HotFreeBooks.com
Esther - A Book for Girls
by Rosa Nouchette Carey
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Mr. Lucas rang for nurse, who always waited on Miss Ruth as well as Flurry, but she had gone to bed with a sick headache. The housemaid was young and awkward, and lost her head entirely, so Uncle Geoffrey sent her away to get her mistress' room ready, and he and Allan carried Miss Ruth up between them; and a few minutes afterward I heard Allan's whistle, and ran out into the hall.

"Good-night, Esther," he said, hurriedly; I am just going to the surgery for some medicine. Uncle Geoffrey thinks you ought to offer your services for the night, as that girl is no manner of use; you had better go up now."

"But, Allan, I do not understand nursing in the least," for this suggestion terrified me, and I wanted the walk home with Allan, and a cozy chat when every one had gone to bed; but, to my confusion, he merely looked at me and turned on his heel. Allan never wasted words on these occasions; if people would not do their duty he washed his hands of them. I could not bear him to be disappointed in me, or think me cowardly and selfish, so I went sorrowfully up to Miss Ruth's room, and found Uncle Geoffrey coming in search of me.

"Oh, there you are, Esther," he said, in his most business-like tone, taking it for granted, as a matter of course, that I was going to stay. "I want you to help Miss Lucas to get comfortably to bed; she is in great pain, and cannot speak to you just yet; but you must try to assist her as well as you can. When the medicine comes, I will take a final look at her, and give you your orders." And then he nodded to me and went downstairs. There was no help for it; I must do my little best, and say nothing about it.

Strange to say, I had never been in Miss Ruth's room before. I knew where it was situated, and that its windows looked out on the garden, but I had no idea what sort of a place it was.

It was not large, but so prettily fitted up, and bore the stamp of refined taste, in every minute detail. I always think a room shows the character of its owner; one can judge in an instant, by looking round and noticing the little ornaments and small treasured possessions.

I once questioned Carrie rather curiously about Mrs. Smedley's room, and she answered, reluctantly, that it was a large, bare-looking apartment, with an ugly paper, and full of medicine chests and work-baskets; nothing very comfortable or tasteful in its arrangements. I knew it; I could have told her so without seeing it.

Miss Ruth's was very different; it was perfectly crowded with pretty things, and yet not too many of them. And such beautiful pictures hung on the walls, most of them sacred: but evidently chosen with a view to cheerfulness. Just opposite the bed was "The Flight into Egypt;" a portrait of Flurry; and some sunny little landscapes, most of them English scenes, finished the collection. There were some velvet lined shelves, filled with old china, and some dear little Dresden shepherdesses on the mantelpiece. A stand of Miss Ruth's favorite books stood beside her lounge chair, and her inlaid Indian desk was beside it.

I was glad Miss Ruth liked pretty things; it showed such charming harmony in her character. Poor Miss Ruth, she was evidently suffering severely, as she lay on her couch in front of the fire; her hair was unbound, and fell in thick short lengths over her pillow, reminding me of Flurry's soft fluff, but not quite so bright a gold.

I was sadly frightened when I found she did not open her eyes or speak to me. I am afraid I bungled sadly over my task, though she was quite patient and let me do what I liked with her. It seemed terribly long before I had her safely in her bed. When her head touched the pillows, she raised her eyelids with difficulty.

"Thank you," she whispered; "you have done it so nicely, dear, and have not hurt me more than you could help," and then she motioned me to kiss her. Dear patient Miss Ruth!

I had got the room all straight before Uncle Geoffrey came back, and then Mr. Lucas was with him. Miss Ruth spoke to them both, and took hold of her brother's hand as he leaned over her.

"Good-night, Giles; don't worry about me; Esther is going to take care of me." She took it for granted, too. "Dr. Cameron's medicine will soon take away the pain."

Uncle Geoffrey's orders were very simple; I must watch her and keep up the fire, and give her another dose if she were to awake in two hours' time; and if the attack came on again, I must wake nurse, in spite of her headache, as she knew what to do; and then he left me.

"You are very good to do this," Mr. Lucas said, as he shook hands with me. "Have you been used to nursing?"

I told him, briefly, no; but I was wise enough not to add that I feared I should never keep awake, in Spite of some very strong coffee Uncle Geoffrey had ordered me; but I was so young, and with such an appetite for sleep.

I took out my faded flowers when they left me, said my prayers, and drank my coffee, and then tried to read one of Miss Ruth's books, but the letters seemed to dance before my eyes. I am afraid I had a short doze over Hiawatha, for I had a confused idea that I was Minnehaha laughing-water; and I thought the forest leaves were rustling round me, when a coal dropped out of the fire and startled me.

