"Yes," acknowledged Uncle Gerald; "and I have been doing my utmost to delay the proceedings, so that you would not miss them. You see, Leo and I have prepared a little surprise for the company."
After a comprehensive glance at the basket, which certainly appeared well packed, she asked:
"And what is to be the name of the boat?"
"We have not quite decided yet, Mrs. Gordon," began Rob.
"No," interposed Jack. "We think this ought to be the Jolly Pioneer. We let Jim and Leo have the other boat, but we didn't mean to give them the name too. We chose it, and we can't think of any we like so well."
"Oh, keep it, then!" answered Jim, with a wave of the hand like that of a stage hero resigning a fortune. (It was evident that the subject had been broached before.) "We are quite able to choose a name ourselves; we could think of half a dozen others if we wanted to, so you are welcome to call your boat whatever you please."
The permission might, indeed, have been more graciously expressed; but as Jim's words were accompanied by a good-natured smile. Jack wondered if he might not accept it.
Mrs. Gordon stood, with the bottle in her hand, waiting for the decision, but wisely refraining from comment; the boys always settled their little disputes for themselves.
"Well, what shall it be? Speak!" she said.
"The Jolly Pioneer!" cried both.
The next moment there was a crash of broken glass and a dash of ginger-pop on what was called by courtesy the bow.
"Bravo! The Jolly Pioneer is a new recruit enlisted into the temperance cadet corps," said Uncle Gerald, laughing.
There was a shifting of planks by Rob and Jack, and in another moment the little craft was dancing gaily upon the bright waters.
"Hurrah, hurrah!" cried the boys in chorus.
By turns they rowed a short distance down the stream and back. There was no danger of sinking this time. Then they gathered under the tree, where Mrs. Gordon and Uncle Gerald had unpacked the basket and set forth a tempting lunch upon a tablecloth on the grass. As hunger is said to be the best sauce, so good-humor sweetens the simplest fare. Our friends enjoyed their sandwiches and doughnuts, and milk rich with cream, as much as if a banquet had been spread before them. There was plenty of fun, too; and though the wit was not very brilliant, it was innocent and kindly, and served its purpose; for the company were quite ready to be pleased at any one's effort to be entertaining or amusing.
After an hour or more, Mrs. Gordon announced her intention of returning to the house.
"And I must be off also; for I have to drive two or three miles up country, about some business," added her brother.
"We shall all have to leave now," said Jack. "Father Martin is going to drill the cadets for a short time in the early part of the afternoon."
"What arrangements have you made for fastening your boat?" asked Uncle Gerald. "To guard against its being tampered with by meddlesome persons, as well as to prevent its drifting away, you ought to secure it to a stake near the bank by means of a padlock."
"We forgot to get one," returned Jack. "No one will touch it here. I'll tie it to a tree with this piece of rope, so that it won't go floating off on an exploring expedition on its own account."
The next day was Sunday, and the boys had no chance to use the boat again until Monday after school. When they hurried to the spot where it had been moored, alas! the Jolly Pioneer was nowhere to be seen.
"Do you think she broke away?" asked Leo.
"Pshaw! The Jolly Pioneer isn't a pony!" impatiently answered Jack.
"But the rope might have snapped," said Jim.
"No: the boat has been stolen," muttered Bob, gloomily.
"I don't believe that," continued Jim. "Perhaps some of the fellows around have hidden her, just to plague us."
"I bet it was those Jenkins boys!" declared Jack. "Don't you remember, Rob, how we made them stop badgering little Tommy Casey in the school-yard the other day, and how mad they were about it?"
"Yes, and they swore they'd be even with us," answered Rob.
The Jenkins boys were the children of a drunken father, a slatternly mother. Brought up in a comfortless, poverty-stricken home, without any religious teaching or influences, what wonder that they became addicted to most of the petty vices,—that they acquired an unenviable reputation for mischief, mendacity, and thieving in a small way?
Jack's inference could hardly be called a rash judgment. A glimpse of a derisive, grinning face among the neighboring bushes confirmed his suspicions. Without a word he made a dash toward the thicket. His companions understood, however, and were not slow to follow his example. There was a crackling of the brambles, succeeded by a stampede. Jack, with all his alertness, had not been quite quick enough. With a jeering whoop, two shabby figures escaped into the road.
"The question is, where's the boat?" said Rob, as the party paused for breath, finding that pursuit was useless.
They searched about in the vicinity without avail, but after some time the Jolly Pioneer was finally discovered half a mile farther down the stream, entangled among a clump of willows, where the pirates, as Jim designated the Jenkins boys, had abandoned it. To return to the place from which they had taken the boat, in order to enjoy the discomfiture and dismay of those against whom they had a grudge, was characteristic of them.
"Good! I knew we'd find the boat all right!" began Leo, joyfully.
"By Jove! pretty well damaged, I should say!" cried Jack.
"Well, the paint is a good deal scratched, and the seats have been loosened; but, after all, there is no great harm done," said Rob, more hopefully.
Upon further examination, his view of the case proved to be correct. He and Jack experienced but little difficulty in rowing back to the original moorings, Jim and Leo following along the bank and applauding their skill.
After this occurrence the Jolly Pioneer and the Merry-go-Round were each fastened to a sapling, that grew near the water's edge, by chain and padlock, which rendered them secure from interference.
And what merry times our friends had with them upon the creek that summer! The Jolly Pioneer proved worthy of its name, was always the best of company, and led the way in many pleasant excursions up and down the stream. The Merry-go-Round was never far behind, and shared the honors of all its adventures.
"I tell you now," exclaimed Leo, admiringly, one day when the lads were preparing for a row, "I don't believe you'd find two such boats in all the country about here."
A critical observer might have facetiously agreed with him, but the boys were content with what they had, not being able to obtain anything better; and is not that one way to be happy?
"Well, they may not be beauties," continued Jim; "and you can't exactly call them racers; but, somehow, they keep afloat, and one can manage them first-rate."
"And we've had enough fun with them to repay us for all the trouble we had in making them," added Rob.
Jack laughed at the recollection.
"Yes," remarked Uncle Gerald, who had just come up, on his way to the meadow pasture. "And I think, boys, you will all acknowledge that you learned a good many useful things while building a boat."
A MAY-DAY GIFT.
Early on the morning of the 1st of May, Abby Clayton ran downstairs, exclaiming by way of greeting to the household:
"A bright May Day! A bright May Day!"
"It isn't very bright, I'm sure!" grumbled her little brother Larry, who clattered after her. "There's no sunshine; and the wind blows so hard I sha'n't be able to sail my new boat on the pond in the park. It's mighty hard lines! I don't see why it can't be pleasant on a holiday. Think of all the shiny days we've had when a fellow had to be in school. Now, when there's a chance for some fun, it looks as if it were going to rain great guns!"
"Well, it won't," said Abby, pausing in the hall to glance back at him, as he perched upon the baluster above her. "It won't rain great guns, nor pitchforks, nor cats and dogs, nor even torrents. It's going to clear up. Don't you know that some people say the sun generally shines, for a few minutes anyhow, on Saturdays in honor of the Blessed Virgin?"
"This isn't Saturday," objected Larry, somewhat indignantly.
"Yes, but it is the 1st of May; and if that is not our Blessed Mother's day too, I'd like to know what is!" said his sister.
"I don't believe that about the sun shining," continued Larry. "If you are ten—only two years older than I am,—you don't know everything. I'm going to ask mother."
The children entered the breakfast room, greeted their father and mother, and then slipped into their places.
"Mother," began Larry, as he slowly poured the maple syrup over the crisp, hot pancakes upon his plate, "is it true that the sun always shines on Saturday in honor of the Blessed Virgin?"
"It is a pious and poetic saying," replied Mrs. Clayton. "But a legendary sentiment of this kind often hides a deeper meaning. For those who are devoted to the Blessed Virgin, there is never a day so dark but that the love of Our Lady shines through the gloom like a sunbeam, changing to the rosy and golden tints of hope the leaden clouds that shadowed their happiness; and blessing the closing day of life, which, to look back upon, seems but as the ending of a week."
Mrs. Clayton had hardly finished speaking, when a long ray of yellow light fell upon the tablecloth.
"There! the sun's out now, anyway! Crickey, I'm so glad!" exclaimed Larry.
"The clouds were only blown up by the wind," said his father. "I do not think we shall have rain to-day."
"Mother, may I put on a white dress and go to buy my May wreath?" asked Abby.
"The air is too cold for you to change your warm gown for a summer one, dear," returned Mrs. Clayton. "You may get the wreath, though; but be sure that you wear it over your hat."
Abby seemed to think it was now her turn to grumble.
