They had a rollicking time at breakfast, for Guardy Lud was delighted with the crisp brown sausages, fried potatoes, and buckwheats with real maple-syrup; and he laughed, and ate, and told stories with the children, and kept the old dining-room walls ringing with joy as they had not resounded within the memory of Julia Cloud. Then suddenly the door opened, and there stood Ellen Robinson, disapproval and hauteur written in every line of her unpleasant face! One could hardly imagine how those two, Julia and Ellen, could possibly be sisters.
Dismay filled Julia Cloud's heart for an instant, and brought a pallor to her cheek. How had she forgotten Ellen? What a fool she had been to tell Ellen to come early in the morning! But she had not realized that Mr. Luddington would be willing to come out to her humble home and stay all night. She had supposed that the arrangements would be made in the city. However, it could not be helped now; and a glance at the kind, strong face of the white-haired man gave her courage. Ellen could not really spoil their plans with him there. He felt that the arrangement was good, and with him to back her she felt she could stand out against any arguments her sister might bring forth.
So she rose with a natural ease, and introduced her. "My sister Mrs. Robinson, Mr. Luddington"; and Ellen stiffly and still disapprovingly acknowledged the introduction.
"I won't interrupt," she said disagreeably. "I'm just going up to look over some of my mother's things." And she turned to the back stairway, and went up, closing the door behind her.
Mr. Luddington gazed after her a second; and then, taking his glasses off and wiping them energetically, he remarked:
"Well, well, bless my soul! It must be getting late! We've had such a good time I didn't realize. Those certainly were good buckwheats, Miss Cloud. I shan't forget them very soon. And now I suppose we'd better get down to business. Could we just go into the other room there, and close the door for a few minutes, not to be interrupted?" and he cast an anxious glance toward the stair-door again.
Julia Cloud smiled understandingly, and ushered them into the little parlor ablaze with fall sunshine, its windows wreathed about with crimsoning woodbine; and, as she caught the glow and glint from the window, she remembered the gray evening when she had looked out across into her future as she supposed it would be. How beautiful and wonderful that the gray had changed to glow! As she sat down to enter into the contract that was to bind her to a new and wonderful life with great responsibilities and large possibilities, her heart, accustomed to look upward, sent a whisper of thanksgiving heavenward.
The details did not take long, after all; for Mr. Luddington was a keen business man, and he had gone over the whole proposition, and had the plan in writing for her to sign, telling just what were her duties and responsibilities with regard to his wards, just how much money she would have for housekeeping and servants and other expenses, and the salary she would receive herself for accepting this care.
"You're practically in a position of mother to them, you know," he said, beaming at her genially; "and I declare I never laid eyes on a woman that I thought could fill the part better!"
Julia Cloud was quite overwhelmed. But the matter of the salary troubled her.
"I think it should not be a matter of money," she demurred. "I would rather do it for love, you know."
"Love's all right!" said the old man, smiling; "but this thing has got to be on a business basis, or the terms of the will will not allow me to agree to it. You see what you are going to undertake means work, and it means sticking to it; and you deserve pay for it, and we're not going to accept several of the best years out of your life for nothing. Besides, you've got to feel free to give up the job if it proves too burdensome for you."
"And you to dismiss me if I do not prove capable for the position," suggested Julia Cloud, lifting meek and honest eyes to meet his gaze.
"Well, well, well, I can see there won't be any need of that!" sputtered the old gentleman pleasantly. "But, however that is, this is the contract I've made out. And I'm quite satisfied. So are the children. Are you willing to sign it? Of course there's a clause in there about reasonable notice if there is dissatisfaction on either side; that lets you out at any time you get tired of it. Only give me a chance to look after these youngsters properly."
Julia Cloud took the pen eagerly, tremblingly, a sense of wonder in her pounding heart, and signed her name just as Ellen's heavy footsteps could be heard pounding down the back stairs. Leslie seized Julia, and gave her a great hug as the last letter was finished, and then threw open the parlor door in the nick of time to save her Aunt Ellen from seeming to be deserted.
Ellen Robinson appeared on the scene just in time to witness the hearty hand-shake that Guardy Lud gave Julia Cloud as he picked up the papers and went up-stairs for his suitcase while Allison went after the car to take him to the train.
"Is that man married? Because, if he isn't, I don't think it's respectable for you to go and live near him!" declared Ellen in a penetrating voice to the intense distress of Julia Cloud, who was happily hurrying the dishes from the breakfast table.
But Leslie came to the rescue.
"Oh, indeed, Aunt Ellen, he's very much married! Altogether too much married for comfort. He would be a dear if it wasn't for his silly little old bossy wife! But he doesn't intend to live anywhere near us. His home is off in California, and he's going back next week. He's only waiting to see us settled somewhere before he goes back; so you needn't worry about Aunt Jewel's morals. We'll take good care of her. But isn't he a dear? He was my Grandfather Leslie's best friend."
Leslie chattered on gayly till the visitor's footsteps could be heard coming down-stairs again, and Ellen Robinson could only shut her lips tight and go into the kitchen, from which her sister beat immediately a hasty retreat lest more unpleasant remarks should be forthcoming.
Julia Cloud bade Mr. Luddington good-by, standing on her own front steps, and then waited a moment, looking off toward the hills which had shut in her vision all her life. The two young people had rushed down to the car, and were pulling their guardian joyously inside. They seemed to do everything joyously, like two young creatures let out of prison into the sunshine. Julia Cloud smiled at the thought of them, but her soul was not watching them just then. She was looking off to the hills that had been her strength all the years through so many trials, and gathering strength now to go in and meet her sister in final combat. She knew that there would be a scene; that was inevitable. That she might maintain her calmness and say nothing unkind or regrettable she was praying earnestly now as her eyes sought the hills.
Across the road behind her parlor curtains Mrs. Perkins was keeping lookout, and remarking to a neighbor who had run in:
"Yes, I thought as much. There's always a man in the case when a woman acts queer! Now, doesn't that beat all? Do you suppose he's a long-lost lover or something, come back now he knows she's free? Seems to me I did hear there was somebody died or something before we came here to live, but she must have been awful young."
The car moved noisily away, and the old gentleman leaned out with a courteous lift of his hat toward Julia Cloud. She acknowledged it with a bow and a smile which Mrs. Perkins pounced on and analyzed audibly.
"Well, there's no fool like an old fool, as the saying is! Just watch her smirk! I'm mighty glad Ellen Robinson's there to relieve me of the responsibility. She'll be over after a while, and then we'll know who he is. There goes Julia in. She watched him out o' sight! Well, I wonder what her mother would think."
Julia Cloud went slowly back to the dining-room, where Ellen was seated on the couch, waiting like a visitor. Julia's smile was utterly lost on her glum countenance, which resembled an embattled tower under siege.
"Well!" she said as Julia began to gather up more dishes from the breakfast table. "I suppose you think you've done something smart now, don't you, getting that old snob here and fixing things all up without consulting any of your relatives?"
"Really, Ellen, this has all been so sudden that I had no opportunity," said Julia gently. "But it did not seem likely that you would object, for you suggested yourself that I rent the house, and you said you did not want me to stay here alone. This seemed quite providential."
"Providential!" sniffed Ellen. "Providential to take you away from your own home and your own people, and send you out into a world where nobody really cares for you, and where all they want of you is to make a drudge of you! You call that providential, do you? Well, I don't! And when I object, and try to save you from yourself, and offer you a good home where you will be cared for all the rest of your days, right among your own, where mother would have wanted to see you, you will probably get high-headed, and say I am interfering with your rights. But I can't help it. I've got to speak. I can't see you put the halter around your neck to hang yourself without doing everything I can to stop it. My own sister!"
"Why, Ellen, dear!" said Julia Cloud eagerly, sitting down beside her sister. "You don't understand. It isn't in the least that way. I'm sorry I had to spring it on you so suddenly and give you such a wrong impression. You know I couldn't think of coming to live on you and Herbert. It was kind of you to suggest it, and I am grateful and all that; but I know how it would be to have some one else, even a sister, come into the home, and I couldn't think of it. I have always resolved that I would never be dependent on my relatives while I had my health."
Ellen sat up bristling.
"And yet you are willing to go away to some strange place where nobody knows you, and slave for a couple of little snobs!"
"O Ellen!" said Julia pleadingly. "You don't understand. I am not going to slave. I'm just going to be a sort of mother to them. And you oughtn't to call them snobs. They are your own brother's children."
"Own brother's children, nothing!" sneered Ellen. "He's been away so many years he was just like a stranger when he came back the last time, and as for the children they are just like his stuck-up wife and her family. Yet you'll leave the children that were born and raised close beside you, and go and slave for them. Mother! fiddlesticks! You'll slave all right. I know you. In six weeks you'll be a drudge for them the way you've been all your life! I know how it is, and you may not believe it; but I have feelings for my sister, and I don't like to see her put upon."