It woke Miss Ruth from her refreshing sleep; but the pain had left her, and she looked quite bright and like herself.

"I am a bad sleeper, and often lie awake until morning," she said, as I shook up her pillows and begged her to lie down again. "No, it is no good trying again just now, I am so dreadfully wide awake. Poor Esther! how tired you look, being kept out of your bed in this way." And she wanted me to curl myself up on the couch and go to sleep, but I stoutly refused; Uncle Geoffrey had said I was to watch her until morning. When she found I was inexorable in my resolution to keep awake, she began to talk.

"I wonder if you know what pain is, Esther—real positive agony?" and when I assured her that a slight headache was the only form of suffering I had ever known, she gave a heavy sigh.

"How strange, how fortunate, singular too, it seems to me. No pain! that must be a foretaste of heaven;" and she repeated, dreamily, "no more pain there. Oh, Esther, if you knew how I long sometimes for heaven."

The words frightened me, somehow; they spoke such volumes of repressed longing. "Dear Miss Ruth, why?" I asked, almost timidly.

"Can you ask why, and see me as I am to-night?" she asked, with scarcely restrained surprise. "If I could only bear it more patiently and learn the lesson it is meant to teach me, 'perfect through suffering,' the works of His chisel!" And then she softly repeated the words,

"Shedding soft drops of pity Where the sharp edges of the tool have been."

"I always loved that stanza so; it gave me the first idea I ever quite grasped how sorry He is when He is obliged to hurt us." And as I did not know how to answer her, she begged me to fetch the book, and she would show me the passage for myself.



CHAPTER XII.

I WAS NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS.

I had no idea Miss Ruth could talk as she did that night. She seemed to open her heart to me with the simplicity of a child, giving me a deeper insight into a very lovely nature. Carrie had hitherto been my ideal, but on this night I caught myself wondering once or twice whether Carrie would ever exercise such patience and uncomplaining endurance under so many crossed purposes, such broken work.

"I was never quite like other people," she said to me when I had closed the book; "you know I was a mere infant in my nurse's arms, when that accident happened." I nodded, for I had heard the sad details from Uncle Geoffrey; how an unbroken pair of young horses had shied across the road just as the nurse who was carrying Miss Ruth was attempting to cross it; the nurse had been knocked down and dreadfully injured, and her little charge had been violently thrown against the curb, and it had been thought by the doctor that one of the horses must have kicked her. For a long time she lay in a state of great suffering, and it was soon known that her health had sustained permanent injury.

"I was always a crooked, stunted little thing," she went on, with a lovely smile. "My childhood was a sad ordeal; it was just battling with pain, and making believe that I did not mind. I used to try and bear it as cheerfully as I could, because mother fretted so over me; but in secret I was terribly rebellious, often I cried myself to sleep with angry passionate tears, because I was not like other girls.

"Do you care to hear all this?" interrupting herself to look at my attentive face. It must have been a sufficient answer, for she went on talking without waiting for me to speak.

"Giles was very good to me, but it was hard on him for his only sister to be such a useless invalid. He was active and strong, and I could not expect to keep him chained to my couch—I was always on a couch then—he had his friends and his cricket and football, and I could not expect to see much of him, I had to let him go with the rest.

"Things went on like this—outward submission and inward revolt—much affection, but little of the grace of patience, until the eve of my confirmation, when a stranger came to preach at the parish church. I never heard his name before, and I never have heard it since. People said he came from a distance; but I shall never forget that sermon to my dying day, or the silvery penetrating voice that delivered it.

"It was as though a message from heaven was brought straight to me, to the poor discontented child who sat so heart weary and desponding in the corner of the pew. I cannot oven remember the text; it was something about the suffering of Christ, but I knew that it was addressed to the suffering members of His church, and that he touched upon all physical and mental pain. And what struck me most was that he spoke of pain as a privilege, a high privilege and special training; something that called us into a fuller and inner fellowship with our suffering head.

"He told us the heathen might dread pain, but not the Christian; that one really worthy of the name must be content to be the cross bearer, to tread really and literally in the steps of the Master.

"What if He unfolded to us the mystery of pain? Would He not unfold the mystery of love too? What generous souls need fear that dread ordeal, that was to remove them from the outer to the inner court? Ought they not to rejoice that they were found worthy to share His reproach? He said much more than this, Esther, but memory is so weak and betrays one. But he had flung a torch into the darkest recesses of my soul, and the sudden light seemed to scorch and shrivel up all the discontent and bitterness; and, oh, the peace that succeeded; it was as though a drowning mariner left off struggling and buffeting with the waves that were carrying him to the shore, but just lay still and let himself be floated in."

