"Just what I have been expecting for about seven years," said Miss Pauline Worthington, looking from an open letter in her hand.
"Is not your letter from Herbert, Lina?" questioned Mrs. Worthington, a tiny, silver-haired old lady with gentle expression.
"Yes, Mother. Essie is very ill with low, nervous fever, and they want me to come and stay until she is better. The carriage will be sent at three o'clock." Miss Pauline's eyes snapped, "I think it is about time Bert's tyranny over that little martyr was ended. He's killing her."
"Lina! He is your brother."
"I can see his faults even if he is."
"I never heard Essie complain."
"She never would. But look at her. Nine years ago when she was married, she was a lively sunbeam, so bright and pretty. Now, pale, quiet and reserved, her voice is seldom heard, her smile seldom seen. A wintry shadow of her former summer brightness! You have not seen her at home, but surely when she is here you see the change."
"Yes, dear, she has changed; but family cares "
"Has Louie changed so? She has been twelve years married." Mrs. Worthington was silent. Louie was her oldest child, and presided over the home in which her mother had been a crippled prisoner for fifteen years. She took all the household care, and had five children, and yet Louie had gained in beauty and cheerful happiness, since her marriage.
"Henry appreciates Louie," said Lina; "there lies the difference between her happiness and Essie's dejection. If there is any domestic trouble, Henry and Louie share it, while Herbert shifts it all upon Essie. He is a habitual faultfinder."
"Perhaps, dear, Essie is not as good a housekeeper as Louie. Herbert may have cause to find fault."
"Once in ten times he may. I never saw a faultless house or housekeeper; but Essie and her house are the nearest approach to perfection I ever did see."
"You never spoke so before, Lina."
"Because Louie and I thought it best not to worry you with trouble beyond your help. But firmly believing as I do now, that Herbert is actually worrying his wife into the grave, I intend to give him a lesson; that is, if you can spare me to go?"
"You must go, dear. I can get along nicely." So when Herbert Worthington sent his carriage, Lina was ready for the fourteen mile drive to her brother's house. It was a place where no evil spirit of repining and faultfinding should have been found. Spacious, handsomely furnished, with well-trained servants and all the comforts wealth could furnish, it seemed a perfect paradise to visitors. But a very demon lurked there to poison all, and this demon Lina had come to exorcize.
For the first two weeks Essie took all of Lina's time and care. Herbert snarled and fretted over domestic shortcomings, but Lina peremptorily forbade all mention of these in the sickroom. When convalescence commenced, Lina sent Essie to visit old Mrs. Worthington, and took control of Herbert, the children, and the household, fully determined to show her brother how far he carried his absurd habit of faultfinding.
The first dinner saw the beginning of the lesson Lina meant to teach, by practically illustrating some of Herbert's absurdities. Herbert entered the dining room, his handsome face disfigured by a frown.
"Soup," said Herbert, lifting the tureen cover; "perfect dish-water!"
"Susan," said Lina sharply, before Herbert could lift the ladle, "take that tureen to the kitchen and tell Jane the soup is not fit to eat."
Susan promptly obeyed. Herbert looked rather ruefully at the vanishing dish. He was especially fond of soup. Essie would have had some gentle excuse for it she never whipped off his dinner in that way. All dinner time Lina kept reminding Susan about that abominable soup, till Herbert heartily wished he had said nothing about it. Then his imagination detected a burnt flavor in the pudding, and before he could remonstrate, that dish followed the soup.
"I'll get this house in some sort of order before I leave it!" said Lina. "Before you leave it," said Herbert, sharply. "Do you suppose you are a better housekeeper than Essie? Why, I have not a friend who does not envy me the exquisite order of my house and my dainty table."
"Herbert, you do surprise me. Only yesterday I heard you say you did wish there was ever anything fit to eat on the table."
"I don't expect every word to be taken literally," said Herbert, rather sulkily. An hour later, finding a streak of dust in the sitting room, he declared emphatically it was not fit for a pig to live in! Coming into it the next morning, he found the curtains torn down, the carpets taken up, the floor littered with pails, soap, and brushes, and Lina in a dismal dress, directing two women, scrubbing vigorously.
"Goodness, what are you doing?"
"Cleaning this room."
"Why, in the fall Essie had the whole house cleaned until it shone, and didn't make half the muss," he added contemptuously.
"Well," said Lina, "I thought this room a marvel of neatness myself, but when you said it was not fit for pigs, I supposed you wanted it cleaned."
"The room was well enough," was the curt reply. "For mercy's sake, don't turn any more of the house upside down."
At breakfast a tiny tear in Louie's apron caught her father's eye. Because of his own angry statements: "She never had a decent stitch of clothes, and he did wish somebody would see to her," two days later a formidable dry-goods bill was presented at the store. Lina explained it to him in this wise: "You said, Herbert, that Louie hadn't a decent stitch, and you wished somebody would see to her, so I bought her a complete outfit. I could not see any fault myself, but of course I got more expensive articles, as you did not like those already provided. I am glad you called my attention to the poor neglected child."