Ellen fumbled for her handkerchief, and managed a comely tear or two that quite touched Julia's heart. Affection between them even when Ellen was a child had been quite one-sided; for Ellen had always been a selfish, spoiled little thing, and Julia had looked in vain for any signs of tenderness. Now her heart warmed toward her younger sister in this long-delayed thoughtfulness, and her tone grew gentler.
"That's dear of you, Ellen, and I appreciate it; but I haven't been able to make you understand yet, I see. I'm not to be a worker, nor even a housekeeper. I'm to be just a sort of mother, or aunt, if you please, to see that the house runs all right, to be with the children and have a happy time with them and their young friends, and to see that they are cared for in every way necessary; just a housemother, you understand. I am to have servants to do the work, although I'm sure one servant will be all that I shall want in a little household like that. But Mr. Luddington quite insisted there should be servants, and that no work of any sort should fall upon me. He said that as their nearest relative I was to be in the position of mother and guardian to them, and to preside over their home."
"That's ridiculous!" put in Ellen. "Why don't they go to college and board like any other reasonable young folks if they must go to college at all? I think it's all nonsense for 'em to go. What do they do it for? They've got money, and don't have to teach or anything. What do they need of learning? They've got enough now to get along. That girl thinks she's too smart to live. I call her impudent, for my part!"
"They want a home," said Julia, waiving the subject of higher education; "and they have chosen me, and I mean to do my best."
There was a quiet finality in her tone that impressed her sister. She looked at her angrily.
"Well, if you will, you will, I suppose. Nobody can stop you. But I see just what will come of it. You'll fool away a little while there, and find out how mistaken you were; and then you'll come back to Herbert to be taken care of. And you don't realize how offended Herbert is going to be by your actions, and how he'll feel about letting you come back after you have gone away in such high feather. You haven't anything to speak of to support yourself, of course, and how on earth do you expect to live anyway after these children get through their college and get married or something? They won't want you then."
Julia arose and went to the window to get calmed. She was more angry than she had been for years. The thought of Herbert's having to take care of her ever was intolerable. But she was able to hold her tongue until she could get her eyes on those hills out of the window. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." That had been the verse which she had read from her little Bible before leaving her room in the early morning and she was grappling it close to her heart, for she had known it would be a hard day.
Ellen was watching her silently. Almost she thought she had made an impression. Perhaps this was the time to repeat Herbert's threat.
"Herbert feels," she began, "that if you refuse his offer now he can't promise to keep it open. He can't be responsible for you if you take this step. He said he wanted you to understand thoroughly."
Julia Cloud turned and walked with swift step to the little parlor where lay the paper she and Mr. Luddington had just signed, and a copy of which he had taken with him. She returned to her astonished sister with the paper in her hand.
"Perhaps it would be just as well for you to read this," she said with dignity, and put the paper into Ellen's hands, going back to her clearing of the table.
There was silence in the dining-room while Ellen read, Julia moving on quiet feet about the table, putting things to rights. She had finished her part of the argument. She was resolutely putting out of her mind the things her sister had just said, and refusing altogether to think of Herbert. She knew in her heart just how Herbert had looked when he had said those things, even to the snarl at the corner of his nose. She knew, too, that Ellen had probably not reported the message even so disagreeably as the original, and she knew that it would be better to forget.
"Well," said Ellen, rising after a long perusal, laying the paper on the table, "that sounds all very well in writing. The thing is to see how it comes out. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and you needn't tell me that any man in his senses will pay all that salary merely for a 'chaperon,' as he calls it. If he does, he's a fool; that's all I've got to say. But I suppose nothing short of getting caught in a trap will make you see it; so I better save my breath. I'm sure I hope you won't go to the poorhouse through your stubbornness. I've done all I could to keep you from it, and it's pretty hard to have my only sister leave me—so soo-oo-on after mother's—death."
"Well, Ellen," said Julia Cloud, looking at her speculatively, "I'm sure I never dreamed you cared about having me away from here. You've never shown much interest in being with me. But I'm sorry if you feel it that way, and I'm sure I'll write to you and try to do little things for the children often, now that I shall have something to do with." But her kindly feeling was cut short by Ellen interrupting her.
"Oh, you needn't trouble yourself! We can look after the children ourselves. You better save what you get to look after yourself when those two get over this whim!"
And then to her great relief Julia Cloud heard the car returning from the station, and the two young people rushing into the hall.
"I'm going up-stairs to put on that calico wrapper you loaned me, Aunt Jewel," shouted Leslie, putting a rosy face into the dining-room for an instant and then vanishing.
"I bought a pair of overalls at the store, as you suggested, Cloudy," put in Allison, waving a pair of blue jeans at her and vanishing also.
Ellen Robinson stood mopping her eyes and staring out from the dining-room window—not at the hills—and sniffing.
"I should think you'd stop them calling you that ridiculous name!" she snorted. "It isn't respectful. It sounds like making fun of the family."
Poor Ellen Robinson! She had her good points, but a sense of humor wasn't one of them. Also it went against the grain to give up her own way, and she couldn't remember when she hadn't planned for the freedom she would have when Julia came to live with her. Having an entirely different temperament from Julia's and no spiritual outlook whatever on life, she was unable to understand what thraldom she had been preparing and planning for her patient elder sister. A little of this perhaps penetrated to Julia Cloud's disturbed consciousness as she watched her sister's irate back; for, when she spoke again, it was in a gentle, soothing tone.
"There now, Ellen, let's forget it all, and just put it away. I shall be coming back to see you now and then, perhaps, and you can come and see me. That'll be something new to look forward to. Suppose now we just get to work and see what's to be done. Have you decided what you want to have taken over to the house?"
It is doubtful whether Ellen would have succumbed so easily, had not the two young people returned just then and demanded that they have something to do.
As quietly as if she were used to packing and moving every year of her life, Julia Cloud gave them each a pile of newspapers, and set them to wrapping and packing dishes in a big barrel; and Ellen was forced to join in and say what she wanted to have of her mother's things.
Without a word Julia set aside anything Ellen asked for, even when it was something she would have liked to keep herself; and Ellen, her lips pursed and her eyes bright with defeat, went from room to room, picking and choosing as if she were at an auction.
Allison still in overalls rushed out in the car, and got a man with a moving-wagon; and before twelve o'clock Ellen Robinson saw a goodly load of household furniture start for her own home; and, being somewhat anxious as to how it would be disposed on its arrival, she took the car, and sped away to placate Herbert. She really felt quite triumphant at the ease with which she had secured several valuable pieces of mahogany which she knew had always been favorites with Julia.
"Gee!" said Allison as the car vanished out of sight, "isn't Aunt Ellen some depressor? Was she always so awfully grown up? I say, Cloudy, you won't get that way, will you when we get you off in our house? If you do, take poison, or get married, or something. Say, Cloudy Jewel, you're twenty years younger than she is, do you know it? Now what'll I do next? That closet is all empty. Shall I begin on this one? You want this barrel up in the attic, you say? All right; here goes! No, I won't hurt my back; I'm strong as a horse. I know how to lift things without hurting myself. Open that door, Leslie, and move that chair out of my way. Which corner shall I stow it, Cloudy? Southwest? All right!" and he vanished up the stairs with his barrel.
At half-past twelve a man and a woman arrived whom Julia Cloud had hired to help; and the house was like a busy hive, not a drone among them. It really was wonderful how short a time it took to dismantle a home that had been running for years. But the hands were wonderfully eager that took hold of the work, and they went at things with a will. Moreover, Julia Cloud's domain was always in perfect order, which made a big difference.
They ate their lunch from the pantry shelf, because Ellen had taken the dining-room table. But it was a good lunch, bread and butter, apple butter, cookies, half a custard pie, and glasses of rich, foamy milk. Then they went to work again. The children were smudged with dust and tumbled and happy. They were doing real things for the first time in their lives, and they liked it. Moreover, they were bringing to pass a beloved plan that had seemed at first impossible; and they wanted to hustle it through before anything spoiled or delayed it. There was Aunt Ellen. There was no telling what she might not do to hinder, and Julia Cloud was easily troubled by her sister, they could see that, wise children that they were; so they worked with all their might and main.
Two more men were requisitioned, and the furniture began a steady march up to the attic, where it was to be stored.
Leslie developed a talent for finding the place where she was most needed and getting to work. She put the sideboard drawers in order, and then went to packing away garments from the closets in drawers and trunks and chests, until by four o'clock a great many little nooks and corners in the house were absolutely clear and empty, ready for the cleaning before the new tenants arrived, although, to tell the truth, there was scarcely a spot in Julia Cloud's house that needed much cleaning, because it had always been kept immaculate.