"And you were happier," I faltered, as she suddenly broke off, as though exhausted.

"Yes, indeed," she returned softly. "Pain was not any more my enemy, but the stern life companion He had sent to accompany me—the cross that I must carry out of love to Him; oh, how different, how far more endurable! I took myself in hand by-and-by when I grew older and had a better judgment of things. I knew mine was a life apart, a separated life; by that I mean that I should never know the joy of wifehood or motherhood, that I must create my own little world, my own joys and interests."

"And you have done so."

"Yes, I have done so; I am a believer in happiness; I am quite sure in my mind that our beneficent Creator meant all His creatures to be happy, that whatever He gives them to bear, that He intends them to abide in the sunshine of His peace, and I determined to be happy. I surrounded my-self with pretty things, with pictures that were pleasant to the eye and recalled bright thoughts. I made my books my friends, and held sweet satisfying communion with minds of all ages. I cultivated music, and found intense enjoyment in the study of Handel and Beethoven.

"When I got a little stronger I determined to be a worker too, and glean a little sheaf or two after the reapers, if it were only a dropped ear now and then.

"I took up the Senana Mission. You have no idea how important I have grown, or what a vast correspondence I have kept up—the society begin to find me quite useful to them—and I have dear unknown correspondents whom I love as old friends, and whose faces I shall only see, perhaps, when we meet in heaven.

"When dear Florence died—that was my sister-in-law, you know—I came to live with Giles, and to look after Flurry. I am quite a responsible woman, having charge of the household, and trying to be a companion to Giles; confess now, Esther, it is not such a useless life after all?"

I do not know what I answered her. I have a dim recollection that I burst into some extravagant eulogium or other, for she colored to her temples and called me a foolish child, and begged me seriously never to say such things to her again.

"I do not deserve all that, Esther, but you are too young to judge dispassionately; you must recollect that I have fewer temptations than other people. If I were strong and well I might be worldly too."

"No, never," I answered indignantly; "you would always be better than other people, Miss Ruth—you and Carrie—oh, why are you both so good?" with a despairing inflection in my voice. "How you must both look down on me."

"I know some one who is good, too," returned Miss Ruth, stroking my hair. "I know a brave girl who works hard and wears herself out in loving service, who is often tired and never complains, who thinks little of herself, and yet who does much to brighten other lives, and I think you know her too, Esther?" But I would not let her go on; it was scant goodness to love her, and Allan, and Dot. How could any one do otherwise? And what merit could there be in that?

But though I disclaimed her praise, I was inwardly rejoiced that she should think such things of me, and should judge me worthy of her confidence. She was treating me as though I were her equal and friend, and, to do her justice the idea of my being a governess never seemed to enter into hers or Mr. Lucas' head.

They always treated me from this time as a young friend, who conferred a favor on them by coming. My salary seemed to pass into my hand with the freedom of a gift. Perhaps it was that Uncle Geoffrey was such an old and valued friend, and that Miss Ruth knew that in point of birth the Camerons were far above the Lucases, for we were an old family whom misfortune had robbed of our honors.

However this may be, my privileges were many, and the yoke of service lay lightly on my shoulders. Poor Carrie, indeed, had to eat the bitter bread of dependence, and to take many a severe rebuke from her employer. Mrs. Thorne was essentially a vulgar-minded woman. She was affected by the adventitious adjuncts of life; dress, mere station and wealth weighed largely in her view of things. Because we were poor, she denied our claim to equality; because Carrie taught her children, she snubbed and repressed her, to keep her in her place, as though Carrie were a sort of Jack-in-the-box to be jerked back with every movement.

When Miss Ruth called on mother, Mrs. Thorne shrugged her shoulders, and wondered at the liberality of some people's views. When we were asked to dinner at the Cedars (I suppose Mrs. Smedley told her, for Carrie never gossiped), Mrs. Thorne's eye brows were uplifted in a surprised way. Her scorn knew no bounds when she called one afternoon, and saw Carrie seated at Miss Ruth's little tea-table; she completely ignored her through the visit, except to ask once after her children's lessons. Carrie took her snubbing meekly, and seemed perfectly indifferent. Her quiet lady-like bearing seemed to impress Miss Ruth most favorably, for when Carrie took her leave she kissed her, a thing she had never done before. I looked across at Mrs. Thorne, and saw her tea-cup poised half-way to her lips. She was transfixed with astonishment.

"I envy you your sister, Esther," said Miss Ruth, busying herself with the silver kettle. "She is a dear girl—a very dear girl."

"Humph!" ejaculated Mrs. Thorne. She was past words, and soon after she took her departure in a high state of indignation and dudgeon.

