Forester, by Maria Edgeworth

The Geranium.

The dancing-master gradually recovered from his sprain; and Forester spent all his pocket-money in buying a new violin for him, as his had been broken in his fall; his watch had likewise been broken against the stone steps. Though Forester looked upon a watch as a useless bauble, yet he determined to get this mended; and his friend Henry went with him for this purpose to a watchmaker’s.

Whilst Henry Campbell and Forester were consulting with the watchmaker upon the internal state of the bruised watch, Archibald Mackenzie, who followed them for a lounge, was looking over some new watches, and ardently wished for the finest that he saw. As he was playing with this fine watch, the watchmaker begged that he would take care not to break it.

Archibald, in the insolent tone in which he was used to speak to a tradesman, replied, that if he did break it, he hoped he was able to pay for it. The watchmaker civilly answered, “he had no doubt of that, but that the watch was not his property; it was Sir Philip Gosling’s, who would call for it, he expected, in a quarter of an hour.”

At the name of Sir Philip Gosling, Archibald quickly changed his tone: he had a great ambition to be of Sir Philip’s acquaintance, for Sir Philip was a young man who was to have a large fortune when he should come of age, and who, in the meantime, spent as much of it as possible, with great spirit and little judgment. He had been sent to Edinburgh for his education; and he spent his time in training horses, laying bets, parading in the public walks, and ridiculing, or, in his own phrase, quizzing every sensible young man, who applied to literature or science. Sir Philip, whenever he frequented any of the professor’s classes, took care to make it evident to every body present, that he did not come there to learn, and that he looked down with contempt upon all who were obliged to study; he was the first always to make any disturbance in the classes, or, in his elegant language, to make a row.

This was the youth of whose acquaintance Archibald Mackenzie was ambitious. He stayed in the shop, in hopes that Sir Philip would arrive: he was not disappointed; Sir Philip came, and, with address which lady Catherine would perhaps have admired, Archibald entered into conversation with the young baronet, if conversation that might be called, which consisted of a species of fashionable dialect, devoid of sense, and destitute of any pretence to wit. To Forester this dialect was absolutely unintelligible: after he had listened to it with sober contempt for a few minutes, he pulled Henry away, saying, “Come, don’t let us waste our time here; let us go to the brewery that you promised to show me.”

Henry did not immediately yield to the rough pull of his indignant friend, for at this instant the door of a little back parlour behind the watchmaker’s shop opened slowly, and a girl of about seven years old appeared, carrying, with difficulty, a flower-pot, in which there was a fine large geranium in full flower. Henry, who saw that the child was scarcely able to carry it, took it out of her hands, and asked her, “Where she would like to have it put?”

“Here, for to-day!” said the little girl, sorrowfully; “but to-morrow it goes away for ever.”

The little girl was sorry to part with this geranium, because “she had watched it all the winter,” and said, “that she was very fond of it; but that she was willing to part with it, though it was just come into flower, because the apothecary had told her, that it was the cause of her grandmother’s having been taken ill. Her grandmother lodged,” she said, “in that little room, and the room was very close, and she was taken ill in the night — so ill, that she could hardly speak or stir; and when the apothecary came, he said,” continued the little girl, “it was no wonder any body was ill, who slept in such a little close room, with such a great geranium in it, to poison the air. So my geranium must go!” concluded she with a sigh: “but, as it is for grandmother, I shall never think of it again.”

Henry Campbell and Forester were both struck with the modest simplicity of this child’s countenance and manner, and they were pleased with the unaffected generosity with which she gave up her favourite geranium. Forester noted this down in his mind as a fresh instance in favour of his exclusive good opinion of the poor. This little girl looked poor, though she was decently dressed; she was so thin, that her little cheek-bones could plainly be seen; her face had not the round, rosy beauty of cheerful health: she was pale and sallow, and she looked in patient misery. Moved with compassion, Forester regretted that he had no money to give where it might have been so well bestowed. He was always extravagant in his generosity; he would often give five guineas where five shillings would have been enough, and by these means he reduced himself to the necessity sometimes of refusing assistance to deserving objects. On his journey from his father’s house to Edinburgh, he lavished, in undistinguishing charity, a considerable sum of money; and all that he had remaining of this money he spent in purchasing the new violin for M. Pasgrave. Dr. Campbell absolutely refused to advance his ward any money till his next quarterly allowance should become due. Henry, who always perceived quickly what passed in the minds of others, guessed at Forester’s thoughts by his countenance, and forebore to produce his own money, though he had it just ready in his hand: he knew that he could call again at the watchmaker’s, and give what he pleased, without ostentation.

