"Polly wants a cracker!" screamed the bird. "Time for breakfast, Lu! Where you been?"
"How will Polly suit you for a Christmas gift, Lulu?" asked the captain, smiling down into the flushed, delighted face of his eldest daughter.
"O papa, is it for me?" she cried half breathlessly.
"Yes, if you want it, though I fear she may prove a rather troublesome pet. Here is Gracie's gift from papa," he added, pointing to a beautiful Maltese kitten curled upon the rug before the fire. "We mustn't let Max's big gift swallow your little one. I trust that in time we can teach them to be friends."
Grace loved kittens and was no less delighted with her present than her brother and sister with theirs.
"O the pretty pet!" she exclaimed, dropping down on the rug beside it and gently stroking its soft fur. "I'd like to take you on my lap, pretty pussy, but you're fast asleep, and I won't wake you."
"That is right, my darling; I am glad to see my little girl thoughtful of the comfort of even a cat," her father said, bending down to stroke Gracie's hair with tenderly caressing hand.
"I s'pose they have feelings as well as other folks, papa," she said, smiling up affectionately into his face. "I mean to be very kind to this pretty pussy; and oh I'm ever so much obliged to you for her!"
His reply was prevented by a sudden, loud bark from the dog, as he spied pussy on the rug.
"Turn him out into the hall, May," the captain said, hastily stepping in between dog and cat. "Don't be alarmed for your pet, Gracie; he shall not be permitted to harm her."
"Nor my Polly either, shall he, papa?" asked Lulu, who was trying to make acquaintance with her new possession.
"No; certainly not. But take care of your fingers, daughter; she may snap at them and give you a bite that you will remember for a long while. Now go and get yourselves ready for tea. It is almost time for the bell to ring."
The children made haste to obey. The captain and Violet lingered behind for a moment.
"How pleased they are!" she said with a joyous look up into her husband's face. "It's a perfect treat to witness their delight on such occasions. I can hardly wait to show them the tree with all its treasures."
"Dear wife, your affection for my darlings is a well-spring of joy to me," he said with tender look and smile; "and theirs for you no less so. I am sure you have completely won their hearts."
"You make me very happy," she responded, her eyes shining with joy and love. "But there! do you hear little Elsie calling for papa and mamma?"
The faces that surrounded the tea table that evening were very bright, though the children had no expectation of the treat in store for them; each had had a present from papa, and that was almost more than they had ventured to hope for.
But they were in gay spirits, looking forward to a time of rare enjoyment in spending the Christmas holidays with Grandma Elsie, at Ion.
"We'll be glad to go," remarked Lulu, "and then glad to come back to our own dear home."
"So you will be twice glad," said her father.
"Yes, that is just the way I feel about it," Violet said. "Mamma's house will always be a home to me—a dear home; and yet my husband's doubly so."
"It should, seeing that it is quite as much yours as his," he said, with a gratified smile. "Well, my dear, I see we have all finished eating. Shall we go now?"
"Yes, sir; if you please. Our little girls will want to take another peep at their new pets," she said, rising and slipping her hand into his arm.
They passed out of the room together, the children following.
But on reaching the hall, instead of going into the library they turned toward the parlor on the other side of it, in which, as the children well remembered, last year's Christmas tree had been set up.
The captain threw open the door, and then stood a larger and finer tree blazing with lights from many tapers and colored lamps, and loaded with beautiful things.
"Oh! oh! what a beauty! what a splendid tree!" cried the children, dancing about and clapping their hands in delight. "And we didn't know we were to have any at all. Mamma Vi you must have had it set up, and trimmed it while we were gone this morning. Didn't you? Oh thank you ever so much!"
"Your father provided it, and your thanks are due to him far more than to me," Violet replied, with a smiling-glance in his direction.
At that they crowded about him, Max putting a hand affectionately into his and thanking him with hearty words of appreciation, while the little girls hugged and kissed him to his heart's content.
The servants had gathered about the door, little Elsie's mammy among them, with her nursling in her arms.
"Oh pretty, pretty!" shouted the little one, clapping her hands in an ecstacy of delight. "Let Elsie down, mammy."
"Come to papa," the captain said, and taking her in his arms carried her to the tree and all around it, pointing out the pretty things.
"What would you like to have?" he asked. "What shall papa give you off this beautiful tree?"
"Dolly," she said, reaching out for a lovely bisque doll seated in a tiny chair attached to one of the lower branches.
"You shall have it; it was put there on purpose for papa's baby girl," he said, taking it up carefully and putting it into her arms. "Now let us see what we can find for mamma and your brother and sisters."
His gift to Violet was some beautiful lace selected with the help of her mother. He had contrived to add it to the adornments of the tree without her knowledge. She was greatly pleased when he detached and handed it to her.
Max was delighted to receive a Magic lantern and a Sleight of Hand outfit, Lulu a game of Lawn and Parlor Ring Toss, and a handsome Toilet Case. Grace had the same and beside a brass bedstead for her dolls, with mattress and pillows, and a large and complete assortment of everything needed for making and dressing paper dolls. That last was from Lulu.
There were books, periodicals, a type writer and games to be shared by all three, beside other less important gifts from one to the other, and from outside friends.
The servants too, were remembered with gifts suited to their needs and tastes, and there were fruits and confections for all.
Examining their own and each other's gifts, peeping into the new books, trying the new games, with papa and mamma helping, the children found the evening pass very quickly and delightfully.
"We were going to hang up our stockings," Grace remarked as the good nights were being said, "but we've had so many nice things already that it does seem as if we oughtn't to do it."
"Oh yes, hang them up," said her father laughingly. "Santa Claus won't feel obliged to put anything into them."
"And perhaps if he doesn't find them hanging up he may feel hurt at your low opinion of his generosity," laughed Violet.
"Oh I wouldn't like to hurt his feelings, 'cause I'm sure he must be a very nice old fellow," returned the little girl with an arch look and smile. "So I'll hang mine up."
"And I mine," said Lulu, twining her arms about her father's neck and looking up lovingly into his face, "for I know he's nice, and generous, and good as gold, though he isn't old or the sort of person to be called a fellow."
"Indeed! one might infer that you were quite well acquainted with him," laughed the captain, giving her a hug and kiss. "Yes, hang it up. And, Max, if you don't feel it beneath the dignity of a lad of your size, there will be no harm in your trying the same experiment."
"I'm ashamed to think of it, sir, only because I've already had so much," said Max.
"But you are always safe in following your father's advice," remarked Violet.
"Oh yes, I know that, and I'll do it, Mamma Vi," returned the boy, with ill-concealed satisfaction.
"Now all three of you get to bed and to sleep as soon as you can, in order to give the old fellow a chance to pay his visit," said the captain; "for I have always understood that he never does so till all the children in the house are asleep. I'll go in to kiss my little girls good-night after they are snug in bed, but we will reserve our talk till morning."
"Yes, papa, we will," they said and hastened away to do his bidding.
At Ion too, there was a beautiful Christmas tree, bearing fruit not very dissimilar to that of the one at Woodburn. It had been the occasion of much mirth and rejoicing on the part of the children, and pleasure to the older people: the gifts had been apportioned, those of the servants bestowed and carried away, but most of those belonging to the family, and all the ornaments, were left upon it that the guests of to-morrow might be treated to the spectacle of its beauty.
Capt. Raymond, going into Gracie's room to fulfil his promise to give her a good night kiss, found Lulu there also; the two lying clasped in each other's arms.
"We thought we'd sleep together to-night, papa," said Lulu, "if you're willing."
"I have no objection," he answered. "Gracie was a little afraid to receive Santa Claus alone, was she?" looking down at them with a humorous smile as he stood by the bedside.
"Oh no, papa! I'm pretty sure I know who he is, and I'm not one bit afraid of him," answered the little girl, with a merry laugh, catching his hand and carrying it to her lips.
"Ah! then it was Lulu who was afraid, was it?"
"Oh no, sir! Lu's never afraid of anything."
"Indeed; you seem to have a high opinion of her courage! You need never, either of you, be afraid or ashamed of anything but sin, my darlings," he added, more gravely. "If you are God's children, nothing can harm you. He will watch over us through the dark and silent night while we are wrapped in slumber. 'Behold he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber or sleep.'"
"I'm so glad the Bible tells us that, papa," she said; "but I'm glad, too, that you sleep in the next room, and have the door open always at night, so that if I should want you, you could easily hear me call, and come to me."
"Yes," he said, "and neither of my little girls need ever hesitate for a moment to call for their father if they are ill or troubled in any way.
"Ah I see the stockings hanging one on each side of the fire place. But how is Santa Claus to tell which is Lulu's and which Gracie's?"
"Why we never thought of that!" exclaimed Lulu, laughing. "But mine's a little the largest, and it's red and Gracie's is blue. Don't you suppose, papa, that he'll be smart enough to guess which is which?"
"I think it is likely, but you will have to take the risk," replied her father. Then with a good night kiss he left them to their slumbers.
Day was faintly dawning when Lulu awoke. "Merry Christmas, Gracie!" she whispered in her sister's ear. "I'm going to get our stockings and see if there is anything in 'em," and with a bound she was out on the floor and stealing across it to the fireplace, with care to make no noise.