I did not go home the next day. Allan came to say good-by to me, Uncle Geoffrey followed him, and he and Mr. Lucas both decided that I could not be spared. Nurse was somewhat ailing, and Uncle Geoffrey had to prescribe for her too; and as Miss Ruth recovered slowly from these attacks, she would be very lonely, shut up in her room.

Miss Ruth was overjoyed when I promised to stay with her as long as they wanted me. Allan had satisfied my scruples about Jack and Dot.

"They all think you ought to stay," he said. "Mother was the first to decide that. Martha has promised to attend to Dot in your absence. She grumbled a little, and so did he; but that will not matter. Jack must look after herself," finished this very decided young man, who was apt to settle feminine details in rather a summary fashion.

If mother said it was my duty to remain, I need not trouble my head about minor worries; the duty in hand, they all thought, was with Miss Ruth, and with Miss Ruth I would stay.

"It will be such a luxury to have you, Esther," she said, in her old bright way. "My head is generally bad after these attacks, and I cannot read much to myself, and with all my boasted resolution the hours do seem very long. Flurry must spare you to me after the morning, and we will have nice quiet times together."

So I took possession of the little room next hers, and put away the few necessaries that mother had sent me, with a little picture of Dot, that he had drawn for me; but I little thought that afternoon that it would be a whole month before I left it.

I am afraid that long visit spoiled me a little; it was so pleasant resuming some of the old luxuries. Instead of the cold bare room where Jack and I slept, for, in spite of all our efforts, it did look bare in the winter, I found a bright fire burning in my cozy little chamber, and casting warm ruddy gleams over the white china tiles; the wax candles stood ready for lighting on the toilet table; my dressing gown was aging in company with my slippers; everything so snug and essential to comfort, to the very eider-down quilt that looked so tempting.

Then in the morning, just to dress myself and go down to the pleasant dining-room, with the great logs spluttering out a bright welcome, and the breakfast table loaded with many a dainty. No shivering Dot to coerce into good humor; no feckless Jack to frown into order; no grim Deborah to coax and help. Was it very wicked that I felt all this a relief? Then how deliciously the days passed; the few lessons with Flurry, more play than work; the inspiriting ramble ending generally with a peep at mother and Dot!

The cozy luncheons, at which Flurry and I made our dinners, where Flurry sat in state at the bottom of the table and carved the pudding, and gave herself small airs of consequence, and then the long quiet afternoons with Miss Ruth.

I used to write letters at her dictation, and read to her, not altogether dry reading, for she dearly loved an amusing book. It was the "Chronicles of Carlingford" we read, I remember; and how she praised the whole series, calling them pleasant wholesome pictures of life. We used to be quite sorry when Rhoda, the rosy-cheeked housemaid, brought up the little brass kettle, and I had to leave off to make Miss Ruth's tea. Mr. Lucas always came up when that was over, to sit with his sister a little and tell her all the news of the day, while I went down to Flurry, whom I always found seated on the library sofa, with her white frock spreading out like wings, waiting to sit with father while he ate his dinner.

I always had supper in Miss Ruth's room, and never left her again till nurse came in to put her comfortable for the night. Flurry used to run in on her way to bed to hug us both and tell us what father had said.

"You are father's treasure, his one ewe lamb, are you not?" said Miss Ruth once, as she drew the child fondly toward her; and when she had gone, running off with her merry laugh, she spoke almost with a sigh of her brother's love for the child.

"Giles's love for her almost resembles idolatry. The child is like him, but she has poor Florence's eyes and her bright happy nature. I tremble sometimes to think what would become of him if he lost her. I have lived long enough to know that God sometimes takes away 'the desire of a man's eyes, all that he holds most dear.'"

"But not often," I whispered, kissing her troubled brow, for a look of great sadness came over her face at the idea; but her words recurred to me by-and-by when I heard a short conversation between Flurry and her father.

After the first fortnight Miss Ruth regained strength a little, and though still an invalid was enabled to spend some hours downstairs. Before I left the Cedars she had resumed all her old habits, and was able to preside at her brother's dinner-table.

I joined them on these occasions, both by hers and Mr. Lucas' request, and so became better acquainted with Flurry's father.

One Sunday afternoon I was reading in the drawing-room window, and trying to finish my book by the failing wintry light, when Flurry's voice caught my attention; she was sitting on a stool at her father's feet turning over the pages of her large picture Bible. Mr. Lucas had been dozing, I think, for there had been no conversation. Miss Ruth had gone upstairs.