When Ellen Robinson in her car arrived in sight of the house at half-past four she identified the parlor and dining-room carpets hanging on a line strung across the back yard, and two bedroom carpets being beaten in the side yard. Mrs. Perkins from her patient watch-tower had also identified them, and hurried out to greet her friend and get more accurate information; but Ellen was in too much of a hurry to get inside and secure several other articles, which she had thought of and desired to have, to spend much time in gossip. Besides, if Julia was really going, it was just as well to make as much of it as possible; so she greeted Mrs. Perkins as one too busy with important affairs to tell details, and hurried into the house. Standing within the old hallway, she gazed about, startled. How on earth had Julia managed to tear up things in such a hurry? The pictures had all vanished from the walls. The books were gone from the old book-case; the furniture itself was being carried away, the marble-topped table being the last piece left. The woman was washing the parlor floor, slopping on the soapy water with that air of finality that made Ellen Robinson realize that the old home was broken up at last. Grimly she walked into the dining-room, and saw immaculate empty closets and cleanly shining window-panes. As far as the work had progressed it had been done thoroughly.
Up-stairs a cheery chatter came from the rooms, and Ellen Robinson experienced a pang of real jealousy of these two young things who had swept in and carried her neglected sister by storm. Somehow it seemed to her that they had taken something that belonged to her, and she began to feel bereft. Julia ought to love her better than these two young strangers; why didn't she? Why didn't those two children make such a fuss over her as they did over Julia? It certainly was strange! Perhaps some gleam of perception that it might all be her own fault began to filter to Ellen Robinson's consciousness as she stood there on the stairs and listened to the pleasant chatter.
"O Cloudy, dear! Is this really Daddy's picture when he was a little boy? What a funny collar and necktie! But wasn't he a darling? I love the way his hair curls around his face. I can remember Daddy quite well. Mother used to say he was a wonderful man. I think he must have been a good deal like you. Our old nurse used to say that families went in streaks. I guess you and Daddy were off the same streak, weren't you? I hope Allison and I will be, too. Say, Cloudy, can't I have this picture of Daddy to hang in my room in our new house? I love it."
Ellen Robinson wondered whether they had classified her as another "streak," and somehow the thought was unpleasant. It was like one of those little rare mirrors that flash us a look now and then in which we "see oursel's as ithers see us," and are warned to take account of stock. As she climbed the old stairs, Ellen Robinson took account of herself, as it were, and resolved to show a better side to these children than she had shown heretofore; and so, when she appeared among them, she put aside her grim aspect for a while, and spoke in quite an affable tone:
"Well, you certainly can work!"
The contrast was so great that both the young people blinked at her in wonder, and a smile broke out on Leslie's lovely face. Somehow it warmed Aunt Ellen's heart, and she went on:
"But you all must be tired. You better come up to our house for supper to-night. You won't have any chance to get it here."
"Oh, we don't mind picnicking," said Leslie hastily. Then she caught a glimpse of her aunt's face, and her natural kindliness came to the front. "But of course that would be lovely if it won't be too much trouble for you," she added pleasantly with one of her brilliant smiles, although she could see Allison making violent motions and shaking his head at her from the other room, where he was out of his Aunt Ellen's sight. Leslie really had a lovely nature, and was always quick to discern it when she had hurt any one. Ellen Robinson looked at her suspiciously, alert for the insult always, but yielded suddenly and unexpectedly to the girl's loveliness. Was it something in Leslie's eyes that reminded Ellen of her big brother who used to come home now and then, and tease her, and bring her lovely gifts? She watched Leslie a moment wistfully, and then with a sigh turned away. She wished one of her little girls could look like that.
"Well, I'd better go right home and get supper ready," she said alertly; and there was a note of almost pleased eagerness in her voice that she was included in this function of packing and moving that seemed somehow to have turned into a delightful game in which weariness and care were forgotten.
"I'll have supper ready to dish up by seven o'clock," she admonished her astonished sister as she swept past the bedroom where she was at work putting away blankets and pillows in camphor. "You won't be ready much before that; but don't you be a minute later, or the supper will be spoiled."
By which admonition Julia Cloud became aware that Ellen was going to favor them with some of her famous chicken potpie. She stood still for a whole minute with a light in her eyes and a smile on her face, listening to Ellen's retreating footsteps down the stairs; then, as the Ford set up its churning clatter, she turned back to her task, and murmured softly, "Poor Ellen!"
The supper passed off very well. Herbert was a trifle gruff and silent; but it was plain that Allison's stories amused him, for now and then a half-smile crept into his stolid countenance. Julia Cloud was so glad that she could have cried. She hated scenes, and she dreaded being at outs with her relatives. So she ate her chicken potpie and fresh pumpkin-pie thankfully, and forgot how weary she was. After supper Leslie sat down at the piano, and rattled off rag-time; and she and Allison sang song after song, while the children stood about admiringly, and even Herbert sat by as at a social function and listened. The atmosphere was really quite clear when at last they prepared to leave, and Julia Cloud had an inkling that the big blue car had something to do with it.
"That's some car you've got," said Herbert patronizingly as he held a lantern for them to get down the steps. "Get it this year? What do you have to pay for that make now? I'm thinking of getting a new one myself pretty soon."
Down upon their knees in the lantern-light went the two men of the party, examining this and that point of interest, their noses turned to the mysterious inner workings of the wonderful mechanism, while Julia Cloud sat and marveled that here at last was something which Herbert Robinson respected.
And Ellen stood upon the steps, really smiling and saying how nice it had been to have them, for all the world as if they were company, all the hard lines of her rapidly maturing face softened by kindliness! It seemed like a miracle. Julia Cloud settled back into the deep cushions, and lifted her eyes to the dark line of the hills against the sky. "From whence cometh my help," trailed the words through her tired brain; and her heart murmured, "God, I thank Thee!"
They all slept very late the next morning, being utterly worn out from the unaccustomed work; and, when they finally got down-stairs, they took a sort of a lunch-breakfast off the pantry shelves again. It was strange how good even shredded-wheat biscuit and milk can taste when one has been working hard and has a young appetite, although Leslie and Allison had been known to scorn all cereals. Still, there were cookies and wonderful apples from the big tree in the back yard for dessert.
"When are those men coming back to finish up?" suddenly demanded Leslie, poising a glass of milk and a cooky in one hand and taking a great bite from her apple.
"Not till to-morrow," said Julia Cloud, looking around the empty kitchen speculatively, and wondering how in the world she was going to cook with all the cooking-utensils packed in the attic.
"We ought to have left the kitchen till last," she added with a troubled look. "You crazy children! Didn't you know we had to eat? I told that man not to take any of those things on the kitchen-table, that they were to stay down until the very last thing, and now he has taken the table even! I went up-stairs to see if I could get at things, and I find he has put them away at the back, and piled all the chairs and some bed-springs in front of them. I'm afraid we shall have to get some things out again. I don't see how we can get along."
"Not a bit of it, Cloudy!" said Leslie, giving a spring and perching herself on the drain-board of the sink, where she sat swinging her dainty little pumps as nonchalantly as if she were sitting on a velvet sofa. "See! Here's my plan. I woke up early, and thought it all out. Let's see," consulting her wee wrist-watch, "it's nine o'clock. That isn't bad. Now we'll work till twelve; that's long enough for to-day, because you got too tired yesterday; and, besides, we've got some other things to attend to. Then we'll hustle into the car, and get to town, and do some shopping ready for our trip. That will rest you. We'll get lunch at a tea-room, and shop all the afternoon. We'll go to a hotel for dinner, and stay all night. Then in the morning we can get up early, have our breakfast, and drive back here in time before the men come. Now isn't that perfectly spick-and-span for a plan?"
"Leslie! But, dear, that would cost a lot! And, besides, it isn't in the least necessary."
"Cost has nothing to do with it. Look!" and Leslie flourished a handful of bills. "See what Guardy Lud gave me! And Allison has another just like it. He said particularly that we were not to let you get all worked out and get sick so you couldn't go with us, and he particularly told us about a lot of things he wanted us to buy to make things easy on the way. After he leaves us and goes back to California we're in your charge, I know; but just now you're in ours, you dear, unselfish darling; and we're going to run you. Oh, we're going to run you to beat the band!" laughed Leslie, and jumped down from her perch to hug and squeeze the breath out of Julia Cloud.
"But child! Dear!" said that good woman when she could get her breath to speak. "You mustn't begin in that extravagant way!"
But they put their hands over her lips, and laughed away her protests until she had to give up for laughing with them.
"Well, then," she said at last, when they had subsided from a regular rough-house frolic for all the world as if they were children, "we'll have to get to work in good earnest; only it doesn't seem right to let you work so hard when you are visiting me."
"Visiting, nothing!" declared Allison; "we're having the time of our lives. I haven't been in a place where I could do as I pleased since I was eight years old. This is real work, and I like it. Come now, don't let's waste any time. What can I do first? Wouldn't you like to have me take down all the pictures on the second floor, stack them in the attic, and sweep down the walls the way we did down here yesterday?"
