Dear!” and Esther sighed wearily as she bent over the tiresome figures on her slate. The long afternoon sun shot slanting in at the window of the little red school-house, where thirty restless children were thumbing the leaves of their well-worn books. The last class in spelling was on the floor, and Esther had not finished her problem. It wasn’t such a very hard example, but Esther was a little girl, and didn’t like arithmetic. Yet she kept at it; for there was to be a prize given at the end of the term to the one who had the most perfect lessons. The prize was a copy of Robinson Crusoe, handsomely bound in blue and gold, and full of pictures. Books were scarce in Esther’s home, and she wanted this one so much.
But now the spelling class was dismissed, and all the scholars were putting away their books for the night. Esther looked ruefully at the long columns of figures on her slate and the answer that, try as hard as she pleased, she couldn’t prove to be right, and something very much like tears shone in a pair of great hazel eyes as she straightened up her desk.
After the supper dishes were washed that evening, Esther sat down again to the puzzling example. The arithmetic class came the first thing in the morning, and she must get her answer ready tonight. But it was as bad as ever, and she couldn’t get it right. By and by mamma called her to go to bed, and the problem had to rest.
There was no time in the morning, for in this busy household, everyone had their appointed tasks, which they were expected to do. So Esther took her broom and went to sweep and straighten up brother Jack’s room. When she was whisking her duster around the books on the corner shelf, a little one on the end fell off to the floor.
Esther stooped to pick it up, and paused. What chance had placed that book in her way? She did not know Jack had such a book. It was arithmetic just like hers, and beside each problem was plainly written in black ink the correct answer.
Esther turned over the leaves till she came to the place where her lesson was. Her answer was nearly the same; there was only one figure in the tens that was wrong. What hurt would it do if she should copy the answer and hand it in for hers? She was sure she had worked long enough on it to have it right, and nobody would know. It was but the work of an instant, and the book was put back in its place.
With a smiling face, Esther went to school, and when the arithmetic class recited, was marked perfect in her lesson; but her conscience was not quite at ease. Everything said that day seemed to have something in it about honesty. The reading lesson was about an honest boy that would not tell a lie to save himself from punishment; and Miss Lewis said she hoped they would all strive to be strictly honest in their lessons, for that would be better than any prize they might win.
Esther knew she had not done right and that she ought to tell Miss Lewis about it; but she put it off that day and on the morrow, the warning voice of conscience grew more faint, till it ceased to trouble Esther. “It will not matter much,” she said, “if I don’t do it again.”
At length the last day came. There was to be speaking and singing at the school-house, and the children’s parents and friends were to be present, and the prizes presented. The little room had been gaily decked for the occasion with wreaths and flowers, and through the open door and windows came sweet scents of lilacs and clover and blossoming orchard trees.
When the exercises were over, Miss Lewis rose to give the prizes. “There are two scholars,” she said, “who stand so nearly equal in their studies that it has been a difficult matter to decide which one to award with the prize. They are Jennie Feverel and Esther Hallern. However, as Esther has had one more perfect mark than Jennie, she may come forward and receive the prize.”
With beating heart and triumphant face, Esther felt the coveted book in her hands, and heard Miss Lewis’s kind words as she handed it to her. But as she turned to go to her seat, she saw over in the corner, her dear friend Jennie, sobbing as if her heart would break over the disappointment.
With a sudden twinge of conscience, Esther remembered how unfairly the prize had been won and paused half way down the isle.
“What is the matter, Esther,” said Miss Lewis kindly, as she saw her stand there, her face flushing and paling by turns, as every moment her action looked meaner.
“O Miss Lewis,” said Esther, her voice growing so husky she could hardly speak above a whisper, and her eyes filling with tears of shame, “The prize is no more mine than Jennie’s. I copied one lesson out of Jack’s arithmetic; and the book belongs to her because she didn’t cheat,” and with a new sense of honor, Esther laid the beautiful book on Jennie’s desk.
Miss Lewis said a few words in reply, though what they were Esther could not have told, for her shame and disappointment crowded out everything else. Then school was dismissed.
Esther took her books and hurried home alone, not waiting even for her mother to come with her, and flung herself down in the grass under a pear tree, where the soft wind sent down showers of petals over a very miserable little girl. Here her mamma found her. Then there followed a quiet talk that Esther will never forget. Jennie kindly came over most every afternoon with her book, and by the last of vacation they had finished the story together.
When Esther gathered up her books, on the morning school began again, she was very much delighted to find a new history book and a slate laid beside them—presents from her mamma for her generosity and truthfulness about the prize.
- E. L.
The Youth Instructor, April 28, 1886