They are never alone that are accompanied with noble thoughts. — SIR PHILIP SIDNEY.
“I’ve finished my book, and now what can I do till this tiresome rain is over?” exclaimed Carrie, as she lay back on the couch with a yawn of weariness.
“Take another and a better book; the house is full of them, and this is a rare chance for a feast on the best,” answered Alice, looking over the pile of volumes in her lap, as she sat on the floor before one of the tall book-cases that lined the room.
“Not being a book-worm like you, I can’t read forever, and you needn’t sniff at ‘Wanda,’ for it’s perfectly thrilling!” cried Carrie, regretfully turning the crumpled leaves of the Seaside Library copy of that interminable and impossible tale.
“We should read to improve our minds, and that rubbish is only a waste of time,” began Alice, in a warning tone, as she looked up from “Romola,” over which she had been poring with the delight one feels in meeting an old friend.
“I don’t wish to improve my mind, thank you: I read for amusement in vacation time, and don’t want to see any moral works till next autumn. I get enough of them in school. This isn’t ‘rubbish’! It’s full of fine descriptions of scenery — ”
“Which you skip by the page, I’ve seen you do it,” said Eva, the third young girl in the library, as she shut up the stout book on her knee and began to knit as if this sudden outburst of chat disturbed her enjoyment of “The Dove in the Eagle’s Nest.”
“I do at first, being carried away by my interest in the people, but I almost always go back and read them afterward,” protested Carrie. “You know you like to hear about nice clothes, Eva, and Wanda’s were simply gorgeous; white velvet and a rope of pearls is one costume; gray velvet and a silver girdle another; and Idalia was all a ‘shower of perfumed laces,’ and scarlet and gold satin mask dresses, or primrose silk with violets, so lovely! I do revel in ‘em!”
Both girls laughed as Carrie reeled off this list of elegances, with the relish of a French modiste.
“Well, I’m poor and can’t have as many pretty things as I want, so it is delightful to read about women who wear white quilted satin dressing-gowns and olive velvet trains with Mechlin lace sweepers to them. Diamonds as large as nuts, and rivers of opals and sapphires, and rubies and pearls, are great fun to read of, if you never even get a look at real ones. I don’t believe the love part does me a bit of harm, for we never see such languid swells in America, nor such lovely, naughty ladies; and Ouida scolds them all, so of course she doesn’t approve of them, and that’s moral, I’m sure.”
But Alice shook her head again, as Carrie paused out of breath, and said in her serious way: “That’s the harm of it all. False and foolish things are made interesting, and we read for that, not for any lesson there may be hidden under the velvet and jewels and fine words of your splendid men and women. Now, this book is a wonderful picture of Florence in old times, and the famous people who really lived are painted in it, and it has a true and clean moral that we can all see, and one feels wiser and better for reading it. I do wish you’d leave those trashy things and try something really good.”
“I hate George Eliot, — so awfully wise and preachy and dismal! I really couldn’t wade through ‘Daniel Deronda,’ though ‘The Mill on the Floss’ wasn’t bad,” answered Carrie, with another yawn, as she recalled the Jew Mordecai’s long speeches, and Daniel’s meditations.
“I know you’d like this,” said Eva, patting her book with an air of calm content; for she was a modest, common-sense little body, full of innocent fancies and the mildest sort of romance. “I love dear Miss Yonge, with her nice, large families, and their trials, and their pious ways, and pleasant homes full of brothers and sisters, and good fathers and mothers. I’m never tired of them, and have read ‘Daisy Chain’ nine times at least.”
“I used to like them, and still think them good for young girls, with our own ‘Queechy’ and ‘Wide, Wide World,’ and books of that kind. Now I’m eighteen I prefer stronger novels, and books by great men and women, because these are always talked about by cultivated people, and when I go into society next winter I wish to be able to listen intelligently, and know what to admire.”
“That’s all very well for you, Alice; you were always poking over books, and I dare say you will write them some day, or be a blue-stocking. But I’ve got another year to study and fuss over my education, and I’m going to enjoy myself all I can, and leave the wise books till I come out.”