"Yes," said their aunt with an affectionate homage in her eyes for this dear, capable boy who was so eager over everything as if it were his own.
"And those big bookcases. What are you going to do with the books? Do you want any of them to go with you, or are they to be packed away?"
"No, I won't take any of those books. They'll need to be dusted and put in boxes. There are a lot of boxes in the cellar, and there's a pile of papers to use for lining the boxes. But you'll have your hands full with the pictures, I think. Let the books go till to-morrow."
Allison went whistling up-stairs, and began taking down the pictures; but anybody could see by the set of his shoulders that he meant to get the books out of the way too before noon.
"Now, what can I do?" said Leslie, whirling around from wiping the last cup and plate they had used. "There's one more bureau besides yours. Does it need emptying out?"
"No, dear. That has your grandmother's things in it, and is in perfect order. She had me fix up the things several months ago. Everything is tied up and labelled. I don't think we need to disturb it. The men can move it up as it is. But we need to get the rest of the bed-clothes out on the line for an airing before I pack them away in the chest up-stairs. You might do that."
So Leslie went back and forth, carrying blankets and quilts, and hanging them on the line, till Mrs. Perkins had to come over to see what was going on. She came with a cup in her hand to ask for some baking-powder, and Julia Cloud gave her the whole box.
"No, you needn't return it," she said, smiling. "I shall not need it. I've rented the house, and am going away for a while." Mrs. Perkins was so astonished that she actually went home without finding out where Julia Cloud was going, and had to come back to see whether there was anything she could do to help, in order to get a chance to ask.
It was really quite astonishing what a lot could be done in three hours. When twelve o'clock came, the two children descended upon their aunt with insistence that she wash her hands and put on her hat. The rooms had assumed that cleared-up, ready look that rests the tired worker just to look around and see what has been accomplished. With a conviction that she was being quite a child to run away this way when there was still a lot to be done, but with an overwhelming desire to yield to the pressure, Julia Cloud surrendered.
When she came down-stairs five minutes later in her neat black suit and small black hat with the mourning veil about it that Ellen had insisted upon for the funeral, the car was already at the door, and she felt almost guilty as she locked the door and went down the path. But the beauty of the day intoxicated her at once, and she forgot immediately everything but the joy of riding out into the world.
Leslie was a bit quiet as they glided down the road out of town, and kept eyeing her aunt silently. At last, as Julia Cloud was calling attention to a wonderful red woodbine that had twined itself about an old dead tree and was setting the roadside ablaze with splendor, Leslie caught her eye.
"What is it, dear? Does something trouble you? Is anything wrong with me?" asked Julia Cloud, putting up a prospecting hand to her hair and hat.
Leslie's cheeks went rosy red.
"O Cloudy, dear," said Leslie, "I was just wondering. But I'm afraid to say it. Maybe it will make you feel bad."
"Not a bit, deary; what is it?"
"Well, then, Cloudy, do you think Grandmother would care very much if you didn't wear black? Do you like it yourself, or feel it wouldn't be right not to wear it? I don't mean any disrespect to Grandmother; but oh, you would look so sweet in gray, gray and lavender and soft pink, or just gray now for a while. Are you very mad at me for saying it?"
Julia Cloud reached over and patted the young hand that lay near her on the seat.
"Why, no, dear! I'm not mad, and I don't care for black myself. I don't believe in wearing black for the people who have left us and gone to heaven. It seems to me white would be a great deal better. But I put on these things to please Ellen. She thought it would be showing great disrespect to mother if I didn't, and rather than argue about it I did as she wanted me to. But I don't intend to darken the place around me by dressing in mourning, child; and I'm glad you don't want me to. I like bright, happy things. And, besides, Leslie, dear, your grandmother was a bright, happy woman herself once when she was young, before she was sick and had trouble; and I like to remember her that way, because I'm sure that is the way she looks now in heaven."
"Oh, I'm so glad!" sighed Leslie. "That makes the day just perfect."
"I think I'll wait until I get away to change, however," said Julia Cloud thoughtfully. "It would just annoy Ellen to do it now, and might make such people as Mrs. Perkins say disagreeable things that would make it unpleasant for your aunt."
"Of course!" said Leslie, nestling closer, her eyes dancing with some secret plans of her own. "That's all right, Cloudy. How dear and sort of 'understanding' you are, just like a real mother."
And somehow Julia Cloud felt as if she was entering into a new world.
Allison seemed to know by intuition just where to find the right kind of tea-room. He ushered them into the place, and found a table in a secluded nook, with a fountain playing nearby over ferns, and ivy climbing over a mimic pergola. There were not many people eating, for it was past one o'clock. There were little round tables with high-backed chairs that seemed to shut them off in a corner by themselves.
"This is nice!" he sighed. "We're a real family now, aren't we?" and he looked over at Julia Cloud with that fine homage that now and then a boy just entering manhood renders to an older woman.
"Creamed chicken on toast, fruit-salad, toasted muffins, and ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce," ordered Allison after studying the menu-card for a moment. "You like all those, don't you, Cloudy?"
"Oh, but my dear! You mustn't order all that. A sandwich is all I need. Just a tongue sandwich. You must not begin by being extravagant."
"This is my party, Cloudy. This goes under the head of expenses. If you can't find enough you like among what I order, why, I'll get you a tongue sandwich, too; but you've been feeding us out of the cooky-jar, and I guess I'll get the finest I can find to pay you back. I told you this was my time. When we get settled, you can order things; but now I'm going to see that you get enough to eat while you're working so hard."
Leslie's eyes danced with her dimples as Julia Cloud appealed to her to stop this extravagance.
"That's all right, Cloudy. I heard Guardy Lud tell Al not to spare any expense to make things comfortable for you while you were moving."
So Julia Cloud settled down to the pleasure of a new and delicious combination of foods, and thoroughly enjoyed it all.
"Now," said Leslie as the meal drew to a close, "we must get to work. It's half-past two, and the stores close at half-past five. I've a lot of shopping to do. How about you, Cloudy?"
"I must buy a trunk," said Julia Cloud thoughtfully, "and a hand-bag and some gloves. I ought to get a new warm coat, but that will do later."
Leslie eyed her thoughtfully, and raised one brow intensively at her brother as she rose from the table.
Allison landed them at a big department store, and guided his aunt to the trunk department with instructions to stay there until he and Leslie came back. Then they went off with great glee and many whisperings.
It is a curious thing how easily and quickly young people can shop provided they have plenty of money and no older person by to hamper them. Allison and Leslie were back within the time they had set, looking very meek and satisfied. Leslie carried a small package, which she laid in Julia Cloud's lap.
"You said you needed a hand-bag," she said; "and I came on a place where they were having a sale. I thought this was a peach; so I bought it. If you don't like it, we can give it to Aunt Ellen or some one."
Julia Cloud's cheeks grew pink with pleasure, and she felt like a very young, happy child as she opened the parcel to find a lovely gray suede hand-bag with silver clasp and fittings, containing quite a little outfit of toilet articles and brushes in neat, compact form. She caught her breath with delight as she touched the soft white leather lining, and noticed the perfection and finish of the whole. It seemed fit for a queen, yet was plain and quiet enough on the outside for a dove to carry. She looked up to see the two pairs of eager eyes upon her, and could hardly refrain from throwing her arms about the children right there in the store; but she stopped in time and let her eyes do the caressing, as she said with a tremble in her low, sweet voice:
"O you dear children! How you are going to spoil me! I see I must get settled quickly so that I shall have the power to restrain you."
They rollicked forth then, and bought several things, a big steamer rug for the car, a pair of long gray mocha gloves to match the hand-bag, a silk umbrella, and for Aunt Ellen a shiny black hand-bag with a number of conveniences in it, and a pair of new black gloves with long, warm wrists tucked inside of it. Then Allison thoughtfully suggested a handsome leather wallet for Uncle Herbert, and Julia Cloud lingered by the handkerchief-counter, and selected half a dozen new fine handkerchiefs. It all seemed just like a play to her, it was so very long since she had been shopping herself. Ellen had bought everything for her for years, because she was always too busy or too burdened to get away.
When they were out in the street again, it was still too early to think of going to the hotel for dinner.
"How about a movie, Cloudy?" asked Allison shyly. "There's a pippin down the street a ways. I saw it as we came by. Or don't you like movies? Perhaps you'd rather go to the hotel and lie down. I suppose you are maybe worn out. I ought to have thought of that."
"Not a bit of it!" said the game little woman. "I should love to go. Maybe you won't believe it, but I never went to a movie in my life, and I've been wanting to know what they were like for a long time."
"Never went to a movie in your life! Why, Cloudy, you poor dear!" said Allison, who had been fairly fed on movies. "Why, how did it happen? Don't they have moving pictures in your town?"
"Yes, they have them now, though only a year or so ago. But you know I've never been able to get away, even if they had been all about me. Besides, I suppose I should have been considered crazy if I had gone, me, an oldish woman! If there had been children to take, it would have been different. I suppose it is a childish desire, but I always loved pictures."