She could not refrain, however, from a delighted "Oh!" as she laid hold of the stockings and felt that they were stuffed full of something.
"Did he come? is there something in 'em?" whispered Grace, as Lulu came back to the bedside.
"Yes, yes, indeed! they're just as full as they can be! I've brought 'em; here's yours," putting it into Gracie's hands and getting into bed again. "Let's pull the things out and feel what they are, though we can't see much till it gets lighter."
"Yes, let's," said Grace; "I couldn't bear to wait."
They thought they were keeping very quiet, but Lu's "Oh!" had wakened her father and Violet and they were lying quietly listening and laughing softly to themselves.
There was a rustle of paper, then Gracie's voice in a loud whisper, "Oh another dolly for me! and I just know it's lovely! I can feel its hair, and its dress; it's all dressed!"
Then Lulu's, "A potato! just a horrid, raw Irish potato! What do I want with that?"
"And I've got one too!" from Grace. "Oh well, I s'pose that was to fill up, and maybe there's something nice lower down."
"A sweet potato or a parsnip or something of that kind in mine," said Lulu, some slight vexation in her tone. "Oh well, I've had so many nice things, and this is only for fun."
"And here are some candies in mine," said Grace. "Haven't you got some?"
"Yes, oh yes! and nuts and raisins. I'd like to taste them; but I think we'd better leave them till after breakfast. I'm pretty sure papa would say so."
"Yes, 'course he would; so we'll wait."
"Good obedient children; aren't they?" the captain said in a gratified whisper to Violet.
"Very; I'm proud of them," she responded.
It was growing light and Lulu, taking up the despised potato, examined it more critically. Presently she uttered an exclamation,
"O Gracie, see! It opens and there's something inside!"
The captain and Violet listened intently for what might come next.
"More candies and—something wrapped up in soft paper. O Gracie! it's a lovely little breastpin!"
"Oh, oh, how pretty!" cried Grace. "I wonder if I have one too!" In their excitement they were forgetting the danger of disturbing others and talking quite loud.
"Yes, mine opens," Grace went on, "and—oh yes, I've got candies and something with paper round it and—oh yes, yes, it is a pin! Not quite like yours, but just every bit as pretty!"
"I think they are having a merry Christmas," said the captain, a happy light in his eyes, "and, my love, I wish you the same."
Violet returned the wish; but the children were talking again and they kept quiet to hearken.
"Oh this sweet potato opens too," Lulu was saying, "and there's something that feels like a stick. O Gracie, Gracie, look! it's a gold pencil, a lovely little gold pencil! Have you one?"
"No; but you haven't a doll."
"Well, I think Santa Claus has been very generous and kind to us."
"Just as good and kind as if he was our own papa," Gracie said, with a sweet silvery laugh.
"The dear, grateful darlings!" exclaimed the captain, his tone half tremulous with feeling. "I sometimes fear I am almost too indulgent; but it is such a dear delight to give them pleasure."
"And I don't believe it does them the least harm, so long as you do not indulge them in any wrong doing," said Violet. "Love never hurts anybody."
"Merry Christmas, my darlings," he called to them. "Did Santa Claus fill your stockings?"
"Oh merry, merry Christmas, papa!" they answered. "Yes, sir, Santa Claus or somebody did, and gave us lovely things. We're very much obliged to him."
As they spoke the door into their little sitting-room opened and Max put in his head, crying in his turn, "Merry Christmas to you all—papa and Mamma Vi, Lulu and Gracie."
A chorus of merry Christmases answered him; then Lulu asked, "What did Santa Claus put in your stocking, Maxie?"
"A good deal: about as much as could be crammed into it; some handsome neckties, candies and nuts and a gold pencil."
"Very nice," commented Lulu, and she and Grace, both talking at once, gave a gleeful account of their discoveries in searching their stockings.
They had hardly finished their narrative when a glad shout from the nursery interrupted them.
"There! little Elsie has found her stocking, I do believe," said Lulu, starting up to a sitting posture that she might look through the open door into the next room. As she did so a tiny toddling figure clothed in a white night dress, and with a well filled stocking in its arms emerged from the nursery door and ran across the room to the bedside, crying gleefully, "See mamma, papa, Elsie got."
"What have you got pet?" asked her father, picking her up and setting her in the bed. "There, pull out the things and let papa and mamma see what they are."
"Mayn't we come and see too?" asked the other children.
"Yes," he said, "you can come and peep in at the door, but first put on your warm slippers and dressing gowns, that you may not take cold."
Baby Elsie was a merry, demonstrative little thing, and it was great fun for them all to watch her and hear her shouts of delight as she came upon one treasure after another;—tiny, gaily dressed dolls of both sexes, and other toys suited to her years.
It did not take her very long to empty the stocking, and then the captain said to the older ones, "Now you may close the door, my dears, and get yourselves dressed and ready for the duties and pleasures of the day. I shall be in presently for our usual chat before breakfast."
They made haste with their dressing, and were quite ready for their father when he came in some half hour later. They were very light-hearted and gay and full of gratitude for all they had received.
"Dear papa, you are so good to us," they said, twining their arms about his neck, as they sat one upon each knee.
"I want to be," he said, caressing them in turn, "I have no greater pleasure than I find in making my children happy. And your grateful appreciation of my efforts makes me very happy."
"But, papa, I—" began Lulu, then paused hesitatingly.
"Well, daughter, don't be afraid to let me know the thought in your mind," he said kindly.
"I was just wondering why it's right for me to have so many other things, and would be wrong for me to have that ring I wanted so badly. But please, papa," she added quickly and with a vivid blush, "don't think I mean to be naughty about it, or want you to spend any more money on me."
"No, dear child, I could not think so ill of you. I did not think it right or wise to buy you the ring, because it would have been spending a great deal for something quite useless, and very unsuitable for my little girl. The things I have given you I considered it right to buy because they will all be useful to you in one way or another."
"The games and storybooks, papa?" asked Grace with a look of surprise.
"Yes, daughter; people—and especially little folks like Max and Lulu and you—need amusement as a change and rest from work; we can do all the more work in the end if we take time for needed rest and recreation."
"So it won't be time wasted to have our Christmas holidays?" remarked Lulu, half inquiringly.
"No, I think not," her father answered.
"Shall we take our new games to Ion with us, papa?" she asked.
"If you wish. I presume Grandma Elsie will not object to your taking any of your possessions with you that you think will be useful or enjoyable to yourselves or others."
"I'm just sure she won't; 'cause she's so kind," said Grace. "But I s'pose it won't do to take our live new pets?"
"No; but you may safely leave them in Christine's care."
Breakfast and family worship were over, such of their effects as they would be likely to need during the few days of their expected stay at Ion, had been packed and sent, the family carriage was at the door, and every body nearly ready to get into it, when there was an arrival.
Harold and Herbert had come over on horseback, Rosie and Evelyn in the Ion carriage.
They came running in with their "Merry Christmases and Happy New Years," to receive a return in kind.
"Don't think for a moment that we have come to prevent you from accepting your invitation to Ion as promptly as possible," said Herbert gaily; "we've come after you, and are glad to perceive, in your attire, signs of readiness to depart."
"But we want to peep at your tree first," put in Rosie, "that's one thing that brought us."
"And we've a proposal to make," said Harold; "namely that you all accompany us to the Oaks for a short call on Uncle Horace and the rest—and their Christmas tree of course—before going over to Ion. The air is delightfully bracing, the roads are good, and if we find there is time, perhaps we might as well extend our ride to the Laurels, and give Aunt Rose a call, in case we reach there before the family have left home for Ion. What do you say captain? and you Vi?"
Both approved, and the children were much pleased with the idea. But they wanted first to have time to show their presents to Rosie and Evelyn.
That was granted, the callers were all taken in to see the tree, dog, bird and pussy were exhibited, the pretty things found in the stockings also, and when all had been duly admired they set out upon their jaunt.
The four little girls, Rosie, Evelyn, Lulu and Grace, had the Ion carriage to themselves, and full of life and spirits, enjoyed their drive extremely.
Both calls were made, only a short time spent at each place—hardly more than enough for an exchange of greetings and a hasty examination, of the Christmas trees and gifts—then they drove on to Ion, and the holiday festivities so long looked forward to by the young people with such eager expectation and delight, began.
The first thing of course was to take a view of the Christmas tree and the presents.
Rosie and Evelyn had declined to tell what they were until they could show them, even refusing to answer Lulu's eager query, put while they were driving to the Oaks, "O Rosie, did your mamma give you the set of pearls you wanted so badly?"
"Wait till we get to Ion and I'll show you all my presents; I received a good many and ought not to fret if I did not get everything I wanted," was what Rosie said in reply, and Lulu, understanding it to mean that there was some disappointment, concluded that the pearls had not been given.
She was the more convinced of it when the presents on and about the tree had been displayed and no pearls among them.
Rosie seemed in excellent spirits, however, and Lulu thought she had good reason to be, for the gifts she showed as hers were many and desirable.