"Father," said the little one, suddenly, in her eager voice, "I do love that story of Isaac. Abraham was such a good man to offer up his only son, only God stopped him, you know. I wonder what his mother would have done if he had come home, and told her he had killed her boy. Would she have believed him, do you think? Would she have ever liked him again?"

"My little Florence, what a strange idea to come into your small head." I could tell from Mr. Lucas' tone that such an idea had never occurred to him. What would Sarah have said as she looked upon her son's destroyer? Would she have acquiesced in that dread obedience, that sacrificial rite?

"But, father dear," still persisted Flurry, "I can't help thinking about it; it would have been so dreadful for poor Sarah. Do you think you would have been like Abraham, father; would you have taken the knife to slay your only child?"

"Hush, Florence," cried her father, hoarsely, and he suddenly caught her to him and kissed her, and bade her run away to her Aunt Ruth with some trifling message or other. I could see her childish question tortured him, by the strained look of his face, as he approached the window. He had not known I was there, but when he saw me he said almost irritably, only it was the irritability of suppressed pain:

"What can put such thoughts in the child's head? I hope you do not let her think too much, Miss Cameron?"

"Most children have strange fancies," I returned, quietly. "Flurry has a vivid imagination; she thinks more deeply than you could credit at her age; she often surprises me by the questions she asks. They show an amount of reasoning power that is very remarkable."

"Let her play more," he replied, in a still more annoyed voice. "I hate prodigies; I would not have Flurry an infant phenomenon for the world. She has too much brain-power; she is too excitable; you must keep her back Miss Cameron."

"I will do what I can," I returned humbly; and then, as he still looked anxious and ill at ease, I went on, "I do not think you need trouble about Flurry's precocity; children often say these things. Dot, my little brother—Frankie, I mean—would astonish you with some of his remarks. And then there was Jack," warming up with my subject; "Jack used to talk about harps and angels in the most heavenly way, till mother cried and thought she would die young; and look at Jack now—a strong healthy girl, without an ounce of imagination." I could see Mr. Lucas smile quietly to himself in the dusk, for he knew Jack, and had made more than one quizzical remark on her; but I think my observation comforted him a little, for he said no more, only when Flurry returned he took her on his knees and told her about a wonderful performing poodle he had seen, as a sort of pleasant interlude after her severe Biblical studies.



CHAPTER XIII.

"WE HAVE MISSED DAME BUSTLE."

One other conversation lingered long in my memory, and it took place on my last evening at the Cedars. On the next day I was going home to mother and Dot, and yet I sighed! Oh, Esther, for shame!

It was just before dinner. Miss Ruth had been summoned away to see an old servant of the family, and Flurry had run after her. Mr. Lucas was standing before the fire, warming himself after the manner of Englishmen, and I sat at Miss Ruth's little table working at a fleecy white shawl, that I was finishing to surprise mother.

There was a short silence between us, for though I was less afraid of Mr. Lucas than formerly, I never spoke to him unless he addressed me; but, looking up from my work a moment, I saw him contemplating me in a quiet, thoughtful way, but he smiled pleasantly when our eyes met.

"This is your last evening, I think, Miss Cameron?"

"Indeed it is," I returned, with a short sigh.

"You are sorry to leave us?" he questioned, very kindly; for I think he had heard the sigh.

"I ought not to be sorry," I returned, stoutly; "for I am going home."

"Oh! and home means everything with you!"

"It means a great deal," knitting furiously, for I was angry at myself for being so sorry to leave; "but Miss Ruth has been so good to me that she has quite spoiled me. I shall not be half so fit for all the hard work I have at home.

"That is a pity," he returned, slowly, as though he were revolving not my words, but some thoughts in his own mind. "Do you know I was thinking of something when you looked up just now. I was wondering why you should not remain with us altogether." I put down my knitting at that, and looked him full in the face; I was so intensely surprised at his words. "You and my sister are such friends; it would be pleasant for her to have you for a constant companion, for I am often busy and tired, and——" He paused as though he would have added something, but thought better of it. "And she is much alone. A young lively girl would rouse her and do her good, and Flurry would be glad of you."

"I should like it very much," I returned, hesitatingly, "if it were not for mother and Dot." Just for the moment the offer dazzled me and blinded my common sense. Always to occupy my snug little pink chamber; to sit with Miss Ruth in this warm, luxurious drawing-room; to be waited on, petted, spoiled, as Miss Ruth always spoiled people. No wonder such a prospect allured a girl of seventeen.

"Oh, they will do without you," he returned, with a man's indifference to female argument. He and Allan were alike in the facility with which they would knock over one's pet theories. "You are like other young people, Miss Cameron; you think the world cannot get on without you. When you are older you will get rid of this idea," he continued, turning amused eyes on my youthful perplexity. "It is only the young who think one cannot do without them," finished this worldly-wise observer of human nature.