"Well, we're going," said Allison. "Get in quick, and I'll have you there before you say Jack Robinson!"
And so in the restful cool of a flower-laden atmosphere in one of the finest moving-picture places in the city Julia Cloud sat with her two children and saw her first moving picture, holding her breath in wonder and delight as the people on the screen lived and moved before her.
"I'm afraid I'm having too good a time," she said quietly as she settled back in the car again, and was whirled away to the hotel. "I feel as if I were a child again. If this keeps on, I won't have dignity enough left to chaperon you properly."
"Oh, but Cloudy, dear, that's just why we want you, because you know how to be young and play with us," clamored both of them together.
Then after a good dinner they went up to their rooms, and there was Julia Cloud's shining new trunk that had to be looked over; and there on the floor beside it stood two packages, big boxes, both of them.
"This must be a mistake," said Julia Cloud, looking at them curiously. "Allison, you better call the boy and have him take them away to the right room."
Allison picked up the top package, a big, square box.
"Why, this is your name, Cloudy Jewel!" he exclaimed. "It must be yours. Open it!"
"But how could it be?" said Julia Cloud perplexedly.
"Open it, Cloudy. I want to see what's in it."
Julia Cloud was bending over the long pasteboard box on the floor and finding her name on that, too.
"It's very strange," she said, her cheeks beginning to grow pink like those of a child on her first Christmas morning. "I suppose it's some more of your extravagant capers. I don't know what I shall do with you!"
But her eager fingers untied the string, while Leslie and Allison executed little silent dances around the room and tried to stifle their mirth.
The cover fell off at last, and the tissue-paper blew up in a great fluff; and out of it rolled a beautiful long, soft, thick gray cloak of finest texture and silken lining, with a great puffy collar and cuffs of deep, soft silver-gray fox.
"Oh-h!" was all Julia Cloud could say as the wonderful garment slipped out and spread about over the box and floor. And then the two children caught it up, and enveloped her in it, buttoning it down the front and turning the collar around her ears.
"It's yours, Cloudy, to keep you warm on the journey!" cried Leslie, dancing around and clapping her hands. "Doesn't she look lovely in it, Allison? Oh, isn't she dear?" and Leslie caught her and whirled her around the room.
Then Allison brought the big square box, and demanded that it be opened; and out of it came a small gray hat in soft silky beaver, with a close gray feather curled quietly about it, that settled down on Julia Cloud's lovely white hair as if it had been made for her.
"You don't mind, do you, Cloudy, dear? You don't think I'm officious or impertinent?" begged Leslie anxiously. "It was Allison's idea to get the hat to match the coat, and it was such a dear we couldn't help taking it; but, if there is anything about them you don't like, we got special permission for you to exchange them to-morrow morning."
Julia Cloud settled down in a chair, and looked at herself in helpless joy and admiration. Like them!
"But O children! You oughtn't to have got such wonderful, expensive things for me. I'm just a plain, simple woman, you know, and it's not fitting."
Then there arose a great clamor about her. Why was it not fitting? She who had given her life for others, why should she not have some of the beautiful, comfortable things of earth? It wasn't sensible for her to talk that way. That was being too humble. And, besides, weren't these things quite sensible and practical? Weren't they warm, and wouldn't they be convenient and comfortable and neat? Well, then, "Good-night," finished Allison.
And so at last they said "Good-night," and went to their beds; but long after the children were asleep Julia Cloud lay awake and thought it out. God had been good to her, and was leading her into green pastures beside quiet waters; but there were things He was expecting of her, and was she going to be able to fulfil them? These two young souls were hers to guide. Would she have the grace to guide them into the knowledge of God in Christ? And then she lay praying for strength for this great work until the peace of God's sleep dropped down upon her.
The next two days were busy ones. There were a great many last little things to be done, and Julia Cloud would have worked herself out, had not the children interfered and carried her off for a ride every little while. The intervening Sabbath was spent at Ellen Robinson's. The handsome hand-bag and wallet served to keep Ellen from being very disagreeable. In fact, at the last, when she began to realize that Julia was really going away, and would not be down at the old house any more for her to burden and torment, she really revealed a gleam of affection for her, and quite worried poor Julia with thinking that perhaps, after all, she ought not to go away so far from her only sister. When Ellen sat down on the bare stairs in the old hall Monday morning, and gave vent to a real sob at parting, Julia had a swift vision of her little sister years ago sitting on that same stair weeping from a fall, and herself comforting her; and she put her arms around Ellen, and kissed her for the first time in many reticent years.
But at last they were off, having handed over the keys to the new tenant, and Julia Cloud leaned back on the luxurious cushions and laughed. Not from mirth, for there were tears in her eyes; and not from nervousness, for she was never subject to hysteria; but just from sheer excitement and joy to think that she was really going out in the world at last to see things and live a life of her own.
The two young people felt it, and laughed with her, until the blackbirds, swirling in a rustling chorus overhead on their way south, seemed to be joining in, and a little squirrel whisked across the road and sat up inquiringly on a log framed in scarlet leaves.
They went straight to the city, for Mr. Luddington had promised to meet them there and confer with them further about their plans. But, when they reached the hotel, they found only a telegram from him saying that business had held him longer than he expected and that he should have to arrange to meet them farther along in their journey. He suggested three colleges, either one of which he should favor, and outlined their journey to take in a stop at each. He promised to communicate with them later, and gave his own address in case they decided to remain at either the first or the second place visited.
"Now," said Julia Cloud after the telegram was disposed of, "I want to get a new dress and a few things before we go any farther. I know you children don't like these old black things, and we might as well start out right. It won't take me long, and I shall be ready to go on my way right after lunch."
Leslie was delighted, and the two spent two hours of happiness in shopping, while Allison drove to a garage to have his car looked over thoroughly, and laid in a supply of good things for the journey. He also spent a profitable half-hour studying a road-map and asking questions concerning the journey.
They tried to make Julia Cloud take a nap before they started, but she declared she would rather rest in the car; and so they started off, feeling like three children going to find the end of the rainbow.
It was a wonderful afternoon. The air was like wine, and the autumn foliage was in all its glory. As they flew along, it seemed as if they were leaving all care behind. A soft pink color grew in Julia Cloud's cheeks, and she sat with her hands folded and her eyes bright with the beauty of the day.
"Oh, but you're a beauty, Cloudy, dear!" exclaimed Leslie suddenly. "See her, Allison! Just look at her. Isn't she great? She was all right in those black things, of course, but she's wonderful in the gray things!"
For Julia Cloud had laid aside in the very bottom of her new trunk the prim black serge that Ellen had bought, and the black funeral gloves and coat and hat; and she was wearing a lovely soft gray wool jersey dress with white collar and cuffs. The big gray coat was nestled by her side ready for use when the wind grew colder, and she was wearing the new gray hat and gloves, and looked a lady every inch. Allison turned slowly, and gave her a look that made her blush like a girl.
"I should say she is great! She's a peach!" he agreed. "That hat is a cracker jack! It looks like a pigeon's wing. I like it; don't you, Cloudy? But say, Leslie, she's something more than a beauty. She's a good scout. That's what she is. Do you realize she hasn't opened her lips about the car once? 'Member the time I took Mrs. Luddington down to the office for Guardy, how she squeaked every time another car went by, and cautioned me to be careful and go slow, and asked me how many times I had ever driven before, and if I wasn't exceeding the speed-limit, and no end of things? But Cloudy hasn't batted an eye. She just sits there as if she was riding a cloud and enjoyed it."
"Well, I do," said Julia Cloud, laughing; "and I never thought of being afraid. I didn't know enough to. Ought I to? Because I'm having such a good time that I'm afraid I'd forget to be frightened."
"That's what I said. You're a good sport. I believe you like to go fast."
Julia Cloud admitted shamedly that she did.
"He's a splendid driver, and so am I," Leslie explained earnestly. "Guardy had us taught ages ago, and we're driven a lot; only of course we didn't have our own car. We just had the regular car that belongs to the house. But we made that work some. And Allison took a full course in cars. He knows how to repair them, and put them together, and everything."
"Shall I let her go, Cloudy?" asked Allison eagerly. "Will you be afraid?"
"I should love it," said Julia Cloud eagerly, and then with a sober look at the boy: "Don't do anything crazy, dear! Don't do anything that you oughtn't to do."
"Of course not!" said Allison gravely, sitting up with a manly look in his handsome young face. And by the look he gave her she knew that she had put him upon his honor, and she knew that he would take no risks now that she had trusted him. If she had been a squealing, hectoring kind of woman, he might have been challenged into taking risks, but not here, when she trusted him and the responsibility was all his.