"Oh, dear!" she murmured. "All the girls wear white dresses, and go without hats on May Day. I don't see why I can't!"
Her complaint made no impression, however; so she flounced out of the room.
"My mother is the most exaggerating person!" exclaimed the little girl, as she prepared for her shopping excursion. She meant aggravating; but, like most people who attempt to use large words the meaning of which they do not understand, she made droll mistakes sometimes.
Abby had fifteen cents, which her grandma had given her the day before.
"I'll hurry down to the Little Women's before the best wreaths are gone," she said to herself.
The place was a fancy store, kept by two prim but pleasant spinster sisters. Besides newspapers, stationery, thread and needles, and so forth, they kept a stock of toys, candies, and pickled limes, which insured them a run of custom among the young folk, who always spoke of them as the Little Women. Not to disappoint the confidence placed in them by their youthful patrons, they had secured an excellent assortment of the crowns of tissue-paper flowers which, in those days, every little girl considered essential to the proper observance of May Day.
Abby selected one which she and the Little Women made up their minds was the prettiest. It usually took both of the Little Women to sell a thing. If one showed it, the other descanted upon its merits, or wrapped it up in paper when the bargain was completed. Neither of them appeared to transact any business, even to the disposal of "a pickle lime" (as the children say), quite on her own responsibility.
After Abby had fully discussed the matter with them, therefore, she bought her wreath. It was made of handsome white tissue-paper roses, with green tissue-paper leaves, and had two long streamers. There was another of pink roses, which she thought would be just the thing for Larry to buy with the fifteen cents which he had received also. But Larry had said:
"Pshaw! I wouldn't wear a wreath!" Abby didn't see why, because some boys wore them.
On the way home she met a number of her playmates. Several of them shivered in white dresses, and all were bareheaded except for their paper wreaths. Not one of the wreaths was so fine as Abby's, however. But, then, few little girls had fifteen cents to expend upon one. Abby perceived at a glance that most of those worn by her companions were of the ten-cent variety. The Little Women had them for eight; and even five copper pennies would buy a very good one, although the roses of the five-cent kind were pronounced by those most interested to be "little bits of things."
Abby talked to the girls a while, and then went home to exhibit her purchase. Her mother commented approvingly upon it; and the little girl ran down to the kitchen to show it to Delia the cook, who had lived with the family ever since Larry was a baby.
Delia was loud in her admiration.
"Oh, on this day they do have great doings in Ireland!" said she; "but nowadays, to be sure, it's nothing to what it was in old times. It was on May eve, I've heard tell, that St. Patrick lit the holy fire at Tara, in spite of the ancient pagan laws. And in the days when the country was known as the island of saints and of scholars, sure throughout the length and breadth of the land the monastery bells rang in the May with praises of the Holy Mother; and the canticles in her honor were as ceaseless as the song of the birds. And 'twas the fairies that were said to have great power at this season—"
"Delia, you know very well there are no fairies," interrupted Abby.
"Well, some foolish folk thought there were, anyhow," answered Delia. "And in Maytide the children and cattle, the milk and the butter, were kept guarded from them. Many and many an evening I've listened to my mother that's dead and gone—God rest her soul!—telling of an old woman that, at the time of the blooming of the hawthorn, always put a spent coal under the churn, and another beneath the grandchild's cradle, because that was said to drive the fairies away; and how primroses used to be scattered at the door of the house to prevent the fairies from stealing in, because they could not pass that flower. But you don't hear much of that any more; for the priest said 'twas superstition, and down from the heathenish times. So the old people came to see 'twas wrong to use such charms, and the young people laughed at the old women's tales. Now on May Day the shrines in the churches are bright with flowers, of course. And as for the innocent merrymakings, instead of a dance round the May or hawthorn bush, as in the olden times, in some places there's just perhaps a frolic on the village green, when the boys and girls come home from the hills and dales with their garlands of spring blossoms—not paper flowers like those," added Delia, with a contemptuous glance at Abby's wreath, forgetting how much she had admired it only a few moments before.
Somehow it did not now seem so beautiful to Abby either. She took it off, and gazed at it with a sigh.
"Here in New England the boys and girls go a-Maying," she said. "Last year, when we were in the country, Larry and I went with our cousins. We had such fun hanging May-baskets! I got nine. But," she went on, regretfully, "I don't expect any this year; for city children do not have those plays."
She went upstairs to the sitting-room, where Larry was rigging his boat anew. He had been to the pond, but the wind wrought such havoc with the little craft that he had to put into port for repairs.
Half an hour passed. Abby was dressing her beloved doll for an airing on the sidewalk,—a promenade in a carriage, as the French say. While thus occupied she half hummed, half sang, in a low voice, to herself, a popular May hymn. When she reached the refrain, Larry joined, and Delia appeared at the door just in time to swell the chorus with honest fervor:
"See, sweet Mary, on thy altars Bloom the fairest flowers of May. Oh, may we, earth's sons and daughters, Grow by grace as fair as they!"
"If you please," said Delia at its close, "there's a man below stairs who says he has something for you both."
"For us!" exclaimed the children, starting up.
"Yes: your mother sent me to tell you. He says he was told to say as how he had a May-basket for you."
"A May-basket, Delia? What! All lovely flowers like those I told you about?" cried the little girl.
"Sure, child, and how could I see what was inside, and it so carefully done up?" answered Delia, evasively.
They did not question further, but rushed downstairs to see for themselves.
In the kitchen waited a foreign-looking man, with swarthy skin, and thin gold rings in his ears. On the floor beside him was a large, rough packing-basket.
"That a May-basket!" exclaimed Abby, hardly able to restrain the tears of disappointment which started to her eyes.
"Si, signorita," replied the man.
Her frown disappeared. It was certainly very nice to be addressed by so high-sounding a title. She wished she could get Delia to call her signorita. But no; she felt sure that Delia never would.
"Pshaw! It's only a joke!" said Larry, after a moment. "Somebody thinks this is April-fool Day, I guess."
"Have patience for a leetle minute, please," said the man, as he cast away the packing bit by bit. The children watched him with eager interest. By and by he took out a little bunch of lilies of the valley, which he handed to Abby with a low bow. Next he came to something shrouded in fold after fold of tissue-paper.
"And here is the fairest lily of them all," he said, in his poetic Italian fashion.
"What can it be, mother?" asked the little girl, wonderingly.
Mrs. Clayton smiled. "It is from Sartoris', the fine art store where you saw the beautiful pictures last week; that is all I know about it," she replied.
The man carefully placed the mysterious object on the table.
"It is some kind of a vase or an image," declared Larry.
"Why, so it is!" echoed Abby.
In another moment the tissue veil was torn aside, and there stood revealed a beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin.
"Oh!" exclaimed Larry, in delight.
"How lovely!" added his sister.
The image was about two feet high, and of spotless Parian, which well symbolized the angelic purity it was intended to portray. To many, perhaps, it might appear simply a specimen of modeling, but little better than the average. However, those who looked on it with the eyes of faith saw before them, not so much the work itself, as the ideal of the artist.
The graceful figure or Our Lady at once suggested the ethereal and celestial. The long mantle, which fell in folds to her feet, signified her modesty and motherly protection; the meekly folded hands were a silent exhortation to humility and prayer; the tender, spiritual face invited confidence and love; the crown upon her brow proclaimed her sovereignty above all creatures and her incomparable dignity as Mother of God.
"And is this beautiful statue really ours—just Larry's and mine?" asked Abby.
"So the messenger says," returned Mrs. Clayton.
"Who could have sent it, I wonder?" inquired Larry.
The Italian pointed to the card attached to the basket. Abby took it off and read:
"To my little friends, Abby and Larry Clayton, with the hope that, especially during this month, they will try every day to do some little thing to honor our Blessed Mother.
"From Father Dominic!" exclaimed the boy, in delight.
"How very good of him!" added Abby, gratefully.
Father Dominic—generally so called because his musical Italian surname was a stumbling-block to our unwieldy English speech—was a particular friend of Mr. and Mrs. Clayton, who appreciated his culture and refinement, and admired his noble character and devotion to his priestly duties. He was an occasional visitor at their house, and took a great interest in the children.
"How nice of him to send us something we shall always have!" Abby ran on. "Now I can give the tiny image in my room to some one who hasn't any."
"May we make an altar for our statue, mother?" asked Larry.
Although as a rule a lively, rollicking boy, when it came to anything connected with his prayers, he was unaffectedly and almost comically solemn about it.
"Yes," responded Mrs. Clayton. "And I think it would be a good plan also to frame the card and hang it on the front of the altar, so that you may not forget Father Dominic's words: 'Try every day to do some little thing to honor our Blessed Mother.'"