The guests, all relatives or connections, arrived within a few minutes of each other and for a little while were all gathered together in the tree room—as the children called it for the time—and a very merry, lively set they were.
But presently they scattered to their respective rooms to dress for dinner, or at least to remove their outside garments.
The Raymonds were given the same apartments that had been appropriated to them when living at Ion; Gracie sharing Lulu's room, which communicated directly with the one where the captain and Violet would sleep.
Rosie went with the little girls to their room, to see that they had everything to make them comfortable, because, as she said, they were her guests this time.
"You don't need to change your dresses, I am sure," she remarked as they threw off their coats.
"No," replied Lulu, "these are what papa told us to wear for the rest of the day, and they are as suitable and pretty as any we have."
"Yes, they're lovely," said Rosie; "your papa does dress you beautifully. I, too, am dressed for the day, and I'd like you both to come to my room for a while. Eva is there taking off her things; she's to share my room while the house is so full. I thought you would want Eva for your bedfellow, but mamma said your father would want his two little girls close beside him."
"Yes, and that's where we like to be," Lulu answered quickly and in a very pleasant tone. "It seems like home here in this room, too. Now we're ready to go with you, Rosie; we've got our things off and seen that our hair is all right."
Rosie led the way to her room where they found, not Eva only, but all the little girl cousins, having a chat while waiting for the summons to dinner.
Rosie hastily threw off her coat and hat, then opening a bureau drawer, took from it a jewel case saying with a look of exultation, "I have something to show you, girls, mamma's Christmas gift to me;" and raising the lid she displayed a beautiful pearl necklace and bracelets.
"So she did give them to you!" they exclaimed in surprised chorus, for they had supposed all the presents had been already shown them. "O Rosie, how lovely!"
"I'm ever so glad for you Rosie," said Lulu; "but I'd about made up my mind that Grandma Elsie thought about buying the pearls for you as papa did about the ring I wanted."
"Mamma didn't buy them," explained Rosie; "they are a set grandpa gave her when she was a little girl; and I think they are as handsome as any she could have found any where. She said she valued them very highly as his gift, but would never wear them again, and as I am her own little girl, she was willing to give them to me."
"I think you're pretty big, Rosie," remarked Grace.
"Yes; in my fifteenth year; almost a woman, as grandpa tells me sometimes—when he wants to make me ashamed of not being wiser and better I suppose," returned Rosie with a laugh, closing the casket and returning it to the drawer, just as Betty, the little maid, showed her black face and woolly head at the half open door with the announcement, "Dinnah's ready, Miss Rosie; an' all de folks gwine into de dinnin' room."
"Very well; we're not sorry to hear it, are we girls? Let us pair off and go down at once to secure our fair share," said Rosie gaily. "There's just an even number of us—Maud and Lora, Lulu and Eva, Grace and Rosie Lacey, Sydney and I. We're to have a table to ourselves; I asked mamma if we might, and she gave consent."
"I like that," remarked Sydney with satisfaction; "we can have our own fun and eat what we please without anybody to trouble us with suggestions that perhaps such and such articles of food may not agree with us."
"But we'll be in the same room with the older folks and they can overlook us if they see fit," said Rosie.
"And I'd rather have papa to tell me what to eat," said Grace.
They were hurrying down the stairs as they talked and reached the dining room just in time to take their places before the blessing was asked—by Mr. Dinsmore at the larger table.
It was a grand dinner of many courses, and a good deal of time, enlivened by cheerful chat, was spent at the table.
Quiet games—mirth provoking, yet requiring little exertion of mind or body—filled up the remainder of the afternoon.
After tea they had romping games, but at nine o'clock were called together for family worship; then the younger ones, including Lulu and Grace, went to their beds; very willingly too, for the day—begun so early because of their eagerness to examine their stockings—had been an unusually long and exciting one; so that they felt ready for rest.
Grace indeed was so weary that her father carried her up to her room, and did not leave her till she was snug in bed.
She dropped asleep the instant her head touched the pillow and he stood for a moment gazing a little anxiously at her pale face.
"You don't think Gracie's sick, papa, do you?" asked Lulu softly.
"No, I trust she will be all right in the morning—the darling! but she seems quite worn out now," he sighed.
Then sitting down he drew Lulu into his arms. "Has it been a happy day with you, dear child?" he asked.
"Yes, papa, very; just full of pleasure; and now that night has come, I'm so glad that I have my own dear papa to hug me up close, and that he's going to sleep in the next room to Gracie and me."
"I'm glad too," he said. "Yes, we have a great deal to be thankful for—you and I. Most of all for God's unspeakable gift—the dear Saviour whose birth and life and death have bought all our other blessings for us.
"My child, try to keep in mind always, even when engaged in your sports, that you are his and must so act and speak as to bring no disgrace upon his cause; make it your constant endeavor to honor him in all your words and ways."
"I do mean to, papa; but oh it is so easy to forget!"
"I know it, my darling; I find it so too; but we must watch and pray, asking God earnestly night and morning, on our knees, to keep us from temptation and from sin, and often sending up a swift, silent petition from our hearts at other times when we feel that we need help to overcome.
"I want you, my little daughter, to be particularly on the watch against your besetting sin—an inclination to sudden outbursts of passion. It is not to be expected that everything will move on as smoothly, with so many children and young people together, every day, as they have to-day, and I fear you will be strongly tempted at times to give way to your naturally quick temper."
"Oh I am afraid so too papa; and it would be perfectly dreadful if I should!" she said with a half shudder, twining her arm round his neck and hiding her face on his shoulder. "Oh won't you ask God to help me to keep from it?"
"Yes, I shall, I do every night and morning, and we will ask him together now."
It had been growing colder all the afternoon, and continued to do so very rapidly through the night. The next morning at the breakfast table some of the lads announced, with great glee that the lakelet was frozen over; the ice so thick and solid that it was perfectly safe for skating in every part.
The news caused quite a flurry of pleasurable excitement among the younger ones of the company.
"I move that we spend the morning there," said Zoe.
"How many of us have skates, I wonder?"
"You have I think, have you not?" said Edward.
"Yes; yours and mine are both in good order; I examined them only the other day."
The captain asked how many knew how to use skates, and from the replies it seemed that all the lads had been more or less accustomed to their use, some of the girls also. Zoe had had quite a good deal of practice before her marriage, a little since.
The winters were usually too mild in this part of the country to give much opportunity for that kind of exercise. She was therefore the more eager to avail herself of this one; for she was very fond of the sport.
Edward, Harold, and Herbert were all in the mood to join her in it and were prepared to do so; and Rosie and Max too were equally fortunate; but most of the others had come without skates.
But that difficulty could be easily remedied; their homes were not far off, nor was the village, with its stores where such things could be bought. It was decided to despatch messengers for the needed supplies.
"Papa," said Lulu, "may they get a pair for me? I'd like to learn to skate."
He turned to her with an indulgent smile. "Would you? then you shall; I will send for the skates and give you a lesson in the art myself. I used to be reckoned a good skater in my boyhood. Would my little Grace like to learn too?"
"No, thank you, papa, I'd rather walk on the ground, or ride."
"You shall ride on the ice if you will, little girlie," said Harold. "I think I can find a conveyance that will suit your taste."
"You're kind to think of it, Uncle Harold," she said, with a dubious look, "but I'm afraid the horses would slip and fall on the ice."
"I think not," he said; "but if they should they will only have to pick themselves up again, and go on."
"But I'm afraid they might get hurt and maybe tip me over too."
Harold only smiled at that, as he rose and left the room to attend to the despatching of the messengers.
Grace wondered what he meant, but as the older people all about her were busily talking among themselves, she went on quietly with her breakfast and said no more.
"Are you a skater, my dear?" asked the captain, addressing his wife.
"I used to be a tolerably expert one and moderately fond of the exercise," she replied.
"I should like the pleasure of taking you out this morning, for a trial of your skill," he said. "Shall I send for skates for you?"
"Thank you, no; I think I have a pair somewhere about the house, and perhaps can find another for you."
"There are several pairs of gentlemen's skates," said her mother. "I will have them brought out for the captain to try."
He thanked her, adding that in case a pair should be found to fit, he could have the pleasure of taking his wife out without waiting for the return of the servant despatched to the village.
Upon leaving the breakfast table they all repaired to the parlor for family worship, as was their custom morning and evening. Then those who had skates, and some who wanted the walk and a near view of the skating, Lulu among them, got themselves ready and went to the lakelet, while the others waited for the return of the messengers; most of them meanwhile gathered about the windows overlooking the lakelet, to watch the movements of the skaters—Edward, Zoe, Harold, Herbert, Rosie, Evelyn and Max; presently joined by Capt. Raymond and Violet, a pair of skates having been found to fit each of them.
When all were fairly started the scene became very animated and pretty. The two married couples skated well, but Harold, and especially Herbert, far exceeded them, the swift, easy movement with which they glided over the glassy surface of the lake, the exact balancing of their bodies, and the graceful curves they executed called forth many an admiring and delighted exclamation from the onlookers, both near at hand and farther away at the windows of the mansion.
Among the latter were Grandma Elsie, her father and his wife—Grandma Rose—and Cousin Ronald.