Julia Cloud, as she drew a long breath and prepared, to enjoy the flight down the white ribbon of road, up a hill and down another, registered the thought that here was a clew to this boy's character. Trust him, and he would be faithful. Distrust him, and you wouldn't be anywhere. It did not come to her in words that way, but rather as a subconscious fact that was incorporated into her soul, and gave her a solid and sure feeling about her boy. She had seen all that in his eyes.
He turned around presently, and told her how fast they had been going; and her eyes were shining as brightly as Leslie's.
"You're a pretty good pard, Cloudy," he said. "We'll make you a member of the gang and take you everywhere. See! You're being initiated now, and you're making good right along. I knew we did a good thing when we came after you. Didn't we, Les?"
And Leslie turned and flung herself into Julia Cloud's arms with one of her enthusiastic hugs.
It was just evening when they entered the little town about twenty miles from a larger city, where was located a seat of learning, co-educational, which had been highly recommended to Mr. Luddington, and which seemed to him to have a great many good points in its favor.
The sign-posts warned them of their approach; and the three sat silently watching, judging the place from the outskirts. Big square houses and lawns multiplied as they progressed. Some streets had fences. Substantial churches rose here and there, and the college grounds became visible as they neared the centre of the town. The buildings were spacious and attractive, with tall old elms and maples shading the broad walks. There was an ideal chapel of dark-red stone with arches and a wonderful belfry, and one could easily imagine young men and maidens flitting here and there.
The two young people studied the scene as the car drove slowly by, and said nothing. Allison went on to the other end of town till the houses grew farther apart, and nothing had been said. Then Leslie drew a big sigh.
"Turn around, brother, and let's go back past there again."
Allison turned around, and drove slowly by the college grounds again.
"There are tennis-courts at the back," said Leslie, "and that looks like a gym over there. Do you suppose that's the athletic field over at the back?"
They drove slowly around the block, and Julia Cloud sat silently, trying to think of herself in this strange environment, and feeling suddenly chilly and alone. There would be a lot of strange people to meet, and the children would be off at college all day. She hadn't thought of that.
"Try some of the side streets," ordered Leslie; "I haven't seen our house yet."
They came to the business part of the town, and found the stopping-place suggested in Mr. Luddington's directions.
"We can't tell much about it to-night," said Allison gravely. "I guess we better get some supper and let Cloudy Jewel get rested for a while. Then to-morrow we can look around."
They were wise words, and Julia Cloud assented at once; but it was quite plain that neither he nor Leslie was much elated at the place.
Allison slipped out for a walk through the college grounds after the others had gone to their rooms, and came back whistling gravely.
"He doesn't like it, Cloudy," whispered Leslie as the sound floated in through the transom. "He won't have anything to do with it. You see!"
"What makes you think so, dear? He's whistling. That sounds as if he liked it."
"Yes, but look what he's whistling. He always begins on 'The Long, Long Trail' if he isn't pleased or has to wait when he's in a hurry to get anywhere. Now, if he had been pleased, you would have heard 'One grasshopper hopped right over th' other grasshopper's back.' I can always tell. Well, I don't care; do you, Cloudy? There's plenty of other colleges, and I didn't see our house in any of the streets we went through, did you?"
Julia Cloud had to confess that she had not been in love with anything she had seen yet.
"Well, then, what's the use of going over the old college? I say let's beat it in the morning."
But Julia Cloud would not hear to that. She said they must be fair even to a college, and Mr. Luddington would want them to look the place over thoroughly while they were there. So after breakfast the two reluctant young people went with Julia Cloud to make investigation.
They went through the classrooms and the chapel and the library and gymnasiums. They visited the science halls and workshops. They even climbed up to the observatory, and took a squint at the big telescope, and then they came down and went with a real-estate dealer to see some houses. But at twelve o'clock they came back to their boarding-house with a sigh of relief, ate a good dinner, and, climbing into their car, shook the dust of the town, as it were, from their feet.
"It may be a very nice town, but it's not the town for me," chanted Leslie, nestling back among the cushions.
"Here, too!" said Allison, letting the car ride out under full power over the smooth country road. But, though Julia Cloud questioned several times, she could get no explanation except Allison's terse "Too provincial," whatever he meant by that. She doubted whether he knew himself. She wondered whether it were that they each felt the same homesick feeling that she had experienced.
They stayed that night at a little country inn, and started on their way again at early morning, for they had a long journey before them to reach the second place that Mr. Luddington had suggested. Late that afternoon they stopped in a small city, and decided to rest until morning; for the children wanted to stretch their limbs, and they felt that their aunt was very weary though she declared she was only sleepy.
The sun had quite gone down the next evening, and the twilight was beginning to settle over everything as they drove at last into the second college town of their tour, and the church bells were pealing for prayer meeting. Church bells! The thought of them sent a thrill through Julia Cloud's heart. There was somehow a familiar, home-like sound to them that made her think of the prayer meetings that had cheered her heart through many lonely days.
It had really been for many years her one outing to go to prayer meeting. Even after her mother had become bedridden she had always insisted on Julia's going off to prayer meeting, and a neighbor who was lame and sometimes stayed with her would come hobbling in and send her off. The old cracked church bell at home had always sounded sweet to her ears because it meant that this hour was her own quiet time to go away alone and rest. And it had been real heart-rest always, even though sometimes the meetings themselves had been wofully prosy. There had always been the pleasant little chat and the warm hand-shake afterwards, and then the going home again beneath the stars with a bit of the last hymn in one's soul to sing one to sleep with,
"Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee; E'en though it be a cross That raiseth me;"
and the burden had grown less, and her heart had grown light with the promise of her Father. Those meetings had been to Julia Cloud very real meetings with her Christ; and now, as the evening bells pealed out, her heart leaped to meet and answer the call.
"Oh! I'd like to go to prayer meeting!" she said impulsively as they passed the lighted church, and saw a few faithful going in at the door.
"Do you mean it?" asked Allison, bringing the car to a stop. "Do you mean it, Cloudy? Then let's go. We can size the people up, and see if we like their looks. I guess we can stand a prayer meeting unless you are too tired."
With the eagerness of a child Julia Cloud got out of the car and went into the house of the Lord. It was like a bit of heaven to her. She didn't realize what a bore it might be to her two companions.
It was a good little meeting as such meetings go. Very little enthusiasm, very few present, mostly elders and their wives, with an old saint or two almost at the journey's end, and a dignified white-haired minister, who said some good things in a drony, sleepy tone. The piano was played by a homely young woman who wore unfashionable clothes, and made frightful mistakes in the bass occasionally; but that did not seem to trouble the singers, who sang with the heart rather than with their voices.
Allison sat solemnly, and refrained from looking at his sister; but both stole occasional glances at their aunt, and admired her new clothes and the beautiful light on her face. For Julia Cloud felt as if she were glimpsing into heaven and seeing her Lord in this bit of communion with some of His saints; and, when she bowed her head in the closing prayer, she was thanking Him for all His mercies in bringing this wonderful change into her gray life, and giving her these two dear children to love her and be loved by her. As she rose to come out, her face was glorified by that vision on the mount.
The gentle-faced minister came and spoke to them, and welcomed them to the church, although Allison told him quite curtly that they were only passing through the town; but Julia Cloud trod the neat brown ingrain carpet of the aisle as if it were golden pavement.
"Of all the stupid places!" said Allison as they got into the car. "What do they have prayer meetings for, anyway? Did you manage to keep awake, Cloudy?"
And suddenly like a pall there fell upon Julia Cloud's bright soul the realization that these children did not, would not, feel as she did about such things. They had probably never been taught to love the house of God, and how was she ever to make them see? Perhaps it had been prosy and dull to one who did not hear the Lord's voice behind the Bible words. Perhaps the old minister had been long and tiresome, and the children were weary with the journey and sleepy; she ought not to have let them stop now; and she began to say how sorry she was. But, when they saw from her words that she had really enjoyed that dull little meeting, they were silent.
"Well, Cloudy, I'll hand it to you," said Allison at last. "If you could stand that meeting and enjoy it, you're some Christian! But I'm glad for one that we went if you liked it; and I guess, if you can go a football game now and then, I ought to be able to stand a prayer meeting. So now here goes for seeing the town. It's only nine o'clock, and I believe that's the college up there on the hill where all those lights are. Shall we drive up there?"
The car slipped through the pleasant evening streets, turning a corner, slowing up at a crossing to take a view of the town, and keeping all the time in view the clusters of lights on the hill, which Allison conceived to be the college. Suddenly Leslie leaned forward, and cried:
"O Allison, stop! Stop! There it is, just there on the right. And it's for sale, too! Oh, let's get right out and get the name of the agent, so we won't lose it again."
Allison stopped the car suddenly, and turned to look. There in the full blaze of an electric arc-light, nestled among shrubbery and tall trees, with a smooth terrace in front, was a beautiful little cottage of white stone, with a pink roof, and windows everywhere.