"O mother!" cried Abby, the day after the arrival of the unique May-basket from Father Dominic, "now that we have such a lovely statue of the Blessed Virgin, don't you think we ought to make a regular altary."
"A what!" exclaimed Mrs. Clayton, at a loss to understand what her little daughter could possibly mean. "I told you that you might have an altar, dear. And you may arrange it whenever you please."
"No, but an altary," persisted Abby. "The Tyrrells have an altary in their house, and I wish we could have one too. Why, you must know what it is, mother,—just a little room fitted up like a chapel; and the family say their prayers there night and morning, and at other times if they wish."
"Oh, an oratory!" observed Mrs. Clayton, trying to repress a smile.
"Perhaps that is the name," admitted Abby, a trifle disconcerted. "Anyhow, can't we have one?"
"Well—yes," said her mother, after a few moments' reflection. "The small room next to the parlor might be arranged for that purpose."
"That would make a beautiful al—chapel!" exclaimed Abby. She did not venture to attempt the long word again.
"I think I could get enough out of the carpet that was formerly on the parlor to cover the floor," mused Mrs. Clayton aloud. "The square table, draped with muslin and lace, would make a pretty altar. Then, with the pictures of the Sacred Heart and the Bouguereau Madonna to hang on the walls, and my prie-dieu—yes, Abby, I think we can manage it."
"Oh, how splendid!" cried the little girl. "When shall we begin to get it ready?"
"Perhaps to-morrow," answered her mother; "but I can not promise to have the preparations completed at once. It will take some time to plan the carpet and have it put down."
Abby was not only satisfied, but delighted. She told Larry the minute he came into the house. He had been over to the pond with his boat again.
"That will be grand!" said he. "When you get everything fixed, I'll bring you the little vase I got for Christmas, and my prayer-book, and—oh, yes, my rosary, to put on the altar. And, then," he went on, quite seriously, "there's my catechism, and the little chalk angel, and—"
"The little chalk angel!" repeated Abby, scornfully. "Why, that has lost its head!"
"But it's a little chalk angel all the same," argued Larry. "And if I find the head, it can be glued on."
"Oh—well; we don't want any trash like that on our altar!" rejoined his sister. "And the books and rosary can be kept on the shelf in the corner. It would be nice to have the vase, though."
Larry, who at first had been rather offended that his offerings were not appreciated, brightened up when he found he could at least furnish something to adorn the shrine.
The following day was Saturday. There was, of course, no school, and Abby was free to help her mother to get the little room in order. She was impatient to begin. But alas for her plans! About nine o'clock in the morning Mrs. Clayton suddenly received word that grandma was not feeling well, and she at once prepared to visit the dear old lady.
"I may be away the greater part of the day, Delia," she said, as she tied the strings of her bonnet; "but I have given you all necessary directions, I think,—Larry, do not go off with any of the boys, but you may play in the park as usual.—And, Abby, be sure that you do not keep Miss Remick waiting when she comes to give you your music lesson."
"But what about the altary—oh, oratory I mean?" asked Abby, dejectedly.
"There is a piece of muslin in the linen press which you may take to cover the altar," said her mother; "but do not attempt to arrange anything more. I will attend to the rest next week. I am sorry to disappoint you and Larry; but, you see, I can not help it."
She harried away; and the children ran up to the parlor, which was on the second story of the house, to take another look at their precious statue, which had been placed on the marble slab in front of one of the long mirrors. Then they went into the small room which was to be the oratory. The only furniture it contained was the square table which they had brought there the evening before. Abby got the muslin, and began to drape the table to resemble an altar; Larry looking on admiringly, volunteering a suggestion now and then. She succeeded pretty well. Larry praised her efforts; he was prouder than ever of his sister,—although, as he remarked, "the corners would look a little bunchy, and the cloth was put on just a teenty bit crooked."
Presently the little girl paused, took several pins out of her mouth—which seemed to be the most available pincushion,—and glanced disconsolately at the pine boards of the floor.
"What is the use of fixing the altar before the floor is covered!" she said. "I am almost sure I could put down the carpet myself."
"Oh, no, you couldn't!" said Larry. "You'd be sure to hammer your fingers instead of the tacks—girls always do. But if you get the carpet all spread out, I'll nail it down for you."
The roll of carpet stood in the corner. It had been partially ripped apart, and there were yards and yards of it; for it had covered the parlor, which was a large room. Mrs. Clayton intended to have it made over for the dining-room, and estimated that there would be enough left for the oratory. She had not thought it necessary to explain these details to Abby, however.
"We'll do it," declared the latter. "Mother said to wait, but I don't believe she'll care."
"Course she won't," agreed Larry.
Both the children felt that what they had decided upon was not exactly right,—that it would be better to observe strictly their mother's instructions. But, like many people who argue themselves into the delusion that what they want to do is the best thing to be done, Abby tried to compromise with the "still small voice" which warned her not to meddle, by the retort: "Oh, it will spare mother the trouble! And she'll be glad to have it finished." As for Larry, the opportunity to pound away with the hammer and make as much noise as he pleased, was a temptation hard to resist.
Abby opened the roll.
"What did mother mean by saying she thought she could get enough out of this carpet to cover the floor?" said the little girl, with a laugh. "She must have been very absent-minded; for there's lashin's of it here, as Delia would say."
"Oh, my, yes—lashin's!" echoed Larry.
Abby was what is called "a go-ahead" young person. She was domestic in her tastes, and, for her years, could make herself very useful about the house when she chose. Now, therefore, she had no diffidence about her ability to carry out her undertaking. And Larry, although he frequently reminded her that she did not know everything, had a flattering confidence in her capacity.
"I'll have it done in less than no time," she said, running to get her mother's large scissors.
Click, click went the shears as she slashed into the carpet, taking off breadth after breadth, without attempting to match the pattern, and with little regard for accuracy of measurement. Instead of laying it along the length of the room, she chose to put it crosswise, thus cutting it up into any number of short pieces.
"No matter about its not being sewed," she went on; "you can nail it together, can't you, Larry?"
"Oh, yes!" said Larry.
The more hammering the better for him. He hunted up the hammer and two papers of tacks, and as fast as Abby cut he nailed.
Delia was unusually busy; for it was house-cleaning time, and she was getting the diningroom ready for the new carpet. Therefore, although she heard the noise upstairs, she gave herself no concern about it; supposing that Larry was merely amusing himself, for he was continually tinkering at one thing or another.
By and by Larry remarked: "Say, Abby, you've got two of these pieces too short."
Abby went over and looked at them. "Gracious, so I have!" she said. "Well, put them aside, and I'll cut two more."
Click went the scissors again, and the carpet was still further mutilated. Then, as a narrow strip was required, a breadth was slit down the centre. Finally the boards were covered.
"There!" she cried triumphantly. "It is all planned. Now, I'll nail."
Larry demurred at first, but Abby was imperious. Moreover, the constant friction of the handle of the hammer had raised a blister in the palm of his hand. Abby had an ugly red welt around her thumb, caused by the resistance of the scissors; for it had been very hard work to cut the heavy carpet. But she did not complain, for she felt that she was a martyr to industry.
At last the work was completed; and, flushed and tired, with her fingers bruised from frequent miscalculated blows from the hammer, and her knuckles rubbed and tingling, she paused to admire the result of her toil. The carpeting was a curious piece of patchwork certainly, but the children were delighted with their achievement.
The lunch bell rang.
"Don't say anything about it to Delia," cautioned Abby.
Larry agreed that it would be as well not to mention the subject. They did not delay long at the meal, but hastened back to their self-imposed task.
"Now let's hurry up and finish the altar," said Abby.
Having completed the adornment of the table, by throwing over the muslin a fine lace curtain, from the linen press also, and decking it with some artificial flowers found in her mother's wardrobe, Abby brought the statue from the parlor, and set it upon the shrine which she and Larry had taken so much trouble to prepare. Larry placed before the lovely image his little vase containing a small bunch of dandelions he had gathered in the yard. He was particularly fond of dandelions. Abby had nothing to offer but her May wreath, which she laid beside it. But the decorations appeared too scanty to satisfy her.
"I'll get the high pink vases from the parlor," said she.
"Yes," added Larry. "And the candlesticks with the glass hanging all round them like a fringe, that jingles when you touch them."
The little girl brought the vases. Then she carried in the candelabra, the crystal pendants ringing as she walked in a way that delighted Larry. She knew perfectly well that she was never allowed to tamper with the costly ornaments in the parlor; but she excused herself by the plea: "I'm doing it for the Blessed Virgin." Larry also had a certain uneasiness about it, but he said to himself: "Oh, it must be all right if Abby thinks so! She is a great deal older than I am, and ought to know."