"Bravo!" cried the two old gentlemen simultaneously, as Herbert performed a feat in which he seemed to fairly outdo himself. Mr. Lilburn adding, "I feel the old ardor for the sport stir within me at sight o' the lad's adroit movements. At his age I might have ventured to compete with as expert a skater as he. What say you, Cousin Horace, to a match atween the two auld chaps o' us down there the noo?"
"Agreed," Mr. Dinsmore said with a laugh. "There are skates that will answer our purpose I think, and we will set off at once if you like."
At that moment Lulu came running in. "The skates have come, Grandma Elsie," she said, "just as I have got back to the house. Papa sent me in because it was too cold, he said, for me to be standing still out there. He'll come for me when Mamma Vi is tired and wants to come in."
"Does she seem to be enjoying it?" asked the person addressed.
"Oh yes, ma'am, very much indeed! Aren't you going to try it too?"
"Yes, do, Elsie," said her father. "And you too, Rose," to his wife. "Let us all try the sport while we have an opportunity."
The ladies were nothing loath, everybody seemed to catch the spirit of the hour, the skates were quickly distributed, and all hurried away to the lake, but Lulu and Grace who were to stay within doors, by their father's orders, till he came, or sent for them.
Lulu having taken off her hood and coat, now sat before the fire warming her feet. Grace was watching the skaters from an easy chair by the window.
"It does look like good fun," she said. "Is it very cold out there, Lu?"
"Not so very; the wind doesn't blow; but when you've been standing still a while your feet feel right cold. I hardly thought about it though, I was so taken up with watching the skating, till papa called to me that it was too cold for me to stand there, and I must come in."
"Papa's always taking care of his children," remarked Grace.
"Yes," assented Lulu, "he never seems to forget us at all; I most wish he would sometimes," she added laughing, "just once in a while when I feel like having my own way, you know.
"Wasn't he good to send for these for me?" she went on, holding up her new skates and regarding them with much satisfaction. "They're nice ones, and it'll be nice to have him teach me how to use them. I've heard of people getting hard falls learning how to skate, but I think I'll be pretty safe not to fall with papa to attend to me."
"I should think so," said Grace. "Oh papa and mamma have stopped and I do believe they're taking off their skates! at least papa's taking her's off for her, I think."
"Oh then they're coming in and we'll get our turn!"
"I don't want to try it."
"No, but you can walk down there, and then you're to have a ride on the ice; you know Uncle Harold said so."
"I don't know what he meant; and I don't know whether I want to try it either. Yes, papa and mamma are both coming back."
Violet had soon tired of the sport, and beside feared her baby was wanting her. She went on up to the nursery while the captain entered the parlor where his little girls were waiting for his coming.
"Waiting patiently, my darlings?" he said, with an affectionate smile. "I know it is rather hard sometimes for little folks to wait. But you may bundle up now, and I will take you out to enjoy the sport with the rest. It will be a nice walk for you, Gracie, and when you get there you will have a pleasant time I think."
"My little girl will see when she gets there," he said. "Ah, here is Agnes with your hood and coat. Now, while she puts them on you, I will see if Lulu's skates are quite right."
They proved to be a good fit and in few minutes the captain was on his way to the lakelet with a little girl clinging to each hand.
A pretty boat house stood at the water's edge—on the hither side, under the trees, and now close beside it, on the ice, the children spied a small, light sleigh well supplied with robes of wolf and bear skins.
"There, Gracie, how would you like to ride in that?" asked her father.
"It looks nice, but—how can it go?" she asked dubiously. "I don't see any horses papa."
"No, but you will find that it can move without."
Harold had seen them approaching, and now came gliding very rapidly towards them, on his skates.
"Ah Gracie, are you ready for your ride?" he asked, "Rosie Lacey and one or two of the other little ones are going to share it with you. Captain will you lift her in while I summon them?"
"Here we are, Cousin Harold," called a childish voice, and Rose Lacey came running up almost out of breath with haste and excitement, two other little girl cousins following at her heels; "here we are. Can you take us now?"
"Yes," he said, "I was just about to call you."
In another minute the four were in the sleigh with the robes well tucked around them. Then, Harold, taking hold of the back of the vehicle, gave it a vigorous shove away from the shore, and keeping a tight grip on it, propelled it quite rapidly around the lake.
It required a good deal of exertion, but Herbert and others came to his assistance and the sleigh made the circuit many times, its young occupants laughing, chatting and singing right merrily: the gayest of the gay.
Meanwhile the others enjoyed the skating, perhaps quite as much. The older ladies and the two old gentlemen seemed to have renewed their youth, and kept up the sport a good deal longer than they had intended in the beginning; while the younger ones, and especially the children, were full of mirth and jollity, challenging each other to trials of speed and skill, laughing good-naturedly at little mishaps, and exchanging jests and good humored banter.
And Cousin Ronald added to the fun by causing them to hear again and again sounds as of jingling sleighbells and prancing horses in their rear. So distinct and natural were these sounds that they could not help springing aside out of the track of the supposed steeds, and turning their heads to see how near they were.
Then shouts of laughter would follow from old and young of both sexes, mingled with little shrieks, half of affright and half of amusement from the girls.
While all this was going on, Capt. Raymond was giving Lulu her first lesson in the use of skates, holding her hand in his, guarding her carefully from the danger of falling.
But for that she would have fallen several times, for it seemed almost impossible to keep her balance; however she gained skill and confidence; and at length asked to be allowed to try it for a little unaided.
He permitted her to do so, but kept very near to catch her in case she should slip or stagger.
She succeeded very well and after a time he ceased to watch her constantly, remaining near her, but taking his eyes off her now and then to see what others were doing; noting with fatherly pride in his son, how Max was emulating the older skaters, and returning a joyous look and smile given him by Gracie, as she swept past in the sleigh.
It presently stopped a few paces away, and he made a movement as if to go and lift her out, but at the sound of a thud on the ice behind him, turned quickly again to find Lulu down.
She had thrown out her hands in falling, and he felt a thrill of horror as he perceived that one of them lay directly in the path of a skater, Chester Dinsmore, who was moving with such velocity that he would not be able to check his speed in time to avoid running over her.
But even while he perceived her peril the captain had, with an almost lightning like movement, stooped over his child and dragged her backward. Barely in time; Chester's skate just grazed her fingers, cutting off the tip of her mitten. There were drops of blood on the ice, and for a moment her father thought her fingers were off.
"Oh my child, my darling!" he groaned, holding her close in his arms and taking the bleeding hand tenderly in his.
"I'm not hurt, papa; at least only a very little," she hastened to say, while the others crowded about them with agitated, anxious questioning. "Is Lulu hurt?" "Did Chess run over her!" "Did the fall hurt her?"
"My fingers are bleeding a little, but they don't hurt very much," she answered. "I think his skate went over my mitten, and I suppose my fingers would have been cut off if papa hadn't jerked me back out of the way."
Chester had just joined the group. "I can never be sufficiently thankful for the escape," he said with a slight tremble in his tones, "I could never have forgiven myself if I had maimed that pretty hand; though it was utterly impossible for me to stop myself in time, at the headlong rate of speed with which I was moving."
"Your thankfulness can hardly equal her father's," the captain said with emotion almost too big for utterance, as he gently drew off the mitten, and bound up the wounded fingers with his handkerchief. "That will do till I get you to the house. Shall I carry you, daughter?"
"Oh no, papa, I'm quite able to walk," she answered in a very cheerful tone. "Please don't be so troubled; I'm sure I'm not much hurt."
"Allow me to take off your skates for you," Chester said, kneeling down on the ice at their feet, and beginning to undo the straps as he spoke. "And I will gladly carry you up to the house, too, if you and your father are willing."
"Oh thank you, sir; but I'd really rather walk with papa to help me along."
The accident had sobered the party a good deal, and most of them—including the older people and Lulu's mates—went back to the house with her and her father.
Violet was quite startled and alarmed to see the child brought in with her hand bound up; but when the blood had been washed away the wounds were found to be little more than skin deep; the bleeding soon ceased, and some court-plaster was all that was needed to cover up the cuts.
There were plenty of offers of assistance, but the captain chose to do for her himself all that was required.
"There, my dear child, you have had a very narrow escape," he said when he had finished, drawing her into his arms and caressing her with great tenderness; "what a heartbreaking thing it would have been for us both had this little hand," taking it tenderly in his, "been robbed of its fingers; far worse to me than to have lost my own."
"And you have saved them for me, you dear father," she said, clinging about his neck and laying her cheek to his, her eyes full of tears, a slight tremble in her voice. "But they are yours, because I am," she added, laughing a little hysterically. "Oh I'm every bit yours; from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet."
"Yes, so you are; one of my choice treasures, my darling," he said with emotion; "and my heart is full of thankfulness to God our heavenly Father for enabling me to save you from being so sadly maimed."
"And I do think your Mamma Vi is almost as thankful as either of you," Violet said, coming to his side and softly smoothing Lulu's hair.
They were in the dressing-room, no one else present but Grace and Max.
"I'm pretty thankful myself," observed the latter jocosely, but with a telltale moisture about the eyes; "I shouldn't like to have a sister with a fingerless hand."