"Poor, neglected child!" echoed astonished Herbert. "Why, Lina, Essie fairly slaves herself out over those children. I am sure I never see any better dressed or neater."
Lina merely shrugged her shoulders. A month passed. Essie gained strength in the genial atmosphere surrounding Louie and her mother, while Lina ruled Herbert's home with a rod of iron. Herbert began to experience a sick longing for Essie's gentle presence. Lina took him so very literally in all he said, and yet he could not rebuke her for doing exactly what he openly wished.
A chair with a tiny spot of dirt being declared absolutely filthy, was upholstered and varnished at a cost of eight dollars. A dozen new shirts, Essie's last labor of love, being said to "set like meal bags," were bestowed upon the gardener, and a new set sent from the furnishing store. Every window was opened after a pettish declaration that the "room was as hot as an oven," and an hour later the stove was fired up to smothering heat because he declared it "cold enough to freeze a polar bear." In short, with apparently an energetic attempt to correct all shortcomings and put the housekeeping upon a perfect basis, Lina, in one month, nearly doubled her brother's expenses, and drove him to the very verge of distraction, keeping account of every complaint.
But Essie, well and strong again, was coming home. On the day of her expected arrival, Lina, with a solemn face, invited her brother into the sitting room for a few moments of private conversation.
"Herbert," she said gravely, "I have a proposition to make to you. You are my only brother, and I love you very dearly. It really grieves me to the heart to see how much there is to find fault with in your beautiful home."
Herbert twisted himself uneasily in his chair, but Lina continued:
"You know that mother is very dependent on me, Louie having the house and children to care for, but I think she would sacrifice her own comfort for yours. So, if you wish, Herbert, I will come here permanently, to keep things in order for you."
"You are very kind," he faltered, the instincts of a gentleman battling with the strong desire to tell Lina she would certainly drive him to a lunatic asylum by six months more of her model housekeeping.
"Not at all. A man who has made an unfortunate marriage certainly needs all the aid and sympathy his family can give him."
The last straw was laid upon the camel's back. Herbert spoke hotly:
"You are entirely mistaken, Lina! I have not made an unfortunate marriage. If ever a man was blessed in a wife, I am that man."
"You amaze me, Herbert," Lina cried out in well-feigned astonishment.
"I do not see why you should be surprised. Essie is gentle, loving, orderly, a model housekeeper, and a perfect home angel God bless her."
"Herbert, is that true?"
"Certainly it is true."
"I cannot believe it," was the slow, hesitating response.
"Cannot believe it! Why?"
"Because" and Lina dwelt impressively upon every word "during the nine years of your married life, though visiting here frequently, I never heard you speak one word of encouragement or praise to Essie. I never saw one look of approbation upon your face or appreciation of any effort she made for your comfort. Continual faultfinding and constant blame have changed her from a happy, winsome girl to a pale, careworn woman. Even her last illness was but the unbroken despair of a heart crushed under a load of daily censure and constant striving for the approbation never given. And you tell me now she has never failed in her duty to you. There is a grave error somewhere."
The sadly earnest tone, the face of thoughtful gravity, sent every word home to Herbert's heart. He spoke no word of self-defense as Lina slowly left the room. In the silence that followed, conscience reviewed the past, and he knew that his sister had only spoken the truth. The habit of fault-finding meeting no resistance in Essie's gentleness, had gained in force till all its enormity stood revealed in the experience of the past month.
In the days when Essie lay dangerously ill there had been no self-reproach like this in her husband's sorrow. He had given his wife a fair home, an ample income, frequent social pleasures, many costly gifts, and loved her faithfully, while poisoning her whole life.
"God help me," he whispered, "to conquer this fault. Essie shall hear no more faultfinding, and if I see her drooping I will send her to Mother and have Lina back again."
Never had wife and mother warmer welcome than greeted Essie. The children were unchecked in their loudest exhibit of delight. Lina had to rush into the hall to hide her merry eyes when Herbert, kissing Essie, said: "We must let Mother have Lina now, dear; she has been very kind and worked hard for my comfort; but there is no home-fairy like my Essie."
The quick, glad look in his wife's soft eyes told Herbert that one step had been taken in the right direction. As the days glided by, and Essie found appreciation meeting every effort to home comfort, a word of praise for every little triumph of cookery or needlework, her pale face grew bright with untold happiness. Gradually the careworn expression was replaced by one of sweet content, and Herbert found his own heart lighted by the cheerful voice, the sunny smile, the bright eyes of the Essie he had wooed years before.
Lina, making a visit six months later, told her mother on her return, "Herbert has learned his lesson by heart, Mother, he appreciates Essie now at her value, and he lets her know it."