The shrine was certainly elaborate now. The children were so engrossed with admiring it that they did not hear the house door open and close. A step in the hall, however, reminded the little girl of her music lesson.
"Gracious, that must be Miss Remick!" she said, in confusion.
She quietly opened the door of the oratory, intending to peep into the parlor to see if the teacher was there. To her surprise she encountered her mother, who had just come up the stairs. But Mrs. Clayton was much more astonished by the sight which greeted, her eyes when she glanced into the oratory.
"O Abby," she exclaimed, in distress and annoyance, "how could you be so disobedient! O Larry, why did you help to do what you must have known I would not like?"
Larry grew very red in the face, looked down, and fumbled with one of the buttons of his jacket,
"But, mother," began Abby, glibly, "it was for the Blessed Virgin, you know. I was sure I could put down the carpet all right, and I thought you would be glad to be saved the trouble."
"Put it down all right!" rejoined her mother. "Why, you have ruined the carpet, Abby!"
Both children looked incredulous and astonished.
"Don't you see that you have cut it up so shockingly that it is entirely spoiled? What is left would have to be so pieced that I can not possibly use it for the dining-room, as I intended."
Abby was mortified and abashed. Larry grew more and more uncomfortable.
"And, then, the vases and candelabra!" continued Mrs. Clayton. "Have you not been forbidden to lift or move them, daughter?"
"Yes, mother," acknowledged the little girl. "But I thought you wouldn't mind when I wanted them for the altar. I didn't suppose you'd think anything you had was too good for the Blessed Virgin."
"Certainly not," was the reply. "I had decided to place the candelabra on your little shrine. The pink vases are not suitable. But these ornaments are too heavy for you to carry. It was only a happy chance that you did not drop and break them. And, then, the statue! Do you not remember that I would not permit you to move it yesterday? How would you have felt if it had clipped from your clasp and been dashed to pieces?"
A few tears trickled down Abby's cheeks. Larry blinked hard and stared at the wall.
"My dear children, that is not the way to honor our Blessed Mother," Mrs. Clayton went on to say. "Do you think that she looked down with favor upon your work to-day? No. But if you had waited as I told you,—if each of you had made a little altar for her in your heart and offered to her the beautiful flowers of patience, and the votive lights of loving obedience,—then indeed you would have won her blessing, and she would have most graciously accepted the homage of such a shrine. As it is, you see, you have very little, if anything, to offer her."
For two or three days Mrs. Clayton suffered the oratory to remain as the children had arranged it. They said their prayers there morning and evening; and to Abby especially the ridges and patches in the carpet, which now seemed to stare her out of countenance, the pink vases, and the candelabra, were a constant reproach for her disobedience. Larry, too, grew to hate the sight of them. He often realized poignantly also that it is not well to be too easily influenced by one's playmates; for if he happened to be late and ran into the room and popped down on his knees in a hurry, he was almost sure to start up again with an exclamation caused by the prick of one of the numerous tacks which he had inadvertently left scattered over the floor.
When the good mother thought that the admonition which she wished to convey was sufficiently impressed, she had the carpet taken up, repaired as much as possible, and properly laid. Then she hung soft lace curtains at the window, draped the altar anew, took away the pink vases, and put the finishing touches to the oratory. It was now a lovely little retreat. Abby and Larry never tired of admiring it. They went in and, out of the room many times during the day; and the image of the Blessed Virgin, ever there to greet them, by its very presence taught them sweet lessons of virtue. For who can look upon a statue of Our Lady without being reminded of her motherly tenderness, her purity and love; without finding, at least for a moment, his thoughts borne upward, as the angels bore the body of the dead St. Catherine, from amid the tumult of the world to the holy heights, the very atmosphere of which is prayer and peace?
Whenever Abby felt cross or disagreeable, she hid herself in the oratory until her ill-humor had passed. This was certainly a great improvement upon her former habit, under such circumstances, of provoking a quarrel with Larry, teasing Delia, and taxing her mother's patience to the utmost. She liked to go there, too, in the afternoon when she came in from play, when twilight crept on and deepened, and the flame of the little altar lamp that her father had given her shone like a tiny star amid the dusk of the quiet room. Larry liked it better when, just after supper, the candles of the candelabra were all lighted, and the family gathered around the shrine and said the Rosary together.
To Abby belonged the welcome charge of keeping the oratory in order; while Larry always managed to have a few flowers for his vase, even if they were only dandelions or buttercups. He and his sister differed about the placing of this offering.
"What a queer boy you are!" said Abby to him one day. "Your vase has a pretty wild rose painted on it, yet you always set it with the plain side out. Nobody'd know it was anything but a plain white vase. You ought to put it round this way," she added, turning it so that the rose would show.
"No, I won't!" protested Larry, twisting it back again. "The prettiest side ought to be toward the Blessed Virgin."
"Oh—well—to be sure, in one way!" began Abby. "But, then, the shrine is all for her, and this is only a statue. What difference does it make which side of the vase is toward a statue? And it looks so funny to see the wrong side turned to the front. Some day we'll be bringing Annie Conwell and Jack Tyrrell, and some of mother's friends, up here; and just think how they'll laugh when they see it."
Larry flushed, but he answered firmly: "I don't care!—the prettiest side ought to be toward the Blessed Virgin."
"But it is only a statue!" persisted Abby, testily.
"Of course I know it is only a statue," replied her brother, raising his voice a trifle; for she was really too provoking. "I know it just as well as you do. But I think Our Lady in heaven understands that I put the vase that way because I want to give her the best I have. And I don't care whether any one laughs at it or not. That vase isn't here so Annie Conwell or Jack Tyrrell or anybody else will think it looks pretty, but only for the Blessed Virgin,—so there!"
Larry, having expressed himself with such warmth, subsided. Abby did not venture to turn the vase again. She was vaguely conscious that she had been a little too anxious to "show off" the oratory, and had thought rather too much of what her friends would say in regard to her arrangement of the altar.
It was about this time that Aunt Kitty and her little daughter Claire came to stay a few days with the Claytons. Claire was only four years old. She had light, fluffy curls and brown eyes, and was so dainty and graceful that she seemed to Abby and Larry like a talking doll when she was comparatively quiet, and a merry, roguish fairy when she romped with them.
"How do you happen to have such lovely curls?" asked Abby of the fascinating little creature.
"Oh, mamma puts every curl into a wee nightcap of its own when I go to bed!" answered the child, with a playful shake of the head.
Larry thought this very droll. "Isn't she cunning?" he said. "But what can she mean?"
"Your mother puts your hair into a nightcap!" cried Abby. "Those are curl papers, I suppose."
"No, nightcaps," insisted the little one. "That's the right name."
The children puzzled over it for some time; but finally Aunt Kitty came to the rescue, and explained that she rolled them on bits of muslin or cotton, to give them the soft, pretty appearance which Abby so much admired; because Claire's father liked her to have curls, and the poor child's hair was naturally as straight as a pipe stem.
"Come and see our chapel, Claire," said Abby; the word oratory did not yet come trippingly to her tongue.
Claire was delighted with the beautiful image, and behaved as decorously as if she were in church. Afterward the children took her to walk. They went into the park, in which there were many handsome flower-pots, several fountains, and a number of fine pieces of marble statuary. Claire seemed to be much impressed with the latter.
"Oh, my!" she exclaimed, pointing to them reverently. "Look at all the Blessed Virgins!"
The children laughed. She stood looking at them with a little frown, not having quite made up her mind whether to join in their mirth, or to be vexed. When her mistake was explained to her, she said, with a pout:
"Well, if they are not Blessed Virgins, then I don't care about them, and I'm going home."
The children had promptly sent a note to Father Dominic thanking him for his appropriate May-Day gift. Each had a share in the composition of this acknowledgment, but it had been carefully copied by Abby. Later they had the satisfaction of showing him the oratory. While Claire was with them, he happened to call again one evening just as the young people were saying good-night.
"Larry," whispered Abby, when they went upstairs and she knelt with her brother and cousin before the little altar,—"Larry, let's say our prayers real loud, so Father Dominic will know how good we've got to be since we've had the lovely statue."
"All right," said Larry, obediently.
They began, Abby leading off in clear, distinct accents, and Larry following in a heavy alto; for his voice was unusually deep and sonorous for such a little fellow. Baby Claire listened wonderingly. Then, apparently making up her mind that the clamor was due to the intensity of their fervor, she joined with her shrill treble, and prayed with all her might and main.
To a certain extent, they succeeded in their object. The din of their devotions soon penetrated to the library, where their friend Father Dominic was chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Clayton. In a few moments the latter stepped quietly into the lower hall.
