Making a friend
The next morning we got up in the dark as before, but the water was frozen, so we could not wash. It was freezing cold in all the rooms. This time the porridge was not burnt, but I still felt hungry, as the quantity was so small.
I stayed in the bottom class, but noticed the girl that I had been talking to was in another class. Her surname seemed to be Burns. Teachers called girls by their surnames in this school. Her class were studying history, and her teacher, Miss Scatcherd, appeared constantly annoyed by her.
‘Burns, hold your head up, can’t you!’
‘Burns, don’t stand like that!’
The history questions asked by Miss Scatcherd sounded very difficult, but Burns knew all the answers. I kept expecting the teacher to praise her, but instead she suddenly cried out:
‘You dirty girl! You haven’t washed your hands this morning!’
I was surprised that Burns did not explain that none of us could wash our faces or hands because the water had been frozen. Miss Scatcherd gave an order. Burns left the room and returned, carrying a stick. The teacher took it and hit Burns several times with it. The girl did not cry or change her expression.
‘Wicked girl!’ said Miss Scatcherd. ‘Nothing will change your dirty habits!’
Later that day, during the play-hour, I found Burns alone by the fireside, reading the same book as before, and I started talking to her.
‘What is the rest of your name?’ I asked.
‘Helen,’ she replied.
‘Do you want to leave Lowood?’
‘No, why should I? I was sent to school here, so I must learn as much as I can.’
‘But Miss Scatcherd is so cruel to you!’ I burst out.
‘Cruel? Not at all. She is strict and she sees my faults.’
‘If I were you, I’d hate her,’ I cried. ‘If she hit me with a stick, I’d seize it and break it under her nose.’
‘I don’t think you would,’ answered Helen quietly. ‘And if you did, Mr Brocklehurst would send you away from school, and your relations would be upset. Anyway, the Bible tells us to do good, even if other people hurt us. Sometimes you have to put up with some hard things in life.’
I could not understand her ideas, but I had a feeling she might be right. I looked at her in wonder.
‘You say you have faults, Helen. What are they? To me you seem very good.’
‘You are wrong,’ she answered. ‘I’m untidy and careless and I forget the rules. I read when I should be doing my homework. You see, Miss Scatcherd is right to scold me.’
‘Is Miss Temple as strict as that?’ I asked.
A soft smile passed over Helen’s normally serious face.
‘Miss Temple is full of goodness. She gently tells me of my mistakes, and praises me if I do well. But even with her help I don’t concentrate properly in class, I just dream away the time, and then I can’t answer the teacher’s questions.’
‘But today in history you knew all the answers!’ I said.
‘I just happened to be interested, that’s all,’ she replied.
‘I expect you are always interested in Miss Temple’s lessons, because you like her and she is good to you. I’m like that. I love those who love me, and I hate those who punish me unfairly.’
‘You should read the Bible and do what Christ says — people who believe in God should love their enemies,’ said Helen.
‘Then I should love Mrs. Reed and her son John, which is impossible,’ I cried.
Helen asked me to explain what I meant, and listened carefully to the long story of what I had suffered at Gateshead.
‘Well,’ I asked impatiently at the end, ‘isn’t Mrs. Reed a bad woman? Don’t you agree with me?’
‘It’s true she has been unkind to you, because she dislikes your faults, as Miss Scatcherd dislikes mine. But look how bitterly you remember every angry word! Wouldn’t you be happier if you tried to forget her scolding? Life is too short to continue hating anyone for a long time. We all have faults, but the time will come soon when we die, when our wickedness will pass away with our bodies, leaving only the pure flame of the spirit. That’s why I never think of revenge, I never consider life unfair. I live in calm, looking forward to the end.’
For a moment we both stayed silent. Then one of the big girls came up, calling, ‘Helen Burns! Go and put away your work and tidy your drawer immediately, or I’ll tell Miss Scatcherd!’
Helen sighed, and, getting up, silently obeyed.