“But, Carrie, there won’t be any time to read them; you’ll be so busy with parties, and beaux, and travelling, and such things. I would take Alice’s advice and read up a little now; it’s so nice to know useful things, and be able to find help and comfort in good books when trouble comes, as Ellen Montgomery and Fleda did, and Ethel, and the other girls in Miss Yonge’s stories,” said Eva, earnestly, remembering how much the efforts of those natural little heroines had helped her in her own struggles tor self-control and the cheerful bearing of the burdens which come to all.
“I don’t want to be a priggish Ellen, or a moral Fleda, and I do detest bothering about self-improvement all the time. I know I ought, but I’d rather wait another year or two, and enjoy my vanities in peace just a little longer.” And Carrie tucked Wanda under the sofa pillow, as if a trifle ashamed of her society, with Eva’s innocent eyes upon her own, and Alice sadly regarding her over the rampart of wise books, which kept growing higher as the eager girl found more and more treasures in this richly stored library.
A little silence followed, broken only by the patter of the rain without, the crackle of the wood fire within, and the scratch of a busy pen from a curtained recess at the end of the long room. In the sudden hush the girls heard it and remembered that they were not alone.
“She must have heard every word we said!” and Carrie sat up with a dismayed face as she spoke in a whisper.
Eva laughed, but Alice shrugged her shoulders, and said tranquilly, “I don’t mind. She wouldn’t expect much wisdom from school-girls.”
This was cold comfort to Carrie, who was painfully conscious of having been a particularly silly school-girl just then. So she gave a groan and lay down again, wishing she had not expressed her views quite so freely, and had kept Wanda for the privacy of her own room.
The three girls were the guests of a delightful old lady, who had known their mothers and was fond of renewing her acquaintance with them through their daughters. She loved young people, and each summer invited parties of them to enjoy the delights of her beautiful country house, where she lived alone now, being the childless widow of a somewhat celebrated man. She made it very pleasant for her guests, leaving them free to employ a part of the day as they liked, providing the best of company at dinner, gay revels in the evening, and a large house full of curious and interesting things to examine at their leisure.
The rain had spoiled a pleasant plan, and business letters had made it necessary for Mrs. Warburton to leave the three to their own devices after lunch. They had read quietly for several hours, and their hostess was just finishing her last letter when fragments of the conversation reached her ear. She listened with amusement, unconscious that they had forgotten her presence, finding the different views very characteristic, and easily explained by the difference of the homes out of which the three friends came.
Alice was the only daughter of a scholarly man and a brilliant woman; therefore her love of books and desire to cultivate her mind was very natural, but the danger in her case would be in the neglect of other things equally important, too varied reading, and a superficial knowledge of many authors rather than a true appreciation of a few of the best and greatest. Eva was one of many children in a happy home, with a busy father, a pious mother, and many domestic cares, as well as joys, already falling to the dutiful girl’s lot. Her instincts were sweet and unspoiled, and she only needed to be shown where to find new and better helpers for the real trials of life, when the childish heroines she loved could no longer serve her in the years to come.
Carrie was one of the ambitious yet commonplace girls who wish to shine, without knowing the difference between the glitter of a candle which attracts moths, and the serene light of a star, or the cheery glow of a fire round which all love to gather. Her mother’s aims were not high, and the two pretty daughters knew that she desired good matches for them, educated them for that end, and expected them to do their parts when the time came. The elder sister was now at a watering-place with her mother, and Carrie hoped that a letter would soon come telling her that Mary was settled. During her stay with Mrs. Warburton she had learned a good deal, and was unconsciously contrasting the life here with the frivolous one at home, made up of public show and private sacrifice of comfort, dignity, and peace. Here were people who dressed simply, enjoyed conversation, kept up their accomplishments even when old, and were so busy, lovable, and charming, that poor Carrie often felt vulgar, ignorant, and mortified among them, in spite of their fine breeding and kindliness. The society Mrs. Warburton drew about her was the best, and old and young, rich and poor, wise and simple, all seemed genuine, — glad to give or receive, enjoy and rest, and then go out to their work refreshed by the influences of the place and the sweet old lady who made it what it was. The girls would soon begin life for themselves, and it was well that they had this little glimpse of really good society before they left the shelter of home to choose friends, pleasures, and pursuits for themselves, as all young women do when once launched.