"Oh don't, Max! don't talk so!" sobbed Grace, "I just can't bear to think of such dreadful things!"
Her father turned toward her and held out his hand. She sprang to his side and he put his arm about her.
"The danger is happily past, my pet," he said, touching his lips to her cheek; "so dry your eyes and think of something else, something pleasanter."
"You've got enough of skating, I suppose, Lu? you won't want to try it again, will you?" asked Max.
"Yes; if papa will let me. I'd like to go back this afternoon. But I'd want to keep fast hold of him so that I'd be in no danger of falling," she added, looking lovingly into his eyes.
"I'll not let you try it in any other way for some time to come," he said, stroking her hair; "you must become a good deal more proficient in the use of skates before I can again trust you to go alone; especially where there are so many other and more skilful skaters."
"I don't care for that, papa, but will you take me there again this afternoon?"
"We'll see about it when the time comes," he said smiling at her eager tone, and not ill-pleased at this proof of a persevering disposition.
"Oh!" cried Max, glancing toward the window, "it's snowing fast! Dear, dear, it will spoil the skating for all of us!"
"But a good fall of snow will provide other pleasures, my son," remarked the captain in a cheery tone.
"Yes, sir, so it will," returned Max, echoing the tone.
"And beside plenty of indoor amusements have been provided," said Violet. "I think we can all enjoy ourselves vastly, let the weather outside be what it will."
"I am sure of it," said her husband. "Gracie, how did you enjoy your ride?"
"Oh it was just lovely, papa!" answered the little girl, "the sleigh skimmed along so nicely without a bit of jolting; and then too, it was such fun to watch the skaters."
A tap at the door, and Rosie's voice asking, "How is Lulu? Mamma sent me to inquire."
"Come in, Rosie," said the captain. "Mother is very kind, and I am glad to be able to report to her that Lulu is only very slightly hurt; so slightly that doubtless she will be ready to join her mates in any sport that may be going on this afternoon."
Rosie drew near with a look of commiseration on her face, but exclaimed in surprise, "Why, your hand isn't even bound up!"
"No; I have just a patch of court plaster on each of three finger tips," returned Lulu, laughingly displaying them.
"But oh what a narrow escape!" cried Rosie half breathlessly. "It fairly frightens me to think of it!"
"They'd all have been cut off if it hadn't been for papa," Lulu said with a shudder, hiding her face on his shoulder.
"O Lu, I'm so glad they weren't!" said Rosie. "Eva has been crying fit to break her heart because she was sure that at least the tips of your fingers had been taken off; and in fact I couldn't help crying myself," she added, turning away to wipe her eyes.
"How good in you both!" exclaimed Lulu, lifting her head and showing flushed cheeks and shining eyes. "Papa, shan't I go and find Eva and comfort her by letting her see how little I am hurt, after all?"
"Yes, do, my child," he said, releasing her.
The two little girls went from the room together, each with her arm about the other's waist.
"Eva's in my room taking her cry out by herself," said Rosie. "I'd like to go there with you, but I must carry your father's answer to mamma first. Then I'll join you."
The door of Rosie's room stood open; Evelyn sat with her back toward it, and Lulu, entering softly, had an arm round her friend's neck before she was aware of her presence.
"O Lu!" cried Evelyn, with a start, "are you much hurt?"
"No, you poor dear; you've been breaking your heart about almost nothing. I hurt my knees a little in falling, and Chester's skate took a tiny slice out of my middle finger, and scratched the one each side of it, but that's all. See, they don't even need to be wrapped up."
"Oh, I'm so glad!" exclaimed Eva with a sigh of relief, and smiling through tears; then with a shudder and hugging Lulu close, "It would have been too horrible if they'd been cut off! I think skating is dangerous, and I'm not sorry the snow has come to spoil it; for us girls, I mean; the older folks and the boys can take care of themselves, I suppose."
"Oh I like it!" said Lulu. "I wanted papa to let me go back this afternoon and try it again, and I think he would if the snow hadn't come."
"You surprise me!" exclaimed Evelyn. "If I had come so near losing my fingers, I'd never care to skate any more."
"I always did like boys' sports," remarked Lulu, laughing. "Aunt Beulah used to call me a tom-boy, and even Max would sometimes say he believed I was half boy; I was always so glad of a chance to slip off to the woods with him where I could run and jump and climb without any body by to scold me and tell me I'd tear my clothes. I don't have to do those things without leave now, for papa lets me; he say it's good for my health, and that that's of far more importance than my clothes. Oh, we all do have such good times now, at home in our father's house, with him to take care of us!"
"Yes, I'm sure you do, and I'm so glad for you. How happy you all seem! and how brave you are about bearing pain, dear Lu! You are so bright and cheerful, though I'm sure your fingers must ache. Don't they?"
"Yes, some; but I don't mind it very much and they'll soon be well."
Just then they were joined by several of the other little girls, all anxious to see Lulu and learn whether she were really badly hurt.
They crowded round her with eager questions and many expressions of sympathy first, then of delight in finding her so cheerful and suffering so little.
The next thing was to plan indoor amusements for the afternoon and evening, as evidently the storm had put outdoor pleasures out of the question for that day.
The call to dinner interrupted them in the midst of their talk; a not unwelcome summons, for exercise in the bracing winter air had given them keen appetites.
Some of the younger ones, who had particularly enjoyed the skating, felt a good deal disappointed that the storm had come to put a stop to it, and were in consequence quite sober and subdued in their demeanor as they took their seats at the table.
A moment of complete silence followed the asking of the blessing, then, as Edward took up a carving-knife, and stuck the fork into a roast duck in front of him, there was a loud "Quack, quack," that startled everybody for an instant, followed by merry peals of laughter from old and young.
A loud squeal came next from a young pig in a dish placed before Mr. Dinsmore, and the song of the blackbird from a pie Grandma Elsie was beginning to help.
"'Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,'" remarked Mr. Lilburn gravely.
"'When the pie was opened the birds began to sing, Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before a king?'
"Ah ha! um h'm! ah ha! history repeats itself. But, Cousin Elsie, I didna expect to be treated to a meal o' livin' creatures in your house."
"Did you not?" she returned with a smile. "Life is full of surprises."
"And grandpa and Ned go on carving without any apparent thought of the cruelty of cutting into living creatures," laughed Zoe.
"And what a singular circumstance that chickens baked in a pie should sing like blackbirds," remarked Grandma Elsie.
"Very indeed!" said Capt. Raymond. "I move that some one prepare an article on the subject for one of the leading magazines."
"No one better qualified for the task than yourself, sir," said his brother-in-law, Mr. Lester Leland.
"You will surely except our Cousin Ronald," said the captain; "doubtless he knows more about the phenomenon than any other person present."
"O Cousin Ronald," broke in Walter, "as we can't go skating this afternoon, won't you please tell us young ones some of your famous stories?"
"Perhaps, laddie; but there may be some other amusement provided, and in that case the tales will keep. It strikes me I heard some o' the leddies laying plans for the afternoon and evening?" he added, turning inquiringly in Zoe's direction.
"Yes, sir," she said, "we are getting up some tableaux, but are ready to defer them if any one wishes to do something else."
"I think we will not tax Cousin Ronald with story telling to-day," said Grandma Elsie: "he has been making a good deal of exertion in skating, and I know must feel weary."
"Are you, Cousin Ronald?" asked Walter.
"Well, laddie, I can no deny that there have been times when I've felt a bit brighter and more in the mood for spinning out a yarn, as the sailors say."
"And perhaps you'd like to see the tableaux too, sir?"
"Yes, I own that I should."
That settled the question. "We will have the tableaux," Grandma Elsie said, and every body seemed well satisfied with the decision.
Preparations were begun almost immediately on leaving the table, and pretty much all the short winter afternoon occupied with them.
They had their exhibition after tea; a very satisfactory one to those who took part, and to the spectators.
Every child and young person who was desirous to have it so, was brought in to one or more of the pictures. Lulu, to her great delight, appeared in several and did herself credit.
"How are the fingers, dear child? have they been giving you much pain?" the captain asked when he came to her room for the usual good-night talk, sitting down as he spoke, drawing her to a seat upon his knee, and taking the wounded hand tenderly in his.
"Only a twinge once in a while, papa," she said, putting the other arm round his neck and smiling into his eyes. "It's been a very nice day for me in spite of my accident; everybody has been so good and kind. I think they tried to give me a pleasant part in as many of the tableaux as they could to comfort me, and really after all it was only a little bit of a hurt."
"But narrowly escaped being a very serious one. Ah my heart is full of thankfulness to God for you, my darling, and for myself, that the injury was no greater. You might have lost your fingers or your hand; you might even have been killed by falling in such a way as to strike your head very hard upon the ice."
"Did anybody ever get killed in that way, papa?" she asked.
"Yes, I have read or heard of one or two such cases, and had it happened to you I could hardly forgive myself for letting go your hand."
"I'm sure you might feel that it was all my own fault, papa," she said tightening her clasp of his neck and kissing him with ardent affection; "every bit my own fault because I begged you to let me try it alone."