Somehow that stung me and put me on my mettle, and in a moment I had arrayed the whole of my feeble forces against so arbitrary an arrangement of my destiny.

"I cannot help what other young people think," I said, in rather a perverse manner; "they may be wise or foolish as they like, but I am sure of one thing, that mother and Dot cannot do without me."

I am afraid my speech was rather rude and abrupt, but Mr. Lucas did not seem to mind it. His eyes still retained their amused twinkle, but he condescended to argue the point more seriously with me, and sat down in Miss Ruth's low chair, as though to bring himself more on a level with me.

"Let me give you a piece of advice, Miss Cameron; never be too sure of anything. Granted that your mother will miss you very badly at first (I can grant you that, if you like), but there is your sister to console her; and that irresistible Jack—how can your mother, a sensible woman in her way, let a girl go through life with such a name?"

"She will not answer to any other,"' I returned, half offended at this piece of plain speaking; but it was true we had tried Jacqueline, and Lina, and Jack had always remained obstinately deaf.

"Well, well, she will get wiser some day, when she grows into a woman; she will take more kindly to a sensible name then; but as I was saying, your mother may miss you, but all the same she may be thankful to have you so well established and in so comfortable a position. You will be a member of the family, and be treated as well as my sister herself; and the additional salary may be welcome just now, when there are school-bills to pay."

It seemed clear common sense, put in that way, but not for one instant would I entertain such a proposition seriously. The more tempting it looked, the more I distrusted it. Mr. Lucas might be worldly-wise, but here I knew better than he. Would a few pounds more reconcile mother to my vacant place, or cheer Dot's blank face when he knew Esther had deserted him?

"You are very good," I said, trying to keep myself well in hand, and to speak quietly—but now my cheeks burned with the effort; "and I thank you very much for your kind thought, but——"

"Give me no buts," he interrupted, smiling; "and don't thank me for a piece of selfishness, for I was thinking most of my sister and Flurry."

"But all the same I must thank you," I returned, firmly; "and I would like you to believe how happy I should have been if I could have done this conscientiously."

"It is really so impossible?" still incredulously.

"Really and truly, Mr. Lucas. I am worth little to other people, I know, but in their estimation I am worth much. Dot would fret badly; and though mother would make the best of it—she always does—she would never get over the missing, for Carrie is always busy, and Jack is so young, and——"

"There is the dinner bell, and Ruth still chattering with old nurse. That is the climax of our argument. I dare say no more, you are so terribly in earnest, Miss Cameron, and so evidently believe all you say; but all the same, mothers part with their daughters sometimes, very gladly, too, under other circumstances; but there, we will let the subject drop for the present." And then he looked again at me with kindly amused eyes, refusing to take umbrage at my obstinacy; and then, to my relief, Miss Ruth interrupted us.

I felt rather extinguished for the rest of the evening. I did not dare tell Miss Ruth, for fear she would upbraid me for my refusal. I knew she would side with her brother, and would think I could easily be spared from home. And if Carrie would only give up her parish work, and fit into the niche of the daughter of the house, she could easily fulfill all my duties. If—a great big "if" it was—an "if" that would spoil Carrie's life, and destroy all those sweet solemn hopes of hers. No, no; I must not entertain such a thought for a moment.

Mr. Lucas had spoiled my last evening for me, and I think he knew it, for he came to my side as I was putting away my work, and spoke a few contrite words.

"Don't let our talk worry you," he said, in so low a voice that Miss Ruth could not hear his words. "I am sure you were quite right to decide as you did—judging from your point of view, I mean, for of course I hold a different opinion. If you ever see fit to change your decision, you must promise to come and tell me." And of course I promised unhesitatingly.

Miss Ruth followed me to my room, and stood by the fire a few minutes.

"You look grave to-night, Esther, and I flatter myself that it is because you are sorry that your visit has come to an end."

"And you are right," I returned, throwing my arms round her light little figure. Oh, how dearly I had grown to love her! "I would like to be always with you, Miss Ruth; to wait upon you and be your servant. Nothing would be beneath me—nothing. You are fond of me a little, are you not?" for somehow I craved for some expression of affection on this last night. Miss Ruth was very affectionate, but a little undemonstrative sometimes in manner.

"I am very fond of you, Esther," she replied, turning her sweet eyes to me, "and I shall miss my kind, attentive nurse more than I can say. Poor Nurse Gill is getting quite jealous of you. She says Flurry is always wild to get to her playfellow, and will not stay with her if she can help it, and that now I can easily dispense with her services for myself. I had to smooth her down, Esther; the poor old creature quite cried about it, but I managed to console her at last."

