, on good terms with myself for half an
hour or so. I'm so thoroughly rejoiced, you see, to think that I don't
belong to that set of miserable sinners."

"Dr. Downing does preach very sharp, harsh sermons," Ester said
at last, feeling the necessity of saying something. "I have often
wondered at it. I think them calculated to do more harm than good."

"Oh _I_ don't wonder at it in the least. I'd make it sharper yet if I
were he; the necessity exists evidently. The wonder lies in _that_ to
my mind. If a fellow really means to do a thing, what does he wait to
be punched up about it everlastingly for? Hang me, if I don't like
to see people act as though they meant it, even if the question is a
religious one. Ester, how many times ought I to beg your pardon for
using an unknown tongue - in other words, slang phrases? I fancied
myself talking to my chum, delivering a lecture on theology, which is
somewhat out of my sphere, as you have doubtless observed. Yet such
people as you and I can't help having eyes and ears, and using them
now and then, can we?"

Still silence on Ester's part, so far as defining her position was
concerned. She was not ashamed of her Savior now, but of herself. If
this gay cousin's eyes were critical she knew she could not bear the
test. Yet she rallied sufficiently to condemn within her own mind the
poor little cards.

"They will do more harm than good," she told herself positively. To
such young men as Ralph, for instance, what could he possibly want
with one of them, save to make it a subject of ridicule when he got
with some of his wild companions. But it transpired that his designs
were not so very wicked after all; for as they left the store he took
the little card from his pocket, and handed it to Abbie with a quiet:
"Sis, here is something that you will like."

And Abbie read it and said: "How solemn that is. Did you get it for
me, Ralph? Thank you." And Ralph bowed and smiled on her, a kind,
almost tender smile, very unlike the roguish twinkle that had shone in
his eyes while he talked with Ester.

All through the busy day that silent, solemn card haunted Ester.
It pertinaciously refused to be lost. She dropped it twice in their
transit from store to store, but Ralph promptly returned it to her.
At home she laid it on her dressing-table, but piled scarfs and
handkerchiefs and gloves over it as high as she might, it was sure to
flutter to the floor at her feet, as she sought hurriedly in the mass
of confusion for some missing article. Once she seized and flung it
from the window in dire vexation, and was rewarded by having Maggie
present it to her about two minutes thereafter, as a "something that
landed square on my head, ma'am, as I was coming around the corner."
At last she actually grew nervous over it, felt almost afraid to touch
it, so thoroughly had it fastened itself on her conscience. These
great black letters in that first sentence seemed burned into her
brain: "I solemnly agree, as God shall help me."

At last she deposited the unwelcome little monitor at the very bottom
of her collar-box, under some unused collars, telling herself that it
was for safe keeping, that she might not lose it again; not letting
her conscience say for a moment that it was because she wanted to bury
the haunting words out of her sight.




CHAPTER XV.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?


Ester stood before her mirror, arranging some disordered braids of
hair. She had come up from the dining-room for that purpose. It was
just after dinner. The family, with the addition of Mr. Foster, were
gathered in the back parlor, whither she was in haste to join them.

"How things do conspire to hinder me!" she exclaimed impatiently
as one loose hair-pin after another slid softly and silently out of
place. "This horrid ribbon doesn't shade with the trimming on my dress
either. I wonder what can have become of that blue one?" With a jerk
Sadie's "finery-box" was produced, and the contents tumbled over. The
methodical and orderly Ester was in nervous haste to get down to
that fascinating family group; but the blue ribbon, with the total
depravity of all ribbons, remained a silent and indifferent spectator
of her trials, snugged back in the corner of a half open drawer. Ester
had set her heart on finding it, and the green collar-box came next
under inspection, and being impatiently shoved back toward its corner
when the quest proved vain, took that opportunity for tumbling over
the floor and showering its contents right and left.

"What next, I wonder?" Ester muttered, as she stooped to scoop up the
disordered mass of collars, ruffles, cuffs, laces, and the like, and
with them came, face up, and bright, black letters, scorching into her
very soul, the little card with its: "I solemnly agree, as God shall
help me." Ester paused in her work, and stood upright with a strange
beating at her heart. What _did_ this mean? Was it merely chance that
this sentence had so persistently met her eye all this day, put the
card where she would? And what was the matter with her anyway? Why
should those words have such strange power over her? why had she tried
to rid herself of the sight of them? She read each sentence aloud
slowly and carefully. "Now," she said decisively, half irritated that
she was allowing herself to be hindered, "it is time to put an end to
this nonsense. I am sick and tired of feeling as I have of late - these
are all very reasonable and proper pledges, at least the most of them
are. I believe I'll adopt this card. Yes, I will - that is what has
been the trouble with me. I've neglected my duty - rather I have
so much care and work at home, that I haven't time to attend to it
properly - but here it is different. It is quite time I commenced right
in these things. To-night, when I come to my room, I will begin. No,
I can not do that either, for Abbie will be with me. Well, the first
opportunity then that I have - or no - I'll stop now, this minute,
and read a chapter in the Bible and pray; there is nothing like the
present moment for keeping a good resolution. I like decision in
everything - and, I dare say, Abbie will be very willing to have a
quiet talk with Mr. Foster before I come down."

And sincerely desirous to be at peace with her newly troubled
conscience - and sincerely sure that she was in the right way for
securing that peace - Ester closed and locked her door, and sat herself
down by the open window in a thoroughly self-satisfied state of mind,
to read the Bible and to pray.

Poor human heart, so utterly unconscious of its own deep sickness - so
willing to plaster over the unhealed wound! Where should she read? She
was at all times a random reader of the Bible; but now with this new
era it was important that there should be a more definite aim in her
reading. She turned the leaves rapidly, eager to find a book which
looked inviting for the occasion, and finally seized upon the
Gospel of John as entirely proper and appropriate, and industriously


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