"No, that could not have excused me; because it is a father's duty to take every care of his child, whether she wishes it or not; and it is my settled purpose to do so henceforward," he said, returning her caress with great tenderness.
The storm continued through the night but had ceased before the guests at Ion were astir; the ground was thickly carpeted with snow and clouds still obscured the sun, but there was no wind and the cold was not severe.
"Just the day for a snow fight," remarked Frank Dinsmore, as he and the other lads of the company stood grouped together on the veranda shortly after breakfast; "plenty of snow and in prime condition for making into balls."
"So it is," said Herbert Travilla, "and I believe I'm boy enough yet to enjoy a scrimmage in it."
"I too," said Harold. "Let's build a fort, divide ourselves into two armies, one besiege and the other defend it."
The proposition was received with enthusiasm and the work of erecting the snow fort begun at once.
Some of the girls wanted to help, but were told their part was to look on.
"I can do more than that," said Rosie, and darting into the house, she presently returned with a small flag. "Here, plant this on your ramparts, Harold," she said, "if you are to defend the fort."
"I don't know yet to which party I shall belong—besiegers or besieged—but I'm obliged for the flag and shall plant it as you advise," he said.
The girls amused themselves snowballing each other, occasionally pausing to watch the progress the lads were making, the older people doing the same from the veranda or the windows of the mansion.
The boys were active and soon had their fort—not a large one—constructed, and the flag planted and waving in a slight wind that had sprung up.
Lulu standing on the veranda steps, clapped her hands in delight as it was flung to the breeze and started "That Star Spangled Banner," all the others joining in and singing with a will.
Then the lads divided themselves into two companies, Harold taking command of the defenders of the fort, Chester of the attacking party.
"There are not enough of you fellows," called Sydney; "you'd better let us girls help prepare the ammunition. Women have done such things when men were scarce."
"So they have," replied Chester. "I'll accept such assistance from you while you stand back out of danger."
"Then we girls will have to divide into two companies," said Rosie; "for the boys in the fort must have the same kind of help the others do. I'll go to them."
"No, no," said Harold, "this is going to be too much of a rough and tumble play for girls. I decline with thanks."
"Ungrateful fellow!" she retorted. "I don't mean to be a bit sorry for you if you are defeated."
"I do not intend that you shall have the opportunity," he returned with a good humored laugh.
"O Rosie, I know what we can do!" cried Lulu; "give them some music."
"Good!" said Sydney, "wait a minute, boys till we hunt up a drum and fife. The band will play on the veranda."
She, Rosie, and Lulu hurried into the house as she spoke.
"Yes, I'll lend you mine," shouted Walter, after them. "They're up in the play-room;—two drums, two mouth organs and a fife, and a trumpet."
The boys waited, employing the time in preparing piles of snowballs, and presently the girls came rushing back bringing the musical instruments mentioned by Walter, and a jews-harp and accordeon beside.
These were quickly distributed and the band struck up—not one tune but several; "Hail Columbia," "Yankee Doodle," and "Star Spangled Banner;"—having forgotten in their haste to agree upon a tune.
The music, if music it could be called—was greeted with roars of laughter, and ceased at once.
"Oh this will never do!" cried Maud; "we must settle upon some one of the national airs. Shall it be 'Yankee Doodle'?"
"Yes," they all said, and began again, with less discord but not keeping very good time.
Harold and his party were in the fort, a huge heap of balls beside them.
"Now man your guns, my lads, and be ready to give a vigorous repulse to the approaching foe," he said.
Chester had drawn up his men in line of battle. Max was among them.
"Wait!" he cried, "I'm going into the fort."
"What! going to desert in the face of the enemy?" queried Chester.
"Yes; I can't fight against that flag," pointing to it with uplifted hand. "Fire on the stars and stripes? Never! 'The flag of our Union forever!'"
"Oh is that all? Well, we're not going to fight against it, my boy; it's ours, and we're going to take it from them and carry it in triumph at the head of our column."
"No, sir; its ours," retorted Harold, "and we stand ready to defend it to the last gasp. Come on; take it if you can! We dare you to do it?"
"Up then and at 'em, boys!" shouted Chester. "Go double quick and charge right over the breast works!"
The command was instantly obeyed, the works were vigorously assaulted, and as vigorously defended, snowballs flying thick and fast in both directions.
Max leaped over the breast works and seized the flag. Harold tore it from his hands, threw him over into the snow on the outside, and replanted the flag on the top of the breast work.
Max picked himself up, ran round to the other side of the fort, and finding Harold and the other large boys among the defenders, each engaged in a hand to hand scuffle with a besieger, so that only little Walter was left to oppose him, again leaped over the barrier, seized the flag, leaped back and sped away toward the house waving it in triumph and shouting, "Hurrah! victory is ours!"
"Not so fast young man!" shouted back Herbert, bounding over the breast works and giving chase, all the rest following, some to aid him in recovering the lost standard, the others to help Max to keep out of his reach.
Herbert was agile and fleet of foot, but so was Max. Back and forth, up and down he ran, now dodging his pursuers behind trees and shrubs, now taking a flying leap over some low obstacle, and speeding on, waving the flag above his head and shouting back derisively at those who were trying to catch him.
It was a long and exciting race, but at last he was caught; Herbert overtook him, seized him with one hand, the flag with the other.
Max wrenched himself free, but Herbert's superior strength compelled him to yield the flag after a desperate struggle to retain his hold upon it.
Then with a wild hue and cry Chester's party chased Herbert till after doubling and turning several times, he at length regained the fort and restored the flag to its place.
The next instant Harold and the rest of his command regained and reoccupied the fort, the attacking party following close at their heels, and the battle with the snowballs recommenced with redoubled fury.
All this was witnessed with intense interest by the spectators at the windows and on the veranda; at the beginning of the chase the band forgot to play and dropping their instruments employed themselves in encouraging pursuers or pursued with clapping of hands and shouts of exultation over their exploits.
The contest was kept up for a long time, the flag taken and retaken again and again till the fort was quite demolished by the repeated assaults, and the snow well trodden down all about the spot where it had stood.
The lads, too, found themselves ready to enjoy rest within doors after their continued violent exertion.
Some quiet games filled up the remainder of the morning and the afternoon. In the evening they were ready for another romp in which the girls might have a share; so Stage Coach, Blind-man's Buff, and similar games were in vogue.
They had been very merry and entirely harmonious, but at length a slight dispute arose, and Capt. Raymond, sitting in an adjoining room conversing with the older guests and members of the family, yet not inattentive to what was going on among the young folks—heard Lulu's voice raised to a higher than its ordinary key.
He rose, stepped to the communicating door, and called in a low tone, grave but kindly, "Lulu!"
"Sir," she answered, turning her face in his direction.
"Come here, daughter," he said; "I want you."
She obeyed promptly, though evidently a trifle unwillingly.
He took her hand and led her out into the hall, and on into a small reception room, bright and cheery with light and fire, but quite deserted.
"What do you want me for, papa?" she asked. "Please don't keep me long; because we were just going to begin a new game."
He took possession of an easy chair, and drawing her into his arms, and touching his lips to her cheek, "Can you not spare a few minutes to your father when your mates have had you all day?" he asked.
"Why, yes, indeed, you dear papa!" she exclaimed with a sudden change of tone, putting her arms about his neck and looking up into his face with eyes full of ardent filial affection. "How nice in you to love me well enough to want to leave the company in the parlors to give a little time to petting me!"
"I love you full well enough for that, my darling," he said, repeating his caresses, "but my call to you was because a tone in my little girl's voice told me she needed her father just at that moment."
She looked up inquiringly, then with sudden comprehension, "Oh! you thought I was in danger of getting into a passion, and I'm afraid I was. Papa, you are my good guardian angel, always on the watch to help me in my hard fight with my dreadful temper. Thank you very, very much!"
"You are entirely welcome, daughter," he said, softly smoothing her hair; "it could hardly be a sadder thing to you than to me, should that enemy of yours succeed in overcoming you again. Try, dear child, to be constantly on the watch against it.
"'Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation,' Jesus said. The moment that you feel the rising of anger in your breast lift up your heart to him for strength to resist."
"I do intend to always, papa," she sighed, tightening her clasp of his neck and laying her cheek to his, "but oh it is so, so easy to forget!"
"I know it, dear child, but I can only encourage you to continue the fight with your evil nature, looking ever unto Jesus for help. Press forward in the heavenly way, and if you fall, get up again and go on with redoubled energy and determination; and you will win the victory at last; for 'in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.'
"Now, if you feel that you are safe in doing so, you may go back to your mates."
There was a very sweet expression on Lulu's face as she rejoined her mates, and her manner was gentle and subdued.
"So you've come back," remarked Sydney. "What did your papa want with you?"
"O Syd," exclaimed Rosie, "that's private, you know!"
"Oh to be sure! I beg pardon, Lu," said Sydney.
"You are quite excusable," returned Lulu pleasantly. "Papa had something to say to me, that was all," and she glanced up at him with such a loving look, as at that instant he entered the room, that no one could suspect the talk between them had been other than most pleasant.
"Well, you have come back just in time; we are going to play the game of Authors," said Herbert, beginning to distribute the cards.
