Mrs. Bell wanted Mary Erskine to help her in taking care of her own daughter Mary, who was then an infant. As both the girls were named Mary, the people of the family and the neighbors gradually fell into the habit of calling each of them by her full name, in order to distinguish them from each other. Thus the baby was never called Mary, but always Mary Bell, and the little nursery maid was always known as Mary Erskine.
Mary Erskine became a great favorite at Mrs. Bell’s. She was of a very light-hearted and joyous disposition, always contented and happy, singing like a nightingale at her work all the day long, when she was alone, and cheering and enlivening all around her by her buoyant spirits when she was in company. When Mary Bell became old enough to run about and play, Mary Erskine became her playmate and companion, as well as her protector. There was no distinction of rank to separate them. If Mary Bell had been as old as Mary Erskine and had had a younger sister, her duties in the household would have been exactly the same as Mary Erskine’s were. In fact, Mary Erskine’s position was altogether that of an older sister, and strangers visiting, the family would have supposed that the two girls were really sisters, had they not both been named Mary.
Mary Erskine was about twelve years older than Mary Bell, so that when Mary Bell began to go to school, which was when she was about five years old, Mary Erskine was about seventeen. Mrs. Bell had proposed, when Mary Erskine first came to her house, that she would go to school and learn to read and write; but Mary had been very much disinclined to do so. In connection with the amiableness and gentleness of her character and her natural good sense, she had a great deal of pride and independence of spirit; and she was very unwilling to go to school—being, as she was, almost in her teens—and begin there to learn her letters with the little children. Mrs. Bell ought to have required her to go, notwithstanding her reluctance, or else to have made some other proper arrangement for teaching her to read and write. Mrs. Bell was aware of this in fact, and frequently resolved that she would do so. But she postponed the performance of her resolution from month to month and year to year, and finally it was not performed at all. Mary Erskine was so very useful at home, that a convenient time for sparing her never came. And then besides she was so kind, and so tractable, and so intent upon complying with all Mrs. Bell’s wishes, in every respect, that Mrs. Bell was extremely averse to require any thing of her, which would mortify her, or give her pain.