"Why, that's not the college, Les; what's the matter with you?" said Allison, putting his hand on the starter again. "Better wake up. Don't you know a college when you don't see one?"
"College nothing!" said his sister. "That's our house. That's our home, Allison. The very house I've dreamed of. It looks a little like the houses in California, and it is the very thing. Now, there's no use; you've got to get out and get that agent's name, or I'll jump out myself, and get lost, and walk the rest of the way!"
"It is lovely!" said Julia Cloud, leaning over to look. "But it looks expensive, and you wouldn't want to buy a house, you know, dear; for you might not stay."
"Oh, yes, we would if we liked it. And, besides, houses can be sold again when you get done with them, though I'd never want to sell that! It's a perfect little duck. Allison, will you get out or shall I?"
"Oh, I'm game," said Allison, getting out and jumping the hedge into the pretty yard.
He took out his pencil, and wrote down the address in his note-book, stepped up the terrace and glanced about, then went close to the street sign, and found out what corner it was near.
"It is a pippin, sure thing," he said as he sprang into the car again; "but, Leslie, for the love of Mike, don't find any more houses to-night! I'm hungry as a bear. That prayer meeting was one too many for me; I'm going to make for the nearest restaurant; and then, if you want to go house-hunting after that, all right; but I'm going to find the eats first."
They asked a group of boys where the restaurant was, and one pointed to an open door from which light was streaming forth.
"There's the pie-shop," they said, and the party descended hungry and happy with the delicious uncertainty of having found a dream of a house in the dark, and wondering what it would turn out to be in the daytime. They inquired the way to the inn, and decided to stop further investigations until morning.
They were all very weary, and slept well that night; but, strange to say, Allison, who was the sleepy-head, awoke first, and was out looking the town over before the others had thought of awaking. He came back to breakfast eager and impatient.
"We don't need to go any farther," he declared. "It's a peach of a place. There's a creek that reaches up in the woods for miles; and they have canoes and skating and a swimming-hole; and there are tennis-courts everywhere; and it's only eleven miles from the city. I say we just camp here, and not bother about going on to the other place. I'm satisfied. If that house is big enough, it's just the thing."
"But have you been to the college?"
"No, but I asked about it. They have intercollegiate games and frats, and I guess it's all right. It has a peach of a campus, too, and a Carnegie library with chimes——"
"Well, but, dear, you aren't going to college just for those things."
"Oh, the college'll be all right. Guardy wouldn't have suggested it if it wasn't. But we'll go up there this morning and look around."
"Now, children, don't get your heart set on it before you know all about it. You know that house may be quite impossible."
"Now, Cloudy!" put in Leslie. "You know Allison told you you were a good sport. You mustn't begin by preaching before you find out. If it isn't all right, why, of course we don't want it; so let's have the fun of thinking it is till we prove it isn't—or it is."
Julia Cloud looked into the laughing, happy eyes, and yielded with a smile.
"Of course," she said, "that's reasonable. I'm agreed to that. But there's one thing: you know we're bound to go on to the other college, because Mr. Luddington expects us; and we can come back here again if we like this better."
"Oh, we can wire him to come here," said Leslie. "Now, let's go! First to that house, please, because I'm so afraid somebody will buy it before we get the option on it. I've heard that houses are very scarce in the East just now, and people are snapping them up. I read that on the back of that old man's paper at the next table to ours this morning."
All three of them having the hearts of children, they went at once to hunt up the agent before ever they got even a glimpse of the halls of learning standing brave and fair on the hillside in the morning sunshine. "Because there are plenty more colleges," said Leslie; "but there is only one home for us, and I believe we've found it, if it looks half as pretty in the daylight as it did at night."
It took only a few minutes to find the agent and get the key of the house, and presently they were standing on the terrace gazing with delight at the house.
It was indeed a lovely little dwelling. It was built of stone, and then painted white, but the roof and gables were tiled with great pink tiles, giving an odd little foreign look to it, something like Anne Hathaway's cottage in general contour, Leslie declared.
The top of the terrace was pink-tiled, too, and all the porches were paved with tiles. The house itself seemed filled with windows all around. Allison unlocked the door, and they exclaimed with pleasure as he threw it wide open and they stepped in. The sunshine was flooding the great living-room from every direction, it seemed. To begin with, the room was very large, and gave the effect of being a sun-parlor because of its white panelled walls and its many windows. Straight across from the front door on the opposite side of the room opened a small hallway or passage with stairs leading up to a platform where more windows shed a beautiful light down the stairs on walls papered with strange tropical birds in delicate old-fashioned tracery.
To the right through a wide white arch from the living-room was a charming white dining-room with little, high, leaded-paned windows over the spot for the sideboard and long windows in front.
To the left was an enormous stone fireplace with high mantel-shelf of stone and the chimney above. The fire-opening was wide enough for an old Yule log, and on either side of it were double glass doors opening into a long porch room, which also had a fireplace on the opposite side of the chimney, and was completely shut in by long casement windows.
Up-stairs there were four large bedrooms and a little hall room that could be used for a sewing-room or den, or an extra bedroom, besides a neat little maid's room in a notch on the half-way landing, and two bathrooms, white-tiled and delightful, tucked away in between things. Then Leslie opened a glass door in the very prettiest room of all, which she and Allison immediately decided must belong to their aunt, and exclaimed in delight; for here nestled between the gables, with a tiled wall all about it, was a delightful housetop or uncovered porch, so situated among the trees that it was entirely shut in from the world.
It was perfect! They stood and looked at one another in delight, and for the time the college was forgotten. Then Allison dashed away, and came back eagerly almost immediately.
"There's a garage!" he said, "just behind the kitchen, a regular robin's nest of a one, white with pink tiles just like the house, and a pebbled drive. Say, it must be some fool of a guy that would sell this. Isn't it just a crackerjack?"
"My dear," put in Julia Cloud, "it can't help being very expensive——"
"Now, Cloudy, remember!" said Leslie, holding up her finger in mock rebuke. "Just wait and see! And, anyhow, you don't know Guardy Lud. If he could see us located in a peach of a home like this, he'd go back to his growley old dear of a wife with happy tears rolling down his nice old cheeks. Allison, you go talk to that agent, and you give him a hundred dollars if you've got it left—here, I guess I've got some, too—just to bind the bargain till Guardy gets here. And say, you go see if you can't get Guardy on the 'phone. I don't want to go a step farther. Couldn't you be happy here, Cloudy, with that fireplace, and that prayer meeting to go to? I wouldn't mind going with you sometimes when I didn't have to study."
Julia Cloud stooped, and kissed the eager face, and whispered, "Very happy, darling!"
And then they went to the agent again and the telephone.
"Guardy Lud" proved himself quite equal to the occasion by agreeing to come on at once and approve their choice, and promised to be there before evening.
"I knew he would," said Leslie happily, as they seated themselves in the car again for the pleasant run to the college.
They found the dean in his office, and Allison was taken with him at once.
"He isn't much like that musty little guy in the other college. He looked like a wet hen!" growled Allison in a low tone to his sister and aunt, while the dean was out in the hall talking to a student. "I like him, don't you?" and Julia Cloud sat wondering what the boy's standards could be that he could judge so suddenly and enthusiastically. Yet she had to admit herself that she liked this man, tall and grave with a pleasant twinkle hidden away in his wine-brown eyes and around the corners of his firm mouth. She felt satisfied that here was a man who would be both wise and just.
They made the rounds of the college buildings and campus with growing enthusiasm, and then drove back to the inn to lunch with hearty appetites.
"Let's go down to the house, and measure things, and look around once more," proposed Leslie. "Then we can come back and wait here for Guardy. We mustn't be away when he arrives, for he'll want to get everything fixed up and get away. I know him. Allison, did you get a time-table?"
Allison produced one from his coat-pocket, and they studied the trains, and decided that there was no possibility of the arrival of their guardian until three o'clock, and probably not until five.
"That's all right," said Leslie. "Cloudy and I'll stay here from three to five, and you can meet the trains; but first I want the dimensions of those rooms, so Cloudy and I can plan. We've got a whole lot to do before college opens, and we can't spare a minute. O Cloudy! I'm so happy! Isn't that house just a duck?"
They went to the village store, bought a foot-rule, a yardstick, and a tape-measure, and repaired to the house. Allison took the foot-rule by masculine right; Julia Cloud said she felt more at home with the tape-measure; and Leslie preferred the yardstick. With pencil and paper they went to work, making a diagram of each room, with spaces between windows and doors for furniture, taking it room by room.
"We've got to know about length of curtains, and whether furniture will fit in," declared Leslie wisely. "I've thought it all out nights in the sleeper on the way over here. Just think! Isn't it going to be fun furnishing the whole house? You know, Cloudy, I didn't have hardly anything sent, because it really wasn't worth while. We sort of wanted to leave the house at home just as it was when Mamma was living, to come back to sometimes; and so we let it to an old gentleman, a friend of Grandfather's and Guardy's, who has only himself and his wife and servants, and will take beautiful care of it. But I went around and picked out anything I wanted, rugs and pictures and some bric-a-brac, and a few bits of old mahogany that I love, just small things that would pack easily. Guardy said we might buy our own things. He set a limit on our spending, of course; but he said it would be good experience for us to learn how to buy wisely inside a certain sum."