"I was always afraid that Mrs. Gill did not like me," I returned, in a pained voice, for somehow I always disliked hurting people's feelings.

"Oh, she likes you very much; you must not think that. She says Miss Cameron is a very superior young lady, high in manner, and quite the gentlewoman. I think nurse's expression was 'quite the lady, Miss Ruth.'"

"I have never been high in manner to her," I laughed. "We have a fine gossip sometimes over the nursery fire. I like Mrs. Gill, and would not injure her feelings for the world. She is so kind to Dot, too, when he comes to play with Flurry."

"Poor little man, he will be glad to get his dear Esther back," she returned, in a sympathizing voice; and then she bade me good-night, and begged me to hasten to bed, as St. Barnabas had just chimed eleven.

I woke the next morning with a weight upon me, as though I were expecting some ordeal; and though I scolded myself vigorously for my moral cowardice, and called myself a selfish, lazy girl, I could not shake off the feeling.

Never had Miss Ruth seemed so dear to me as she had that day. As the hour approached for my departure I felt quite unhappy at the thought of even leaving her for those few hours.

"We shall see you in the morning," she said, quite cheerfully, as I knelt on the rug, drawing on my warm gloves. I fancied she noticed my foolish, unaccountable depression, and would not add to it by any expression of regret.

"Oh, yes," I returned, with a sort of sigh, as I glanced round the room where I had passed the evenings so pleasantly of late, and thought of the mending basket at home. I was naughty, I confess it; there were absolutely tears in my eyes, as I ran out into the cold dusk of a February evening.

The streets were wet and gleaming, the shop lights glimmered on pools of rain-water; icy drops pattered down on my face; the brewers' horses steamed as they passed with the empty dray; the few foot passengers in High street shuffled along as hastily as they could; even Polly Pattison's rosy face looked puckered up with cold as she put up the shutters of the Dairy.

Uncle Geoffrey's voice hailed me on the doorstep.

"Here you are, little woman. Welcome home! We have missed Dame Bustle dreadfully;" and as he kissed me heartily I could not help stroking his rough, wet coat sleeve in a sort of penitent way.

"Have you really missed me? It is good of you to say so, Uncle Geoff."

"The house has not felt the same," he returned, pushing me in before him, and bidding me shake my cloak as I took it off in the passage.

And then the door opened, and dear mother came out to help me. As I felt her gentle touch, and heard Dot's feeble "Hurrah! here is Esther!" the uncomfortable, discontented feelings vanished, and my better self regained the mastery. Yes, it was homely and shabby; but oh! so sunny and warm! I forgot Miss Ruth when Dot's beautiful little face raised itself from the cushions of the sofa, on which I had placed him, and he put his arms round me as I knelt down beside him, and whispered that his back was bad, and his legs felt funny, and he was so glad I was home again, for Martha was cross, and had hard scrubby hands, and hurt him often, though she did not mean it. This and much more did Dot whisper in his childish confidence.

Then Jack came flying in, with Smudge, as usual, in her arms, and a most tumultuous welcome followed. And then came Carrie, with her soft kiss and few quiet words. I thought she looked paler and thinner than when I left home, but prettier than ever; and she, too, seemed pleased to see me. I took off my things as quickly as I could—not stopping to look round the somewhat disorderly room, where Jack had worked her sweet will for the last month—and joined the family at the tea-table. And afterward I sat close to mother, and talked to her as I mended one of Dot's shirts.

Now and then my thoughts strayed to a far different scene—to a room lighted up with wax candles in silver sconces, and the white china lamp that always stood on Miss Ruth's little table.

I could see in my mind's eye the trim little figure in black silk and lace ruffles, the diamonds gleaming on the small white hands. Flurry would be on the rug in her white frock, playing with the Persian kittens; most likely her father would be watching her from his armchair.

I am afraid I answered mother absently, for, looking up, I caught her wistful glance at me. Carrie was at her night school, and Uncle Geoffrey had been called out. Jack was learning her lessons in the front parlor, and only Dot kept us company.

"You must find it very different from the Cedars," she said, regretfully; "all that luxury must have spoiled you for home, Esther. Don't think I am complaining, my love, if I say you seem a little dull to-night."

"Oh, mother!" flushing up to my temples with shame and irritation at her words; and then another look at the worn face under the widow's cap restrained my momentary impatience. Dot, who was watching us, struck in in his childish way.

"Do you like the Cedars best, Essie? Would you rather be with Flurry than me?"

My own darling! The bare idea was heresy, and acted on me like a moral douche.