The sudden silence and then the whispers suggested to the listener that she had perhaps heard something not meant for her ears; so she presently emerged with her letters, and said, as she came smiling toward the group about the fire, —
“How are you getting through this long, dull afternoon, my dears? Quiet as mice till just now. What woke you up? A battle of the books? Alice looks as if she had laid in plenty of ammunition, and you were preparing to besiege her.”
The girls laughed, and all rose, for Madam Warburton was a stately old lady, and people involuntarily treated her with great respect, even in this mannerless age.
“We were only talking about books,” began Carrie, deeply grateful that Wanda was safely out of sight.
“And we couldn’t agree,” added Eva, running to ring the bell for the man to take the letters, for she was used to these little offices at home, and loved to wait on Madam.
“Thanks, my love. Now let us talk a little, if you are tired of reading, and if you like to let me share the discussion. Comparing tastes in literature is always a pleasure, and I used to enjoy talking over books with my girl friends more than anything else.”
As she spoke, Mrs. Warburton sat down in the chair which Alice rolled up, drew Eva to the cushion at her feet, and nodded to the others as they settled again, with interested faces, one at the table where the pile of chosen volumes now lay, the other erect upon the couch where she had been practising the poses “full of languid grace,” so much affected by her favorite heroines.
“Carrie was laughing at me for liking wise books and wanting to improve my mind. Is it foolish and a waste of time?” asked Alice, eager to convince her friend and secure so powerful an ally.
“No, my dear, it is a very sensible desire, and I wish more girls had it. Only don’t be greedy, and read too much; cramming and smattering is as bad as promiscuous novel-reading, or no reading at all. Choose carefully, read intelligently, and digest thoroughly each book, and then you make it your own,” answered Mrs. Warburton, quite in her element now, for she loved to give advice, as most old ladies do.
“But how can we know what to read if we mayn’t follow our tastes?” said Carrie, trying to be interested and “intelligent” in spite of her fear that a “school-marmy” lecture was in store for her.
“Ask advice, and so cultivate a true and refined taste. I always judge people’s characters a good deal by the books they like, as well as by the company they keep; so one should be careful, for this is a pretty good test. Another is, be sure that whatever will not bear reading aloud is not fit to read to one’s self. Many young girls ignorantly or curiously take up books quite worthless, and really harmful, because under the fine writing and brilliant color lurks immorality or the false sentiment which gives wrong ideas of life and things which should be sacred. They think, perhaps, that no one knows this taste of theirs; but they are mistaken, for it shows itself in many ways, and betrays them. Attitudes, looks, careless words, and a morbid or foolishly romantic view of certain things, show plainly that the maidenly instincts are blunted, and harm done that perhaps can never be repaired.”
Mrs. Warburton kept her eyes fixed upon the tall andirons as if gravely reproving them, which was a great relief to Carrie, whose cheeks glowed as she stirred uneasily and took up a screen as if to guard them from the fire.
But conscience pricked her sharply, and memory, like a traitor, recalled many a passage or scene in her favorite books which she could not have read aloud even to that old lady, though she enjoyed them in private.
Nothing very bad, but false and foolish, poor food for a lively fancy and young mind to feed on, as the weariness or excitement which always followed plainly proved, since one should feel refreshed, not cloyed, with an intellectual feast.
Alice, with both elbows on the table, listened with wide-awake eyes, and Eva watched the raindrops trickle down the pane with an intent expression, as if asking herself if she had ever done this naughty thing.
“Then there is another fault,” continued Mrs. Warburton, well knowing that her first shot had hit its mark, and anxious to be just.
“Some book-loving lassies have a mania for trying to read everything, and dip into works far beyond their powers, or try too many different kinds of self-improvement at once. So they get a muddle of useless things into their heads, instead of well-assorted ideas and real knowledge. They must learn to wait and select; for each age has its proper class of books, and what is Greek to us at eighteen may be just what we need at thirty. One can get mental dyspepsia on meat and wine as well as on ice-cream and frosted cake, you know.”