"Abby!" she called, softly.
The little girl pretended not to hear, and kept on.
"Abby!"—there was a decision in the tone which was not to be trifled with.
"What is it, mother?" she asked, with an assumption of innocence, breaking off so suddenly as to startle her companions.
"Not so loud, dear. You can be heard distinctly in the library."
Abby and Larry snickered; Claire giggled without knowing why. Then Abby applied herself with renewed earnestness and volubility to the litany. She did not intend any disrespect: on the contrary, she meant to be very devout. But she not only believed in the injunction "Let your light shine before men," but felt that it behooved her to attract Father Dominic's attention to the fact that it was shining. Clearer and higher rose her voice; deeper and louder sounded Larry's; more shrilly piped Claire.
"Abby!" called Mrs. Clayton again, with grave displeasure. "That will do. Children, go to your rooms at once."
The others stole off without another word, but Abby lingered a minute. Father Dominic was going, and she could not resist the impulse to wait and learn what impression their piety had made. Leaning over the balusters, she saw him laughing in an amused manner. Then he said to her mother:
"Tell Abby she has such a good, strong voice, I wish I could have her read the prayers for the Sodality. She would surely be heard all over the church."
He went away, and Abby crept upstairs with burning cheeks and an unpleasant suspicion that she had made herself ridiculous.
Mrs. Clayton suspected that her little daughter had overheard the message. She therefore spared the children any reference to the subject. But the next time they met Father Dominic he alluded, as if casually, to the devotions suitable for May, and then quite naturally went on to speak of the virtues of the Blessed Virgin, especially of her humility and love of retirement; saying how, although the Mother of God, she was content to lead a humble, hidden life at Nazareth, with no thought or wish to proclaim her goodness from the house-tops. The lesson was gently and kindly given, but Abby was shrewd enough and sufficiently well disposed to understand. She felt that she was indeed learning a great deal during this Month of Mary.
About the middle of the month there was a stir of pleasurable excitement at St. Mary's School.
"Suppose we get up a May drama among the younger pupils?" suggested Marion Gaines, the leading spirit of the graduating class.
The proposition was received with enthusiasm, and Mother Rosalie was applied to for permission.
"Yes," she answered, "you have my consent to your plan; but on one condition—that you arrange the drama and drill the children yourselves. It will be good practice for you in the art of composition; and, by teaching others, you will prove whether or not you have profited by Professor Willet's lessons in elocution."
The Graduates were delighted.
"That is just like Mother Rosalie," said Marion. "She is willing to trust us, and leaves us to our own resources, so that if we succeed all the credit will be ours. Now we must draw up a plan. Shall we decide upon a plot, and then each work out a portion of it?"
"Oh, dear, I never could think of anything!" declared one.
"I should not know how to manage the dialogue. My characters would be perfect sticks," added a second.
"I can't even write an interesting letter," lamented some one else.
"I respectfully suggest that Marion and Ellen be requested to compose the drama," said the first speaker, with mock ceremony.
"I agree with all my heart!" cried one.
"And I,"—"and I!" chimed in the others.
"It is a unanimous vote," continued their spokesman, turning to the young ladies in question, with a low bow.
"But we shall have all the work," objected Marion.
"No: we will take a double share at the rehearsals, and they will be no small part of the trouble."
"I'll do it if you will, Ellen," began Marion.
"I don't mind trying," agreed Ellen.
Thus the matter was settled.
"Let us first select the little girls to take part in our drama," Marion continued.
"There's Annie Conwell," said one.
"And Lucy Caryl," interposed another.
So they went on, till they had chosen ten or twelve little girls.
"As it is to be a May piece, of course we must have a Queen," said Ellen.
"Yes; and let us have Abby Clayton for the Queen," rejoined Marion. "Abby is passably good-looking and rather graceful; besides, she has a clear, strong voice, and plenty of self-confidence. She would not be apt to get flustered. Annie Conwell, now, is a dear child; but perhaps she would be timid, and it would spoil the whole play if the Queen should break down."
After school the little girls were invited into the Graduates' class-room; and, although not a word of the drama had yet been written, the principal parts were then and there assigned. Lucy Caryl was to have the opening address, Annie as many lines as she would undertake, and so on.
Abby was delighted to find that she was chosen for the most prominent role. She ran all the way home, and skipped gaily into the house and up to the sitting-room, where Mrs. Clayton was sewing.
"O mother!" she exclaimed, tossing off her hat and throwing her books upon the table, "we are to have a lovely drama at our school, and I'm to be the May-Queen!"
"Just think, Larry!" said Abby to her brother, when he came home after a game of ball, "I'm to be Queen of May!"
"You!" he cried, in a disdainful tone.
"Yes, indeed! And why not? I'm sure I don't see why you should look so surprised. I've been chosen because I can speak and act the best in our division."
"But the Blessed Virgin is Queen of May," objected Larry.
"Oh, of course!" Abby said. "But this will be only make believe, you know. We are going to have a drama, and I'm to be Queen,—that is all."
"I should think you would not even want to play at taking away what belongs to the Blessed Virgin," persisted Larry, doggedly. "She is the Queen of May, and no one ought to pretend to be Queen besides."
"Oh, you silly boy! There is no use in trying to explain anything to you!" cried Abby, losing patience.
For the next half hour she was not so talkative, however, and after a while she stole away; for in spite of her petulance at Larry's words, they had suggested a train of thought which made her want to be by herself. She went up to the oratory and stayed there a long time, amid the twilight shadows. Finally the ringing of the supper bell put an end to her musings. She knelt a few minutes before the statue, and then ran down to the dining-room. She was very quiet all the evening; and, to Mrs. Clayton's surprise, the family heard no more of the May drama.
The next day, at school, Abby waylaid Marion Gaines in one of the corridors.
"I want to speak to you," she began.
"Well, what's the matter, Abby? What makes you so serious this morning?" inquired Marion.
"Nothing—only I've been thinking about the May piece, and I want to tell you that I'd rather not be Queen," faltered the little girl,
"You'd rather not be Queen!" repeated Marion, in astonishment. "Why not? I thought you were delighted to be chosen."
"So I was—yesterday," the little girl hastened to say; for she would not have Marion think she did not appreciate the compliment.
"Then what has caused you to change your mind so suddenly?" Marion went on. "What a fickle child you are, to be sure!"
"It is not that," stammered poor Abby, a good deal confused; "but—but—well, you know the Blessed Virgin is Queen of May, and it seems as if we ought not even to play at having any other Queen."
Marion stared at her incredulously. "And so missy has a scruple about it?" she said, smiling.
"No," returned Abby; "but my brother Larry thought so. And if it looks that way even to a little boy like him, I think I would rather not pretend to be Queen."
"A May piece without a Queen! Why, it would be like the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out!" declared Marion. "Did you not think that if you declined the part we might give it to some one else?"
Abby colored and was silent. This had, indeed, been the hardest part of the struggle with herself. But there was an element of the heroic in her character. She never did anything by halves; like the little girl so often quoted, "when she was good, she was very, very, good."
Marion stood a moment looking at her. "And do you really mean," she said at length, "that you are ready to give up the role you were so delighted with yesterday, and the satisfaction of queening it over your companions if only for an hour?—that you are willing to make the sacrifice to honor the Blessed Virgin?"
With some embarrassment, Abby admitted that this was her motive.
A sudden thought occurred to Marion. "Then, Abby, you shall!" said she. "I'll arrange it; but don't say a word about it to any one. Let the girls think you are to be Queen, if they please. Why, missy," she went on, becoming enthusiastic, "it is really a clever idea for our drama. We shall have a lovely May piece, after all."
Marion hastened away, intent upon working out the new plan which her quick fancy had already sketched in outline. To be sure, she and Ellen had devised a different one, and agreed that each should write certain scenes. Ellen had taken the first opportunity that morning to whisper that she had devoted to the drama all the previous evening and an hour before breakfast. Marion, indeed, had done the same.
"But it will not make any difference. We can change the lines a little," she said to herself, after reading the manuscript, which Ellen passed to her at the hour of German study,—a time they were allowed to take for this particular composition.
Ellen, however, thought otherwise.
"What! another plan for the May piece!" she said, when Marion mentioned the subject. "Why, see all I've written; and in rhyme, too!"
"But it can be altered without much trouble," explained her friend.
"No, it can't. You will only make a hodge-podge of my verses," she answered, excitedly. "I do think, Marion, that once we agreed upon the plan, you ought to have kept to it, instead of changing everything just because of a notion of a little girl like Abby Clayton. Here I've been working hard for nothing,—it was just a waste of time!"