Julia Cloud went around like one in a dream with her new tape-measure, setting down careful figures, and feeling like a child playing dolls again. It was almost three o'clock when they finally finished their measurements, and Allison hurried them back to the inn, and repaired to the station to meet trains.
Leslie made her aunt lie down on the bed, supposedly for a nap; but no one could have taken a nap even if he had wanted to—which Julia Cloud did not—with an eager, excited girl sitting beside the bed, just fluttering with ideas about couches and pillows and furniture and curtains.
"We'll have a great deep couch, with air-cushions on the seat and back, and put it in the middle of the living-room facing the fireplace, won't we, Cloudy? And what color do you think would be pretty for the cushions? I guess blue, deep, dark-blue brocaded velvet, or something soft that will tone well with the mahogany woodwork. I love mahogany in a white room, don't you, Cloudy? And I had a great big blue Chinese rug sent over that I think will do nicely for there. You like blue, don't you, Cloudy?" she finished anxiously. "Because I want to have you like it more even than we do."
"Oh, I love it!" gasped Julia Cloud, trying to set her mind to revel in extravagant desires without compunction. She was not used to considering life in terms of Chinese rugs or mahogany and brocade velvet.
"I'd like the curtains next the windows to be all alike all over the house, wouldn't you? Just sheer, soft, creamy white. And then inner curtains of Chinese silk or something like that. We'd want blue in the living-room, of course, if we had the blue rugs and couch, and oh! old rose, I guess, in the dining-room, or perhaps mahogany color or tan. Green for that sun-porch room! That's it, and lots of willow chairs and tables! And rush mats on the tiled floor! Oh! Aren't we having fun, Cloudy, dear? Now, I'll write out a list of things we have to buy while you take a nap."
And so it went on the whole afternoon, until the sound of a distant whistle warned them that the five-o'clock train was coming in and they must be prepared to meet Mr. Luddington.
According to programme they hurried into their wraps, and went down to the piazza, to wait for the car. None too soon, for Allison was already driving around the curve in front of the door, and Mr. Luddington sat beside him, radiating satisfaction. Anything that pleased his adorable wards pleased him, but this especially so, for he was in a hurry to respond to the many telegrams summoning him home to California, and the quicker this little household was settled, the sooner he might leave them.
They drove at once, of course, to the house, Allison and Leslie talking fast and eagerly every minute of the way, their eyes bright and their faces beautiful with enthusiasm; and Mr. Luddington could only sit and listen, and smile over their heads at Julia Cloud, who was smiling also, and who in her new silvery garments looked to him all the more a lady and fit to play mother to his wards.
"Well, now, now, now!" said Guardy Lud after they had gone carefully over every room and were coming down-stairs again. "This is great! This certainly is great. I couldn't have had it better if I'd made it to order, could I? And I certainly wish you were settled here, and I could stay long enough to take breakfast with you and enjoy some more of your excellent buckwheat cakes, Miss Cloud." He turned with a gallant bow to Julia. "I hope you'll teach my little girl here to bake them just like that, so she can make me some when she comes back to California to visit us again."
They rode him around the town, through the college grounds, and then back to the inn for dinner. That evening they spent in discussion and business plans for the winter. The next morning they took Mr. Luddington up to the college, where he made final arrangements for the young people to be entered as students, and afterwards drove to the city. Mr. Luddington had one or two friends there to whom he wished to introduce them, that they might have some one near at hand to call upon in a time of need. He also took them all to a bank, and arranged their bank accounts so that they might draw what they needed at any time. After lunch he went with them to several of the largest stores, and opened a charge account for them. Then, with a warm hand-shake for Julia Cloud and an emotional good-by for the young people, he left them to rush for his train.
"We might stay in town to-night, and be ready to shop early in the morning," proposed Leslie.
"No," said Allison decidedly. "Cloudy looks worn to a frazzle, and I'm sick to death of the city. Let's beat it back to where they have good air. We can go right to bed after dinner, and get up good and early, and be here as soon as the stores are open. They don't open till nine o'clock. I saw the signs on the doors everywhere."
So back they went for a good night's rest, and were up and at it early in the morning, scarcely noticing the way they rode, so interested were they in deciding how many chairs and beds and tables they needed to buy.
"Let's get the curtains first, and then we can have the windows washed, and put them right up," said Leslie, "and nobody can see in. I'm crazy to be shut into our own house, and feel that it belongs to us. We can select them while Allison's gone to see what's the matter with his engine."
But, when Julia Cloud heard the stupendous price that was asked for ready-made curtains or curtains made to order, with fixtures and installation, she exclaimed in horror:
"Leslie! This is foolish. We can easily make them ourselves, and put them up for less than half the price. If I had only brought my sewing-machine! But it was all out of repair."
"Could we really make them ourselves, Cloudy? Wouldn't that be fun? We'll get a sewing-machine, of course. We'll need it for other things, too, sometimes, won't we? Of course we'll get one. We'll buy that next. Now, how many yards of each of these do we need?"
In a few minutes the salesman had figured out how much was needed, counted the number of fixtures for doorways and windows, and arranged to send the package down to the car at a certain time later in the morning. Then they went at once and bought a sewing-machine, one that Julia Cloud knew all about and said was the best and lightest on the market. Leslie was as pleased with the idea of learning to run it as if it had been a new toy and she a child.
"We'll have it sent right to the little new house, and then we can go there evenings after we are through shopping, and sew. You can cut, and I can put in the hems, if you think I can do them well enough. We must get scissors and thread, a lot of it, and silk to match the colored curtains, too."
They took the rooms one at a time, and furnished them, Allison joining them, and taking as much interest in the design of the furniture as if he had been a young bridegroom just setting up housekeeping for himself.
They had set aside a certain sum for each room so that they would not overstep their guardian's limit, and with Julia Cloud to put on the brakes, and suggest simplicity, and decide what was in good taste for such a small village house, they easily came within the generous limit allowed them.
It was a great game for Julia Cloud to come out of her simple country life and plunge into this wholesale beautiful buying untroubled by a continual feeling that she must select the very cheapest without regard to taste or desire. It was wonderful; but it was wearying in spite of the delight, and so the little house was not all furnished in a day.
"Well, the living-room's done, anyway, and the willow set for the porch room!" sighed Leslie, leaning back with a fling of weariness. "Now to-morrow we'll do the dining-room."
"To-morrow's Sunday, Les; the stores aren't open. Use your bean a little, child."
Leslie's beautiful face drew itself into a snarl of impatience, the first, really, that Julia Cloud had seen.
"Oh, darn!" said Leslie's pretty lips. "Isn't that too horrid? I forgot all about it. I wonder what they have to have Sunday for, anyway. It's just a dull old bore!"
"O Leslie, darling!" said Julia Cloud, aghast, something in her heart growing suddenly heavy and sinking her down, down, so that she felt as if she could hardly hold her head up another minute.
"Well, Cloudy, dear, don't you think it's a bore yourself, truly? Come, now, own up. And I'm sure I don't see what's the use of it, do you? One can't do a thing that's nice. But I'll tell you what we can do!" her eyes growing bright with eagerness again. "We'll measure and cut all the curtains, and turn the hems up. And, Allison, you can put up the fixtures. If only the machine could have been sent up to-day, we could have had the curtains all done, couldn't we, Cloudy?"
But Julia Cloud's lips were white and trembling, and her sweet eyes had suddenly gone dark with trouble and apprehension.
"O Leslie, darling child!" she gasped again. "You don't mean you would work on the Sabbath day!"
"Why, why not, Cloudy, dear? Is there anything wrong about that?"
Julia Cloud had a sudden feeling that everything was whirling beneath her—the very foundations of the earth. She drew a deep breath, and tried to steady herself, thinking in her heart that she must be very calm and not make any mistakes in this great crisis that had arisen. It flashed across her consciousness that she was a simple, old-fashioned woman, accustomed to old-fashioned ideas, living all her life in a little town where the line between the church and the world was strongly marked, where the traditions of Christianity were still held sacred in the hearts of many and where the customs of worldliness had not yet noticeably invaded. All the articles she had read in the religious press about the worldliness of the modern Sabbath, the terrible desecration of the day that had been dear and sacred to her all her life as being the time when she came closest to her Lord; all the struggle between the church and the world to keep the old laws rigidly; and all the sneers she had seen in the secular press against the fanatics who were trying to force the world back to Puritanism, came shivering to her mind in one great thrill of agony as she recognized that she was face to face with one of the biggest religious problems of the day, and must fight it out alone.