Alice smiled, and pushed away four of the eight books she had selected, as if afraid she had been greedy, and now felt that it was best to wait a little.
Eva looked up with some anxiety in her frank eyes as she said, “Now it is my turn. Must I give up my dear homely books, and take to Ruskin, Kant, or Plato?”
Mrs. Warburton laughed, as she stroked the pretty brown head at her knee.
“Not yet, my love, perhaps never, for those are not the masters you need, I fancy. Since you like stories about every-day people, try some of the fine biographies of real men and women about whom you should know something. You will find their lives full of stirring, helpful, and lovely experiences, and in reading of these you will get courage and hope and faith to bear your own trials as they come. True stories suit you, and are the best, for there we get real tragedy and comedy, and the lessons all must learn.”
“Thank you! I will begin at once if you will kindly give me a list of such as would be good for me,” cried Eva, with the sweet docility of one eager to be all that is lovable and wise in woman.
“Give us a list, and we will try to improve in the best way. You know what we need, and love to help foolish girls, or you wouldn’t be so kind and patient with us,” said Alice, going to sit beside Carrie, hoping for much discussion of this, to her, very interesting subject.
“I will, with pleasure; but I read few modern novels, so I may not be a good judge there. Most of them seem very poor stuff, and I cannot waste time even to skim them as some people do. I still like the old-fashioned ones I read as a girl, though you would laugh at them. Did any of you ever read ‘Thaddeus of Warsaw’?”
“I have, and thought it very funny; so were ‘Evelina’ and ‘Cecilia.’ I wanted to try Smollett and Fielding, after reading some fine essays about them, but Papa told me I must wait,” said Alice.
“Ah, my dears, in my day, Thaddeus was our hero, and we thought the scene where he and Miss Beaufort are in the Park a most thrilling one. Two fops ask Thaddeus where he got his boots, and he replies, with withering dignity, ‘Where I got my sword, gentlemen.’ I treasured the picture of that episode for a long time. Thaddeus wears a hat as full of black plumes as a hearse, Hessian boots with tassels, and leans over Mary, who languishes on the seat in a short-waisted gown, limp scarf, poke bonnet, and large bag, — the height of elegance then, but very funny now. Then William Wallace in ‘Scottish Chiefs.’ Bless me! we cried over him as much as you do over your ‘Heir of Clifton,’ or whatever the boy’s name is. You wouldn’t get through it, I fancy; and as for poor, dear, prosy Richardson, his letter-writing heroines would bore you to death. Just imagine a lover saying to a friend, ‘I begged my angel to stay and sip one dish of tea. She sipped one dish and flew.’”
“Now, I’m sure that’s sillier than anything the Duchess ever wrote with her five-o’clock teas and flirtations over plum-cake on lawns,” cried Carrie, as they all laughed at the immortal Lovelace.
“I never read Richardson, but he couldn’t be duller than Henry James, with his everlasting stories, full of people who talk a great deal and amount to nothing. I like the older novels best, and enjoy some of Scott’s and Miss Edgeworth’s better than Howells’s, or any of the modern realistic writers, with their elevators, and paint-pots, and every-day people,” said Alice, who wasted little time on light literature.
“I’m glad to hear you say so, for I have an old-fashioned fancy that I’d rather read about people as they were, for that is history, or as they might and should be, for that helps us in our own efforts; not as they are, for that we know, and are all sufficiently commonplace ourselves, to be the better for a nobler and wider view of life and men than any we are apt to get, so busy are we earning daily bread, or running after fortune, honor or some other bubble. But I mustn’t lecture, or I shall bore you, and forget that I am your hostess, whose duty it is to amuse.”
As Mrs. Warburton paused, Carrie, anxious to change the subject, said, with her eyes on a curious jewel which the old lady wore, “I also like true stories, and you promised to tell us about that lovely pin some day. This is just the time for it, — please do.”
“With pleasure, for the little romance is quite apropos to our present chat. It is a very simple tale, and rather sad, but it had a great influence on my life, and this brooch is very dear to me.”