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BACK of the rectory there was a splendid, long hill. The ground receded until the rectory garden was reached, and the hill was guarded on either flank by a thick growth of pines and cedars, and, being a part of the land appertaining to the rectory, was never invaded by the village children. This was considered very fortunate by Mrs. Patterson, Jim's mother, and for an odd reason. The rector's wife was very fond of coasting, as she was of most out-of-door sports, but her dignified position prevented her from enjoying them to the utmost. In many localities the clergyman's wife might have played golf and tennis, have rode and swum and coasted and skated, and nobody thought the worse of her; but in The Village it was different.
Sally had therefore rejoiced at the discovery of that splendid, isolated hill behind the house. It could not have been improved upon for a long, perfectly glorious coast, winding up on the pool of ice in the garden and bumping thrillingly between dry vegetables. Mrs. Patterson steered and Jim made the running pushes, and slid flat on his chest behind his mother. Jim was very proud of his mother. He often wished that he felt at liberty to tell of her feats. He had never been told not to tell, but realized, being rather a sharp boy, that silence was wiser. Jim's mother confided in him, and he respected her confidence. "Oh, Jim dear," she would often say, "there is a mothers' meeting this afternoon, and I would so much rather go coasting with you." Or, "There's a Guild meeting about a fair, and the ice in the garden is really quite smooth."
It was perhaps unbecoming a rector's wife, but Jim loved his mother better because she expressed a preference for the sports he loved, and considered that no other boy had a mother who was quite equal to his. Sally Patterson was small and wiry, with a bright face, and very thick, brown hair, which had a boyish crest over her forehead, and she could run as fast as Jim. Jim's father was much older than his mother, and very dignified, although he had a keen sense of humor. He used to laugh when his wife and son came in after their coasting expeditions.
"Well, boys," he would say, "had a good time?"
Jim was perfectly satisfied and convinced that his mother was the very best and most beautiful person in the village, even in the whole world, until Mr. Cyril Rose came to fill a vacancy of cashier in the bank, and his daughter, little Lucy Rose, as a matter of course, came with him. Little Lucy had no mother. Mr. Cyril's cousin, Martha Rose, kept his house, and there was a colored maid with a bad temper, who was said, however, to be invaluable "help."
Little Lucy attended Madame's school. She came the next Monday after Jim and his friends had planned to have a chicken roast and failed. After Jim saw little Lucy he thought no more of the chicken roast. It seemed to him that he thought no more of anything. He could not by any possibility have learned his lessons had it not been for the desire to appear a good scholar before little Lucy. Jim had never been a self-conscious boy, but that day he was so keenly worried about her opinion of him that his usual easy swing broke into a strut when he crossed the room. He need not have been so troubled, because little Lucy was not looking at him. She was not looking at any boy or girl. She was only trying to learn her lesson. Little Lucy was that rather rare creature, a very gentle, obedient child, with a single eye for her duty. She was so charming that it was sad to think how much her mother had missed, as far as this world was concerned.
The minute Madame saw her a singular light came into her eyes -- the light of love of a childless woman for a child. Similar lights were in the eyes of Miss Parmalee and Miss Acton. They looked at one another with a sort of sweet confidence when they were drinking tea together after school in Madame's study.
"Did you ever see such a darling?" said Madame. Miss Parmalee said she never had, and Miss Acton echoed her.
"She is a little angel," said Madame.
"She worked so hard over her geography lesson," said Miss Parmalee, "and she got the Amazon River in New England and the Connecticut in South America, after all; but she was so sweet about it, she made me want to change the map of the world. Dear little soul, it did seem as if she ought to have rivers and everything else just where she chose."
"And she tried so hard to reach an octave, and her little finger is too short," said Miss Acton; "and she hasn't a bit of an ear for music, but her little voice is so sweet it does not matter."
"I have seen prettier children," said Madame, "but never one quite such a darling."
Miss Parmalee and Miss Acton agreed with Madame, and so did everybody else. Lily Jennings's beauty was quite eclipsed by little Lucy, but Lily did not care; she was herself one of little Lucy's most fervent admirers. She was really Jim Patterson's most formidable rival in the school. "You don't care about great, horrid boys, do you, dear?" Lily said to Lucy, entirely within hearing of Jim and Lee Westminster and Johnny Trumbull and Arnold Carruth and Bubby Harvey and Frank Ellis, and a number of others who glowered at her.
Dear little Lucy hesitated. She did not wish to hurt the feelings of boys, and the question had been loudly put. Finally she said she didn't know. Lack of definite knowledge was little Lucy's rock of refuge in time of need. She would look adorable, and say in her timid little fluty voice, "I don't -- know." The last word came always with a sort of gasp which was alluring. All the listening boys were convinced that little Lucy loved them all individually and generally, because of her "I don't -- know."
Everybody was convinced of little Lucy's affection for everybody, which was one reason for her charm. She flattered without knowing that she did so. It was impossible for her to look at any living thing except with soft eyes of love. It was impossible for her to speak without every tone conveying the sweetest deference and admiration. The whole atmosphere of Madame's school changed with the advent of the little girl. Everybody tried to live up to little Lucy's supposed ideal, but in reality she had no ideal. Lucy was the simplest of little girls, only intent upon being good, doing as she was told, and winning her father's approval, also her cousin Martha's.
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Freeman's Short Stories -by- Mary E. Wilkins Freeman