Marion pleaded and reasoned, but without avail. Ellen's vanity was wounded. She chose to imagine that her classmate, and sometimes rival, did not care whether her lines were spoiled or not.
"No, no!" she reiterated. "I'll have nothing to do with your new plan. You can get up the whole piece yourself."
"At least give me what you have written," urged Marion. "We are so hurried, and the children ought to have their parts as soon as possible."
But Ellen remained obdurate.
Marion consulted the others of the class, and, after some discussion, they decided in favor of the later design. For the next few days she devoted every spare moment to the work. By the end of the week she had not only finished the portion she had been expected to write, but also much of what Ellen was to have done; and the parts were distributed among the children. There were still wanting, however, the opening address and a dialogue, both of which Ellen had completed.
"Oh, dear," cried Marion, "that address of Ellen's is so pretty and appropriate! If she would only let us have it! As we planned it together, if I write one the principal ideas will be the same; and then, likely as not, she will say I copied from hers. How shall I manage?"
Ellen remained on her dignity. She would have nothing to do either with Marion or the drama, and kept aloof from her classmates generally.
The intelligence had spread through the school that the two graduates had differed over the May piece. The exact point in dispute was not known, however: for Marion wished to keep her design a secret, and Ellen would not condescend to explain. In fact, she did not clearly understand it herself; for she had been too vexed at the proposal to change the plan to listen to what Marion said upon the subject.
During this state of affairs poor Abby was very unhappy. She felt that she was the cause of all the trouble; and it seemed hard that what she had done with the best of intentions should have made so much ill-feeling. This disastrous occurrence was followed by another, which made her think herself a very unfortunate little girl.
As has already been explained, it was Larry's delight to keep always a few fresh blossoms in his pretty vase before the beloved statue of the Blessed Virgin. This he attended to himself, and no one ever interfered with the vase. On the day referred to Abby had been rehearsing with Marion, and thus it happened that they walked part of the way home together. Marion stopped at a florist's stand and bought a little bunch of arbutus.
"Here, put this on your altar," she said, giving it to Abby. She had heard all about the oratory.
When the little girl reached the house Larry had not yet come in, and the flowers had not been renewed that day.
"I'll surprise him," she said to herself. "How pleased he will be to see this nice little bouquet!"
She took the vase, threw away the withered violets it contained, replaced them with the May-flowers, and put it back. But, alas! being taken up with admiring the delicate pink arbutus, and inhaling its fragrance, she did not notice that she had set the vase in an unsteady position. The next moment it tipped over, fell to the floor, and lay shattered at the foot of the altar. Abby stood and gazed at it hopelessly, too distressed even to gather up the fragments.
"Oh, what will Larry say!" she cried, wringing her hands. "He thought so much of that vase! What shall I do?"
While she was thus lamenting she heard Larry's voice. He was coming straight up to the oratory. In another minute he threw open the door; he had a little cluster of buttercups in his hand, and was so intent upon putting them in the vase that he was half-way across the room before he noticed the broken pieces on the floor. When he did so, he stopped and glared at his sister.
"O Larry," she stammered, contritely, "it was an accident! See! Marion Gaines gave me those lovely May-flowers, and I thought you'd be pleased to have them in your vase. Just as I went to put it back, it fell over. I'm awfully sorry!"
Larry's eyes flashed angrily, and his face grew crimson.
"Abby Clayton," he broke out, "you are always meddling! Why can't you let things that don't belong to you alone?"'
A storm of reproaches would no doubt have followed, but just then his angry glance turned toward the statue. There stood the image of Our Lady, so meek and beautiful and mild. And there, in a tiny frame at the front of the altar, hung father Dominic's words of advice: "Try every day to do some little thing to honor our Blessed Mother."
Larry paused suddenly; for his indignation almost choked him. But in that moment of silence he had time to reflect. What should he do to-day to honor the Blessed Virgin, now that his little vase was broken? He looked again at the statue. The very sight of the sweet face suggested gentler thoughts, and counselled kindness, meekness, and forbearance.
"Well, Abby," he blurted out, "I suppose I'll have to forgive you; but, oh, how I wish I were only six years old, so that I could cry!"
So saying, Larry laid the buttercups at the feet of Our Lady's statue, and rushed from the room.
The next day it happened that Ellen discovered Abby in tears at the window of the class-room. Ellen, although quick-tempered and impulsive, was kind-hearted.
"What is the trouble now, child?" she asked, gently, taking Abby's hand in hers.
"Oh," sobbed Abby, "I feel so dreadfully to think that you and Marion don't speak to each other! And it's all my fault; because from something I said to Marion she thought that, instead of taking one among ourselves, it would be much nicer to choose the Blessed Virgin for our May-Queen."
"And was that Marion Gaines' plan?" asked Ellen, in surprise.
"Why, yes! But surely she must have told you!" said the little girl.
"I see now that she tried to," replied Ellen, with a sigh at her own impetuosity. "But I was too vexed to listen. I did not really understand before. Dry your tears, Abby; I'll do my best to make amends now. How foolish I've been!" she ejaculated, as Abby ran off in gay spirits. "And how I must have disedified the other girls! I must try to make up for it."
She found the verses she had written; and, on looking them over, concluded that, after all, they needed only the change of a few words here and there. Then she wrote a little note to Marion, as follows:
"DEAR MARION:—I did not realize until today what you wanted to do about the May piece. If my verses would be of any use at this late hour, you are welcome to them. I should like to do all I can to help now, to make up for lost time."
Marion gladly accepted the overtures of peace. The May drama was duly finished, the rehearsals went on smoothly, and on the last day of the Month of Mary the performance took place.
It had been rumored in the school that Abby was not to be Queen, and there was much speculation as to which of the little girls had been selected instead. As the drama progressed, and the plan was unfolded, the audience was taken completely by surprise. Everyone had been eager to see the May-Queen; but there was a general murmur of appreciation when, at the close, the curtain rose upon a beautiful tableau; a shrine glittering with many lights, in the midst of which was enthroned a lovely image of Our Lady, at whose feet the children laid their crowns of flowers—a crown to honor each transcendent virtue,—and paid their homage to their beautiful Queen of May.
A few days later Father Dominic called at the Claytons.
"Well, children," he asked, incidentally, "have you done anything to please the Blessed Virgin during the past month?"
Abby and Larry were silent, but their mother kindly answered:
"I think they have tried, Father Dominic. And as for your lovely May-Day gift, the presence of the statue seems to have drawn down a blessing upon the house."
Quite happy indeed was the home of Tilderee Prentiss, though it was only a rough log house on a ranch, away out in Indian Territory. Her father was employed by the owner of the ranch. He had, however, a small tract of land for himself, and owned three horses and several cows. Her mother's duties included the management of a small dairy and poultry yard, the products of which were readily sold at the military post some miles distant.
There were two other children: Peter, thirteen years old; and Joanna, or Joan as she was called, who had just passed her eleventh birthday. They took care of the fowl, and were proud when at the end of the week they could bring to their mother a large basket of eggs to carry to the Fort.
The only one of the family who could afford to do nothing was six-year-old Tilderee, though they thought she did a good deal—that is, all except Joan; for she seemed to make everybody's else burden lighter by her merriness, her droll sayings, and sweet, loving little ways.
Yet she was continually getting into mischief; and to see her trotting to and fro, eager to be of use, but always lending a little hindering hand to everything, one would hardly consider her a help. "How should I ever get on without the child!" her mother would often exclaim; while at the same moment Tilderee might be dragging at her gown and interfering with her work at every step.
How frequently Mrs. Prentiss laughed, though with tears in her eyes, as she thought of the time when Tilderee, a toddling baby, was nearly drowned by tumbling head-foremost into a pailful of foaming milk, and no one would have known and rushed to save her but for the barking of the little terrier Fudge! Then there was the scar still to be found beneath the soft ringlets upon her white forehead, a reminder of the day when she tried to pull the spotted calf's tail. How frightened "papa" was at the discovery that his mischievous daughter had been at his ammunition chest, played dolls with the cartridges, and complained that gunpowder did not make as good mud pies as "common dirt!"
