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A Red Wallflower by Susan Warner

Esther must put the casts back


'Your

eyes tell you, do they not?'

'No, papa. They tell me, sometimes, which is which; but I mean, why isn't a flower a weed? I asked Christopher, but he couldn't tell me.'

'I do not understand the question. It seems to me you are talking nonsense.'

The colonel raised his book again, and Esther took the hint, and went back to the table with her flowers. She sat down and looked at them. Fair they were, and fresh, and pure; and they bore spring's messages, to all that could hear the message. If Esther could, it was in a half-unconscious way, that somehow awakened by degrees almost as much pain as pleasure. Or else, it was simply that the glow and stir of her walk was fading away, and allowing the old wonted train of thought to come in again. The bright expression passed from her face; the features settled into a melancholy dulness, most unfit for a child and painful to see; there was a droop of the corners of the mouth, and a lax fall of the eyelids, and a settled gloom in the face, that covered it and changed it like a mask. The very features seemed to grow heavy, in the utter heaviness of the spirit.

She sat so for a while, musing, no longer busy with such pleasant things as flowers and weeds; then roused herself. The weariness of inaction was becoming intolerable. She went to a corner of the room, where a large mahogany box was half-concealed beneath

a table covered with a cloth; with a good deal of effort she lugged the box forth. It was locked, and she went to the sofa.

'Papa, may I look at the casts?'

'Yes.'

'You have got the key, papa.'

The key was fished out of the colonel's waistcoat pocket, and Esther sat down on the floor and unlocked the box. It was filled with casts in plaster of Paris, of old medals and bas-reliefs; and it had long been a great amusement of Esther's to take them all out and look at them, and then carefully pack them all away again between their layers of soft paper and cotton batting. In the nature of the case, this was an amusement that would pall if too often repeated; so it rarely happened that Esther got them out more than three or four times a year. This time she had hardly begun to take them out and place them carefully on the table, when Mrs. Barker came in to lay the cloth for dinner. Esther must put the casts back, and defer her amusement till another time in the day.

Meals were served now for the colonel and his daughter in this same room, which served for sitting-room and library. The dining-room was disused. Things had come by degrees to this irregularity, Mrs. Barker finding that it made her less work, and the colonel in his sorrowful abstraction hardly knowing and not at all caring where he took his dinner. The dinner was carefully served, however, and delicately prepared; for there Barker's pride came in to her help; and besides, little as Colonel Gainsborough attended now to the food he ate, it is quite possible that he would have rebelled against any disorder in that department of the household economy.

The meal times were sorrowful occasions to both the solitary personages who now sat down to the table. Neither of them had become accustomed yet to the empty place at the board. The colonel ate little and talked none at all; and only Esther's honest childish appetite saved these times from being seasons of intolerable gloom. Even so, she was always glad when dinner was done.


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