The words had hardly left his lips when a sharp tap at the window made them all jump. Then a woman's voice spoke in piteous accents.
"Oh let me in, good people! my baby and I are starving to death, and freezing in this bitter winter wind."
"Oh who is it? who is it?" cried several of the girls, sending frightened glances in the direction from which the voice had come.
"I'll soon see," said Harold, hurrying toward the window.
But a gruff voice spoke from the hall. "Don't mind her, sir; she's a gypsy liar and thief; she stole the baby from its mother."
Harold paused, stood uncertainly in the middle of the floor for an instant, then turning quickly, retraced his steps, went to the hall door and glanced this way and that.
"There is no one here," he said, then burst into a laugh as, turning round once more, he perceived Mr. Lilburn quietly seated near the open door into the adjoining parlor where the older people were. "Cousin Ronald, may I ask what you know of that gypsy and the stolen child?"
"What do I ken about her, laddie?" queried the old gentleman in his turn. "Wad ye insinuate that I associate wi' sic trash as that?"
"Oh she's quite a harmless creature, I've no doubt," laughed Harold.
"O Uncle Harold, please let her in," pleaded Grace, with tears in her sweet blue eyes.
"Why, my dear little Gracie, there's nobody there," he answered.
"But how can we be sure if we don't look, Uncle Harold? Her voice did sound so very real."
"What is the matter, Gracie dear?" asked a sweet voice, as a beautiful lady came swiftly from the adjoining parlor and laid her soft white hand on the little girl's head.
"O Grandma Elsie, we heard a woman begging to come in out of the cold, and—oh there don't you hear her?"
"Oh let me in, dear good ladies and gentlemen! I'm freezing, freezing and starving to death!" wailed the voice again.
By this time all the occupants of the other parlor were crowding into this.
"Captain," said Grandma Elsie, "will you please step to the window and open it?"
"Mother, Cousin Ronald is responsible for it all," laughed Harold.
"We may as well let Gracie see for herself," Mrs. Travilla replied in a kindly indulgent tone.
Harold at once stepped to the window, drew back the curtains, raised the sash and threw open the shutters, giving a full view of all the grounds on that side of the house;—for the clouds had cleared away and the moon was shining down on snowladen trees and shrubs and paths and parterres carpeted with the same; but no living creature was to be seen.
Grace holding fast to her father's hand, ventured close to the window and sent searching glances from side to side, then with a sigh of relief, said, "Yes, I do believe it was only Cousin Ronald; and I'm ever so glad the woman and her baby are not freezing."
At that everybody laughed, and timid, sensitive little Grace hid her blushing face on her father's shoulder, as he sat down and drew her to his side.
"Never mind, darling," he said soothingly, passing an arm affectionately about her and softly smoothing her curls with his other hand, "it is good natured amusement; we all know what you meant and love you all the better for your tenderness of heart toward the poor and suffering."
"Yes, dear child, your papa is quite right, and I fear we were not very polite or kind to laugh at your innocent speech," said Grandma Elsie.
At that instant the tap on the window was repeated, then the voice spoke again, but in cheerful tones. "Dinna fret ye, bit bonny lassie, I was but crackin' me jokes. I'm neither cauld nor hungry, and my bairns grew to be men and women lang syne."
"There now! I know it's Cousin Ronald," laughed Rosie, "and indeed I should hope he was neither cold nor hungry here in our house."
"If he is," said Grandma Elsie, giving the old gentleman a pleasant smile, "we will set him in the warmest corner of the ingleside and order refreshments."
"I vote that those suggestions be carried out immediately," said Edward. "Harold, if you will conduct our kinsman to the aforesaid seat, I will, with mamma's permission, ring for the refreshments."
Both Harold and Herbert stepped promptly forward, each offering an arm to the old gentleman.
"Thanks, laddies," he said, "but I'm no' so infirm that I canna cross the room wi'out the help o' your strong young arms, and being particularly comfortable in the chair I now occupy, I shall bide here, by your leave."
"Then, if you feel so strong would it tire you to tell us a story, Cousin Ronald?" asked Walter, insinuatingly. "We'd like one ever so much while we're waiting for the refreshments."
"The refreshments are ready and waiting in the dining room, and you are all invited to walk out there and partake of them," said Grandma Elsie, as the servants drew back the sliding doors, showing a table glittering with china, cut-glass and silver, loaded with fruits, nuts, cakes, confectionery and ices, and adorned with a profusion of flowers from the conservatories and hothouses.
"Don't you wish you were grown up enough to call for whatever you might fancy from that table?" whispered Rosie to Lulu as they followed their elders to its vicinity.
"Yes—no; I'm very willing to take whatever papa chooses to give me," returned Lulu. "You see," she added laughing at Rosie's look of mingled surprise and incredulity, "there have been several times he has let me have my own way and I didn't find it at all nice; so now I've really grown willing to be directed and controlled by him."
"That's a very good thing."
"Yes; especially as I'd have to do it anyhow. Papa, may I have something?" she asked as at that moment he drew near.
"Are you hungry?" he queried in turn.
"Then you may have some ice-cream, a little fruit, and a small piece of sponge cake."
"Not any nuts or candies?"
"Not to-night, daughter; sometime to-morrow you may."
"Thank you, sir; that will do nicely," she responded in a cheerful, pleasant tone and with a loving look and smile up into his face.
She felt amply rewarded by the approving, affectionate look he gave her in return.
"I shall help you presently when I have waited upon Evelyn and Rosie," he said. "What will you have, my dears?"
When the refreshments had been disposed of, it was time for the usual short evening service, then for the younger ones to go to their beds.
Capt. Raymond stepped out upon the veranda and paced it to and fro. Presently Max joined him. "I came to say good night, papa," he said.
"Ah good night, my son," returned the captain, pausing in his walk, taking the hand Max held out to him and clasping it affectionately in his. "You had a fine, exciting game this morning out there on the lawn. I was glad to hear my boy avow his attachment to the glorious old flag his father has sailed under for so many years. I trust he will always be ready to do so when such an avowal is called for, as long as he lives."
"Yes, indeed, sir! It's the most beautiful flag that waves, isn't it?"
"None to compare to it in my esteem," his father answered with a pleased laugh.
Before morning the weather had moderated very much, a thaw had set in, and the snow was going rapidly.
"Well, what sports shall we contrive for to-day?" asked Herbert, at the breakfast table. "Certainly both skating and snow fights are entirely out of the question."
"Entirely!" echoed Harold; "all other outdoor sports also; for a drizzling rain is beginning to fall, and the melting snow has covered roads and paths with several inches of water."
"We have some games for the house which you have not tried yet," said their mother; "'Table croquet,' 'Parlor Quoits,' 'Parlor Ring Toss,' Jack-straws and others."
"And I have a new game that papa gave me this Christmas—'The Flags of all Nations,'" remarked Lulu. "I brought it with me."
"We will be glad to see it," said Harold.
"It is probably improving as well as entertaining," remarked Zoe. "I should judge so from the name."
"I think you will find it both," said the captain.
"So you would 'Corn and Beans,' too, Aunt Zoe," said Max. "Papa gave it to me, and we tried it Christmas eve at home, and found it very funny."
The morning and most of the afternoon were occupied with these games, which seemed to afford much enjoyment to the children and young people.
It was the winding up of their Christmas festivities at Ion, and all were in the mood for making it as gay and mirthful as possible. Some—the Raymonds among others—would leave shortly after tea, the rest by or before bedtime.
They finished the sports of the afternoon with two charades. The older people were the spectators, the younger ones the actors.
Mendicant was the word chosen for the first.
A number of the boys and girls came trooping into the parlor, each carrying an old garment, thimble on finger, and needle and thread in hand. Seating themselves they fell to work.
Zoe was patching an old coat, Lulu an apron, Gracie a doll's dress; Eva and Rosie each had a worn stocking drawn over her hand, and was busily engaged in darning it; the other girls were mending gloves, the boys old shoes; and as they worked they talked among themselves.
"Zoe," said Maud, "I should mend that coat differently."
"How would you mend it?" asked Zoe.
"With a patch much larger than that you are sewing on it."
"I shouldn't mend it that way," remarked Sydney. "I'd darn it."
"Thank you both for your very kind and disinterested advice," sniffed Zoe. "But I learned how to mend before I ever saw you. And I should mend those gloves in a better way than you are taking."
"If you know so well how to mend, Madam Zoe, will you please give me some instruction about mending this shoe?" said Herbert. "Cobbling is not in my line."
"Neither is it in mine, Sir Herbert," she returned, drawing herself up with a lofty air.
"Such silly pride! They should mend their ways if not their garments," remarked Maud, in a scornful aside.
"One should think it beneath her to mend even a worn stocking," said Rosie.
"No," responded Eva, "and she should mend it well."
"Your first syllable is not hard to guess, children," said Mrs. Dinsmore; "evidently it is mend."
With that the actors withdrew, and presently Chester Dinsmore returned alone, marching in and around the room with head erect and pompous air. His clothes were of fine material and fashionable cut, he wore handsome jewelry, sported a gold headed cane, and strutted to and fro, gazing about him with an air of lofty disdain as of one who felt himself superior to all upon whom his glances fell.