Peter and Joan could add their story, too. Peter might tell, for instance, how Tilderee and Fudge, the companion of most of her pranks, frightened off the shy prairie-dogs he was trying to tame; saying they had no right to come there pretending to be dogs when they were only big red squirrels, which indeed they greatly resembled. Still he was very fond of his little sister. He liked to pet and romp with her, to carry her on his back and caper around like the friskiest of ponies. When he paused for breath she patted his sun-burned cheek with her dimpled hand, saying, in her cooing voice, "Good brother Pippin!" which was her nickname for him. Then he forgot that she delighted to tease him,—that her favorite pastime was to chase the young chicks and cause a tremendous flutter in the poultry yard; and how vexed he had been when she let his mustang out of the enclosure, "because," she said, "Twinkling Hoofs needs a bit of fun and a scamper as well as anybody; and he was trying to open the gate with his nose." It took two days to find the mustang and coax him back again. Tilderee was penitent for fully ten minutes after this escapade; but she endeavored to console herself and Peter by declaring, "I know, Pippin, that the Indians must have Twinkling Hoofs by this time. And he's so pretty they'll keep him for a chief to ride; a big, fat chief, with a gay blanket and a feather headdress, and red and blue paint on his face. Won't Twinkling Hoofs be s'prised at all that? But never mind, Pippin; papa will let you ride the old grey horse!"
No one knew better than Joan, however, just how tantalizing Tilderee could be,—how she dallied in the morning playing hide-and-seek, refusing to have her face washed and her tangled hair brushed into shining curls; this, too, when Joan was in the greatest hurry to go and give the fluffy chicks and the grave old fowl their breakfast. It was very well for Peter to say, "What should we do without Tilderee?" If she bothered him he could take his rifle and go shooting with Abe, the old scout; or jump upon Twinkling Hoofs and gallop all over the ranch. How would he like the midget to tag after him all day, to have the care of her when mother went to the Fort to sell the butter and eggs? "Indeed I could get on very well without the little plague," Joan sometimes grumbled—"just for a teenty bit of a while," she generally added, hastily; for she really loved her little sister dearly. Joan tried hard to be patient, but she had a quick temper, and occasionally forgot her good resolutions. This happened one day when her mother had gone to dispose of the dairy products. The provocation was certainly great.
Joan had a lovely French doll—the only French doll in the Territory, and probably the most beautiful one to be found within many hundred miles. Mrs. Miller, the wife of one of the officers at the Fort, brought it to her from Chicago; and the little girl regarded it as more precious than all the family possessions combined. What, then, was her consternation this morning to see Fudge dash around the corner of the house dangling the fair Angelina by the blue silk dress, which he held between his teeth, and Tilderee following in wild pursuit! Joan rushed out and rescued her treasure; but, alas! it was in a sadly dilapidated condition. She picked up a stick and started after the dog, but Tilderee interfered.
"Oh, please, dear Joan!" she cried, holding her back by the apron strings. "Fudge isn't the most to blame. I took Angelina. I s'pose he pulled off the wig and broke the arm, but I pushed the eyes in; didn't mean to, though—was only trying to make them open and shut. Tilderee's so sorry, Joan!"
The explanation ended with a contrite sob and what Mr. Prentiss called "a sun shower." But the sight of the child's tears, instead of appeasing, only irritated Joan the more. Giving her a smart shake, she said excitedly:
"Tilderee Prentiss, you're a naughty, naughty girl! I wish you didn't live here. I wish mother had let you go with the lady at the Fort who wanted to adopt you. I wish I hadn't any little sister at all!"
Tilderee stopped crying, and stood gazing at the angry girl in astonishment; then, swallowing a queer lump that came in her throat, she drew herself up with a baby dignity which would have been funny but for the pathetic expression of her sweet face, as she lisped slowly: "Very well. P'rhaps some day Tilderee'll go away and never come back again!"
She turned and went into the house, with Fudge at her heels. As he passed Joan his tail, which had drooped in shame at his conduct, erected itself defiantly, and he uttered a growl of protest.
Joan remained disconsolately hugging and weeping over the ill-fated Angelina. But, somehow, she did not feel any better for having yielded to her anger. "Tilderee deserved a good scolding," she said to herself over and over again. Still there was a weight upon her heart, not caused by the ruin of the doll; for, notwithstanding all the excuses she could muster, her conscience reproached her for those unkind, bitter words. After a while, remembering that she had been cautioned not to let Tilderee out of her sight, she started to look for her. The culprit was soon discovered in the corner of the kitchen cupboard, which she called-her "cubby-house," engaged in lecturing Fudge for running away with Angelina.
"Never meddle with what does not belong to you!" she said, laying down the law with her mite of a forefinger; and, to make her words more impressive, giving him an occasional tap on the nose. He listened dutifully, as if he were the sole transgressor; but interrupted the homily now and then by lapping the hand of his little mistress with his tiny red tongue, as a token of the perfect understanding between them.
When they looked up and saw Joan, both glanced at her deprecatingly, but quite ready to assume a defensive attitude. Ashamed of having allowed her indignation to carry her so far, she was, however, inclined to be conciliatory; and therefore, with an effort, managed to say, as if nothing had happened:
"Come, Tilderee! Watch at the window for father, while I get dinner ready."
Tilderee at once sprang to her feet gaily, threw her arms around Joan's waist, and held up her rosy mouth for the kiss of mutual forgiveness, Fudge wriggling and wagging his tail.
Joan now busied herself about the mid-day meal, for which her mother had made the principal preparation before setting out. She said nothing about the tragedy of the morning when her father came in, partly because she felt that nobody could appreciate the depth of her grief but mother, and because she had made up her mind not to complain of Tilderee,—a conclusion which she secretly felt entitled her to rank as a heroine. But Tilderee related the occurrence herself as soon as her mother returned.
"Fudge and me broke Joan's beauty doll. We didn't mean to, and we're awful sorry,—honest and true we are!"
"But that will not mend Angelina," said Mrs. Prentiss, gravely.
Tilderee hung her head. She now realized for the first time, that no matter how grieved we are, we can not always repair the wrong we have done. The mother, though a plain, uneducated woman, had plenty of good sense, and did her best to train her children well. She now talked very seriously to her little daughter, and Tilderee promised to be less meddlesome and more obedient in the future.
"Fudge and me wants to be good," she said, penitently; "but we forgets. P'rhaps if we were other folks, and our names were something else 'sides Tilderee and Fudge, we might be better."
"I'm afraid Fudge is a hard case," sighed her mother, restraining a smile; "and I should not like to see my little girl changed into any one else. But I expect we ought to call you as you were christened, and that is Matilda. It is a saint's name, you know; and you can pray to your name saint to help you."
The little lass was delighted to have the question settled in this manner, and from that time strove to insist upon her proper title. But it was not easy to drop the pet name, and Tilderee she was oftenest called, till long after the date of this story. For several days she tried very hard to be good; she said her prayers night and morning with special earnestness, always closing with: "Please, God, take care of Tilderee, and keep her and Fudge out of mischief."
Joan, on her part, endeavored to be more gentle with her little sister; for, while every day she lamented the fate of the doll, she could not think of it without feeling a trifle uncomfortable about the way she had spoken to Tilderee.
The two little girls were not allowed to go beyond the enclosure which surrounded the house, unless accompanied by their father or mother. The few Indians in the vicinity had hitherto been peaceable and friendly; but it was considered well to be cautious, and the country was too sparsely settled to render it safe for one to wander about alone. When Mrs. Prentiss, mounted on the old grey horse, rode to the Fort to sell her butter and eggs, Peter went with her on Twinkling Hoofs; and each took the precaution to carry a pistol for self-defence in case of attack.
This being the state of affairs, great was the alarm of all one day as it became evident that Tilderee was missing. The ranch was a scene of intense excitement when, after an exploration of the neighborhood, the child was not found. The news spread like a prairie fire. The settlers for miles around joined the party which set out to continue the search. The poor mother was frantic. The father went about helplessly, like a man dazed by a terrible blow. Peter galloped wildly to and fro upon Twinkling Hoofs, without an idea where he was going. Joan cried as though her heart would break.
Fudge had disappeared also. Had he gone with Tilderee? There was a grain of comfort in the suggestion; yet, even so, what could a poor baby do, astray and with no other defender? Evening came, and still there was no trace of the child. All through the night they continued to seek her, guided by the light of the stars and the glimmer of their pine torches. But in vain.
On that memorable day, shortly after dinner, if mother had not been so absorbed by the discovery that certain wee, blundering fingers had sprinkled sugar instead of salt over her new batch of butter; or if Joan, instead of going for the third time since morning to the lowest drawer of the deal clothes-press which contained the family wardrobe, to take an aggrieved look at Angelina,—if either had glanced out of the doorway, she would have seen a diminutive figure tripping down the trail in happy unconcern, with Fudge gambolling along in front.