Upon questioning the little girl further, concerning her grandmother’s illness, Henry discovered, that the old woman had sat up late at night knitting, and that, feeling herself extremely cold, she got a pan of charcoal into her room; that, soon afterwards, she felt uncommonly drowsy; and when her little grand-daughter spoke to her, and asked her why she did not come to bed, she made no answer: a few minutes after this, she dropped from her chair. The child was extremely frightened, and though she felt it very difficult to rouse herself, she said, she got up as fast as she could, opened the door, and called to the watchmaker’s wife, who luckily had been at work late, and was now raking the kitchen fire. With her assistance the old woman was brought into the air, and presently returned to her senses: the pan of charcoal had been taken away before the apothecary came in the morning; as he was in a great hurry when he called, he made but few inquiries, and consequently condemned the geranium without sufficient evidence. As he left the house, he carelessly said, “My wife would like that geranium, I think.” And the poor old woman, who had but a very small fee to offer, was eager to give any thing that seemed to please the doctor.

Forester, when he heard this story, burst into a contemptuous exclamation against the meanness of this and of all other apothecaries. Henry informed the little girl, that the charcoal had been the cause of her grandmother’s illness, and advised them never, upon any account, to keep a pan of charcoal again in her bedchamber; he told her, that many people had been killed by this practice. “Then,” cried the little girl, joyfully, “if it was the charcoal, and not the geranium, that made grandmother ill, I may keep my beautiful geranium:” and she ran immediately to gather some of the flowers, which she offered to Henry and to Forester. Forester, who was still absorbed in the contemplation of the apothecary’s meanness, took the flowers, without perceiving that he took them, and pulled them to pieces as he went on thinking. Henry, when the little girl held the geraniums up to him, observed, that the back of her hand was bruised and black; he asked her how she had hurt herself, and she replied innocently, “that she had not hurt herself, but that her schoolmistress was a very strict woman.” Forester, roused from his reverie, desired to hear what the little girl meant by a strict woman, and she explained herself more fully: she said, that, as a favour, her grandmother had obtained leave from some great lady to send her to a charity school: that she went there every day to learn to read and work, but that the mistress of the charity school used her scholars very severely, and often kept them for hours, after they had done their own tasks, to spin for her; and that she beat them if they did not spin as much as she expected. The little girl’s grandmother then said, that she knew all this, but that she did not dare to complain, because the schoolmistress was under the patronage of some of “the grandest ladies in Edinburgh,” and that, as she could not afford to pay for her little lass’s schooling, she was forced to have her taught as well as she could for nothing.

Forester, fired with indignation at this history of injustice, resolved, at all events, to stand forth immediately in the child’s defence; but, without staying to consider how the wrong could be redressed, he thought only of the quickest, or, as he said, the most manly means of doing the business: he declared, that if the little girl would show him the way to the school, he would go that instant and speak to the woman in the midst of all her scholars. Henry in vain represented that this would not he a prudent mode of proceeding.

Forester disdained prudence, and, trusting securely to the power of his own eloquence, he set out with the child, who seemed rather afraid to come to open war with her tyrant. Henry was obliged to return home to his father, who had usually business for him to do about this time. The little girl had stayed at home on account of her grandmother’s illness, but all the other scholars were hard at work, spinning in a close room, when Forester arrived.

He marched directly into the schoolroom. The wheels stopped at once on his appearance, and the schoolmistress, a raw-boned, intrepid-looking woman eyed him with amazement: he broke silence in the following words:—

“Vile woman, your injustice is come to light! How can you dare to tyrannize over these poor children? Is it because they are poor? Take my advice, children, resist this tyrant, put by your wheels, and spin for her no more.”

The children did not move, and the schoolmistress poured out a torrent of abuse in broad Scotch, which, to the English ear of Forester, was unintelligible. At length she made him comprehend her principal questions — Who he was? and by whose authority he interfered between her and her scholars? “By nobody’s authority,” was Forester’s answer; “I want no authority to speak in the cause of injured innocence.” No sooner had the woman heard these words, than she called to her husband, who was writing in an adjoining room: without further ceremony, they both seized upon our hero, and turned him out of the house.

The woman revenged herself without mercy upon the little girl whom Forester had attempted to defend, and dismissed her, with advice never more to complain of being obliged to spin for her mistress.

Mortified by the ill success of his enterprise, Forester returned home, attributing the failure of his eloquence chiefly to his ignorance of the Scotch dialect.

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Last updated Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 14:44