Harold presently followed him into the room. He was dressed as a country swain, came in with modest, diffident air, and for a while stood watching Chester curiously from the opposite side of the apartment, then crossing over, he stood before him, hat in hand, and bowing low.
"Sir," he said respectfully, "will you be so kind as to tell me if you are anybody in particular? I'm from the country, and shouldn't like to meet any great man and not know it."
"I, sir?" cried Chester, drawing himself up to his full height, and swelling with importance. "I? I am the greatest man in America; the greatest man of the age; I am Mr. Smith, sir, the inventor of the most delicious ices and confectionery ever eaten."
"Thank you, sir," returned Harold, with another low bow. "I shall always be proud and happy to have met so great a man."
Laughter, clapping of hands, and cries of "I! I!" among the spectators, as the two withdrew by way of the hall.
Soon the young actors flocked in again. A book lay on a table, quite near the edge. With a sudden jerk Herbert threw it on the floor.
Rosie picked it up and replaced it, saying: "Can't you let things alone?"
"Rosie, why can't you let the poor boy alone?" whined her cousin, Lora Howard. "No one has ever known me to be guilty of such an exhibition of temper; it's positively wicked."
"Oh, you're very good, Lora," sniffed Zoe. "I can't pretend to be half so perfect."
"Certainly I can't," said Eva.
"I can't," echoed Lulu, Max, and several others.
"Come now, children, can't you be quiet a bit?" asked Harold. "I can't auction off these goods unless you are attending and ready with your bids."
Setting down a basket he had brought in with him, he took an article from it and held it high in air.
"We have here an elegant lace veil worth perhaps a hundred dollars; it is to be sold now to the highest bidder. Somebody give us a bid for this beautiful piece of costly lace, likely to go for a tithe of its real value."
"One dollar," said Rosie.
"One dollar, indeed! We could never afford to let it go at so low a figure; we can't sell this elegant and desirable article of ladies' attire so ridiculously low."
"Ten dollars," said Maud.
"Ten dollars, ten dollars! This elegant and costly piece of lace going at ten dollars!" cried the auctioneer, holding it higher still and waving it to and fro. "Who bids higher? It is worth ten times that paltry sum; would be dirt cheap at twenty. Somebody bid twenty; don't let such a chance escape you; you can't expect to have another such. Who bids? Who bids?"
"Fifteen," bid Zoe.
"Fifteen, fifteen! this lace veil, worth every cent of a hundred dollars, going at fifteen? Who bids higher? Now's your chance; you can't have it much longer. Going, going at fifteen dollars—this elegant veil, worth a cool hundred. Who bids higher? Going, going at fifteen dollars, not a quarter of its value. Will nobody bid higher? Going, going, gone!"
"Can't," exclaimed several of the audience, as the veil was handed to Zoe, and the whole company of players retired.
They shortly returned, all dressed in shabby clothing, some with wallets on their backs, some with old baskets on their arms, an unmistakable troop of beggars, passing round among the spectators with whining petitions for cold victuals and pennies.
A low growl instantly followed by a loud, fierce bark, startled players and spectators alike, and called forth a slight scream from some of the little ones.
"That auld dog o' mine always barks at sic a troop o' mendicants," remarked Cousin Ronald quietly. "I ken mendicant's the word, lads and lasses, and ye hae acted it out wi' commendable ingenuity and success."
"You couldn't have made a better guess if you had belonged to the universal Yankee nation, cousin," laughed Herbert.
They retired again and in a few minutes Eva and Lulu came in dressed in travelling attire, each with a satchel in her hand.
"This must be the place, I think," said Eva, glancing from side to side, "but there seems to be no one in."
"They may be in directly," said Lulu, "let us sit down and rest in these comfortable looking chairs, while we wait."
They seated themselves, and as they did so, Zoe and Maud walked in.
They too were dressed as travelers, and carried satchels. The four shook hands, Zoe remarking, "So you got in here before us! How did you come?"
"In the stage," answered Lulu.
"Ah! one travels so slowly in that! We came in the cars," said Maud.
"Yes," said Zoe; "in the train that just passed."
"Let us go back in the cars, Lu," said Eva.
"Yes; in the same train they take. Oh! who is this coming? He acts like a crazy man!" as Frank Dinsmore entered, gesticulating wildly, rolling his eyes and acting altogether very much like a madman.
Chester was following close at his heels.
"Don't be alarmed, ladies," he said, "he shall not harm you. I'll take care of that; I have my eye on him all the time; never let him out of my sight. I am his keeper."
"But he's dangerous, isn't he?" they asked, shrinking from Frank's approach, as if in great fear.
"Not while I am close at hand," said Chester. "I'll see that he disturbs no one."
"I think it would be well for us to go now, girls," said Zoe. "Let us ask the driver of that stage to take us in; then we'll be safe from this lunatic."
They hurried out and in another minute Chester and Frank followed.
Then Edward came in, walked up to the fire and stood leaning against the mantelpiece in seemingly thoughtful mood; but as the lady travelers again appeared at the door, he started and went forward to receive them.
"Walk in, ladies," he said; "walk into the parlor. Pray be seated," handing them chairs. "Now what can I do for you?"
"You are the innkeeper?" asked Zoe.
"At your service, madam. Do you wish a room? or rooms?"
"Yes; we will have two; and let them be adjoining, if possible."
"Certainly, madam; we can accommodate you in that and will be happy to do so."
Then turning to the spectators, "Can you tell us our word, ladies and gentlemen?" he asked.
"Innkeeper," was the prompt response from several voices.
"Quite correct," he said. Then with a sweeping bow, "This closes our entertainment for the evening, and with many thanks for their kind attention we bid our audience a grateful adieu."
Half an hour later tea was served, and upon the conclusion of the meal the guests began to take their departure.
The family separated for the night earlier than usual, but Harold and Herbert followed their mother to her dressing-room, asking if she felt too weary for a little chat with them.
"Not at all," she said with her own sweet smile. "I know of nothing that would afford me greater satisfaction than one of the oldtime motherly talks with my dear college boys; so come in, my dears, and let us have it."
Harold drew forward an easy chair for her, but she declined it. "No, I will sit on the sofa, so that I can have you close to me, one on each side," she said.
"That will suit your boys, exactly, mamma, if you will be quite as comfortable," said Herbert, placing a hassock for her feet, as she seated herself.
"Quite," she returned, giving a hand to each as they placed themselves beside her. "Now remember that your mother will be glad of your confidence in everything that concerns you, great or small; nothing that interests you or affects your happiness in the very least, can fail to have an interest for her."
"We know it, dearest mamma," said Harold, "and are most happy in the assurance that such is the fact."
"Yes," assented Herbert, lifting her hand to his lips, "and it is that which makes a private chat with our mother so great a delight; that and our mutual love. Mamma, dear, I can not believe I shall ever meet another woman who will seem to me at all comparable to my dearly loved and honored mother."
"Such words from the lips of my son are very sweet to my ear," she responded, a tender light shining in her eyes, "and yet for your own sake I hope you are mistaken; I would have all my children know the happiness to be found in married life where mutual admiration, esteem and love are so great that the two are as one."
"Such a marriage as yours, mamma?"
"Yes; there could not be a happier. But I am looking far ahead for my college boys," she added with a smile; "at least I trust so; for you are over young yet to be looking for life partners."
"I don't think either of us has begun on that thus far, mamma," said Harold. "At present we are more solicitous to decide the important question, what shall our principal life work be? and in that we desire the help of our mother's counsel, and to follow her wishes."
"It is a question of very great importance," she said, "for your success and usefulness in life will depend very largely upon your finding the work your heavenly Father intends you to do, and for which you are best fitted by the talents He has given you.
"But I thought you had both decided upon the medical profession; and I was well content with your choice, for it is a most noble and useful calling."
"So we thought mamma, but recently our hearts have been so moved at thought of the millions perishing for lack of a saving knowledge of Christ, that it has become a momentous question with each of us whether he is called to preach the gospel, especially in the mission-field, at home or abroad."
Her eyes shone through glad tears. "My dear boy," she said with emotion, "to have sons in the ministry I should esteem the greatest honor that could be put upon me; for there can be no higher calling than that of an ambassador for Christ, no grander work than that of winning souls."
"So we both think," said Herbert, "and, mamma, you are willing we should go and labor wherever we may be called in the providence of God?"
"Yes, oh yes! you are more His than mine; I dedicated you to his service even before you were born, and many times afterward. I would not dare stand in your way, nor would I wish to; for dearly as I love you both, sweet as your presence is to me, I am more than willing to deny myself the joy of having you near me for the sake of the Master's cause, and that you may win the reward of those to whom He will say at the last, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of the Lord.' Are you particularly drawn to the foreign field?"
"No, mamma," answered Harold, "the cause is one—'the field is the world'—but while we are deeply interested in foreign missions and desirous to do all we can to help there, we feel that their prosperity depends upon the success of the work at home, and that the cause of home missions is the cause of our country also; for that cause we would labor and give as both patriots and Christians.