Tilderee did not mean to be disobedient: she had no intention of running away; but it was so easy to forget that she had passed the bounds which love had set for her, when the May breezes, like eager playmates, seemed to beset her to frolic with them, catching at her frock, tip-tilting her pretty print sunbonnet (the one with the tiny pink roses scattered over a blue ground), ruffling her chestnut curls, and whisking her little plaid shawl awry. A patch of yellow wild flowers by the way appeared all at once endowed with wings, as from their midst arose a flight of golden butterflies. What fun to chase them! Fudge thought so too, and a merry pursuit followed. Tired and out of breath, Tilderee paused at last. Fudge returned with a bound to her side, and stood panting and wagging his tail, as if to ask: "Well, what shall we play next?" They were now half a mile from home, but neither turned to look back.
"Fudge, I'm going to pick a lovely bouquet for mother," Tilderee confided to him, patting his shaggy head. He sniffed his approval, and trotted after her as she flitted hither and thither culling the bright blossoms. Now she left the lowlands called the prairie, and climbed Sunset Hill in search of prettier posies. Beyond this rocky knoll was an oak wood, from the direction of which came the noise of running water. At the sound Tilderee remembered that she was thirsty. "There must be a brook in yonder," she said. "Come, Fudge, let us go and see." Trampling among the brambles, the little girl pushed on, and soon came to a small stream dashing along over a stony course. Forming an oak leaf into a cup, as she had often seen Joan do, Tilderee dipped it into the clear current; and by this means, and the sips between times which she took up in the hollow of her hand, succeeded in obtaining a refreshing drink; while from the opposite bank Fudge put down his head and took his share with less ceremony.
Tilderee chose a seat upon a log and rested. To amuse herself she broke off pieces of the underbrush and began to strip them of their leaves. "To make horsewhips, you know," she explained, with a teasing glance at Fudge. He understood very well, and shrank away a trifle; but the next minute the baby hands caressed his rough coat, and she added lovingly: "No, no, Fudge! Nobody shall touch such a good dog!" Throwing aside the sticks, she tried to weave the leaves into garlands, as Joan had taught her. The attempt was hardly a success. As the wreath with which Fudge submitted to be crowned speedily fell apart, she concluded that, instead of making a chain for herself, it would be nicer to carry the oak twig for a sun-shade. At present, however, she laid it carefully on the ground beside her flowers, and proceeded to play in the stream, with bits of bark for boats. Fudge enjoyed this too for a while, but soon he grew restless.
All at once the child became aware that the woods had grown darker; the sunlight no longer glanced in among the green boughs; through the foliage she caught a glimpse of the western sky, which was flecked with flame and beryl and amber. Next she realized that it must be a great while since dinner. With the sense of hunger came a feeling of dismay. Where was she, and how should she get home? "It must be most supper time, Fudge," she said, choking down a sob. The little dog looked up into her face with affectionate concern, and thrust his cold nose into her hand, as if to say encouragingly: "Trust me, and I will lead you back." He began to sniff the ground; and, having found the scent, endeavored to prevail upon his young mistress to follow his guidance. But Tilderee was sure that she knew best. "No, Fudge," she called; "not that way. This is the right path, I'm sure. Come quick!" Vainly the sagacious animal used all his dumb arts to induce her to rely upon him; vainly he crouched and whined, and begged her to go his way. Tilderee obstinately stumbled on in the opposite direction. Fudge laid down and watched her despairingly for a few moments; then, with a sigh almost like that of a human being, he sprang after her. If actions speak louder than words, could he have said more plainly: "Well, if you will get lost, I must go with you to take care of you?"
They wandered on, far beyond the source of the stream, emerged from the wood, and strayed along the side of a deep gorge or canon. At every step the surroundings grew wilder, the way more rocky and precipitous. If she had been older, what terrors would have affrighted the child! An appalling dread of the Indians, fear of the wild cattle of the wilderness, the apprehension of countless dangers. But in her baby innocence, Tilderee knew nothing of these perils. She only felt that she was weary and chilled, and faint for want of food. "Oh Fudge, if we could only get home to mother!" she moaned. "Tilderee's so tired and sleepy, and it will be dark night soon." At the thought she threw herself on the ground and began to cry bitterly.
Fudge looked disconsolate. A second he stood irresolute and distressed, but presently drew nearer, and, with unobtrusive sympathy, licked away the salt tears that rolled down her chubby cheeks. Then he roused himself, as if he comprehended that something must be done, and ran to and fro, barking with all his might, and poking about with his nose to the earth. At length he came upon a nook under a projecting rock, which seemed to promise a slight shelter from the cold night air. Perhaps it was the instinct of self-preservation which led him to attract the attention of his helpless companion to it. Several times he returned to her, looked beseechingly into her face, then ran back to the rock.
"You want me to go in there, Fudge?" she faltered at last, noticing his antics. "Well, I will. P'rhaps it'll be warmer. And I'm afraid nobody'll come now till morning."
Dispirited, Tilderee dragged herself to the refuge he had found. "I 'xpect it's time for night prayers," she said, with a tremor in her voice; "and I always say them with mother or Joan." Now she knelt upon the damp mould, made the Sign of the Cross, and, clasping her brier-scratched hands, repeated the "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" more devoutly than ever before. When she came to the special little petition at the close, "Please, God, take care of Tilderee, and keep her and Fudge out of mischief," she broke down again, and, weeping convulsively, threw her arms around the neck of her obstreperous but loyal playmate and friend, exclaiming, "Oh Fudge! if we ever get safe home we'll never be naughty again, will we?"
Yet exhausted nature stills even the cry of grief and penitence. Tilderee, moreover, felt wonderfully comforted by her prayer. To the pure heart of a child Heaven is ever "close by." From her rude asylum under the cliff the little wanderer looked across at the sky. It was clear and bright with myriad stars. Suddenly one flashed across the broad expanse, blazed from the very zenith, and sped with incredible velocity down, down, till it disappeared in the depths of the ravine. "Ah," said she, with eyes still fixed upon the spot whence had gleamed the meteor, "p'rhaps it was an angel flying down to me! I won't be afraid, 'cause I know God will take care of me." Drawing the small plaid shawl from her shoulders, she spread it over herself like a blanket; sparing a corner for Fudge, however, who stationed himself upon it, prepared to ward off all dangers from his charge. And thus she fell asleep, cheered by the presence and warmed by the breath of the faithful little dog, her sole protector, humanly speaking, in that lonely wilderness.
* * * * *
During the long night, while the searching party was scouring the country, Mrs. Prentiss remained at home, keeping a bright light in the window, a fire on the kitchen hearth, the kettle on the crane, and everything ready to gladden and revive her darling in case, as she persisted in hoping, the dear little rover should, with the aid of fudge, find her way back of her own accord. How many times she started up, thinking she heard the patter of childish feet! How many times she rushed to the door at some sound which to her eager heart seemed like a cry of "Mother!" But Joan, who now kept as close to her as Tilderee was accustomed to do, would murmur sadly, after they had listened a while: "It is only the wind or the call of a bird." At which the unhappy woman, with a great effort to be calm, would sigh: "Let us say the Rosary again." Joan, whose face was stained with tears, and her eyes swollen and red from weeping, responded as best she could between her sobs.
Poor Joan learned in those hours what a terrible punishment is that of remorse. Amid all her thoughts of Tilderee one scene was ever before her: the picture of a rosy culprit, with tangled curls and beseeching eyes, grieved at the mischief she had done, and stammering, "I'm so sorry, Joan!" And then herself, as she snatched up the doll and answered harshly: "You naughty girl! I wish you didn't live here! I wish I hadn't any little sister at all!" Well, her wish had come true: Tilderee was gone. Perhaps she would never live in the log house again. There was no "little plague" to vex or bother Joan now. The lighter chores, which were her part of the housework, could be finished twice as soon, and afterward she would have plenty of time to do as she liked: to play with and sew for Angelina, for instance. Angelina!—how she hated the very name! She never wanted even to see the doll again. Tilderee might get up a "make-believe" funeral, and bury it under the white rosebush. Yes, that would be the prettiest spot; and for old affection's sake the thing should be done properly if she came back, —ah, if! And then Joan would put her head down upon the table or a chair, whichever happened to be near, or hide her face in the folds of her apron, and cry: "What shall I do without Tilderee! Oh, if God will only give her back to us, I will never say a cross or angry word again!"
Dawn brought no news of the lost child, and the dreary night of suspense was succeeded by a day of anguish. At intervals the seekers sent a message back to the desolate home. Sometimes it was: "Keep up your courage; we trust all will be well." Or, "Though we have not yet found the child, please God we will soon restore her to you," and so on. But, soften it as they could, the fact remained—their expedition had been fruitless: Tilderee was still lost. They at length despaired of gaining trace or tidings of her, and agreed that it was useless to continue the search.
"She must have fallen over a precipice," maintained one of the men.
"If so, we should have met with some sign—" argued another, hesitating at the thought of what that sign might be.