"Oh! mother and Dot," I said, "how can you both talk so? I am not spoiled—I refuse to be spoiled. I love the Cedars, but I love my own dear little home best." And at this moment I believed my own words. "Dot, how can you be so faithless—how could I love Flurry best? And what would Allan say? You are our own little boy, you know; he said so, and you belong to us both." And Dot's childish jealousy vanished. As for dear mother, she smiled at me in a sweet, satisfied way.

"That is like our own old Esther. You were so quiet all tea-time, my dear, that I fancied something was amiss. It is so nice having you working beside me again," she went on, with a little gentle artifice. "I have missed your bright talk so much in the evenings."

"Has Carrie been out much?" I asked; but I knew what the answer would be.

"Generally three evenings in the week," returned mother, with a sigh, "and her home evenings have been so engrossed of late. Mrs. Smedley gives her all sorts of things to do—mending and covering books; I hardly knew what."

"Carrie never sings to us now," put in Dot.

"She is too tired, that is what she always says; but I cannot help thinking a little music would be a healthy relaxation for her; but she will have it that with her it is waste of time," said mother.

Waste of time to sing to mother! I broke my thread in two with indignation at the thought. Yes, I was wanted at home, I could see that; Deborah told me so in her taciturn way, when I went to the kitchen to speak to her and Martha.

I had sad work with my room before I slept that night, when Jack was fast asleep; and I was tired out when I crept shivering into my cold bed. I hardly seemed to have slept an hour before I saw Martha's unlovely face bending over me with the flaming candle, so different from Miss Ruth's trim maid.

"Time to get up, Miss Esther, if you are going to dress Master Dot before breakfast. It is mortal cold, to be sure, and raw as raw; but I have brought you a cup of hot tea, as you seemed a bit down last night."

The good creature! I could have hugged her in my girlish gratitude. The tea was a delicious treat, and put new heart into me. I was quite fresh and rested when I went into Dot's little room. He opened his eyes widely when he saw me.

"Oh, Esther! is it really you, and not that ugly old Martha?" he cried out, joyfully. "I do hate her, to be sure. I will be a good boy, and you shall not have any trouble." And thereupon he fell to embracing me as though he would never leave off.



CHAPTER XIV.

PLAYING IN TOM TIDLER'S GROUND.

We had had an old-fashioned winter—weeks of frost to delight the hearts of the young skaters of Milnthorpe; clear, cold bracing days, that made the young blood in our veins tingle with the sense of new life and buoyancy; long, dark winter evenings, when we sat round the clear, red fire, and the footsteps of the few passengers under our window rang with a sort of metallic sound on the frozen pavements.

What a rush of cold air when the door opened, what snow-powdered garments we used to bring into Deborah's spotless kitchen! Dot used to shiver away from my kisses, and put up a little mittened hand to ward me off. "You are like a snow-woman, Essie," he would say. "Your face is as hard and cold and red as one of the haws Flurry brought me."

"She looks as blooming as a rose in June," Uncle Geoffrey answered once, when he heard Dot's unflattering comparison. "Be off, lassie, and take off those wet boots;" but as I closed the door he added to mother, "Esther is improving, I think; she is less angular, and with that clear fresh color she looks quite bonnie."

"Quite bonnie." Oh, Uncle Geoffrey, you little knew how that speech pleased me.

Winter lasted long that year, and then came March, rough and boisterous and dull as usual, with its cruel east wind and the dust, "a peck of which was worth a king's ransom," as father used to say.

Then came April, variable and bright, with coy smiles forever dissolving in tears; and then May in full blossom and beauty giving promise of summer days.

We used to go out in the lanes, Flurry and I, to gather the spring flowers that Miss Ruth so dearly loved. We made a primrose basket once for her room, and many a cowslip ball for Dot, and then there were dainty little bunches of violets for mother and Carrie, only Carrie took hers to a dying girl in Nightingale lane.

The roads round Milnthorpe were so full of lovely things hidden away among the mosses, that I proposed to Flurry that we should collect basketsful for Carrie's sick people. Miss Ruth was delighted with the idea, and asked Jack and Dot to join us, and we all drove down to a large wood some miles from the town, and spent the whole of the spring afternoon playing in a new Tom Tidler's ground, picking up gold and silver. The gold lay scattered broadcast on the land, in yellow patches round the trunks of trees, or beyond in the gleaming meadows; and we worked until the primroses lay heaped up in the baskets in wild confusion, and until our eyes ached with the yellow gleam. I could hear Dot singing softly to himself as he picked industriously. When he and Flurry got tired they seated themselves like a pair of happy little birds on the low bough of a tree. I could hear them twittering softly to each other, as they swung, with their arms interlaced, backward and forward in the sunlight; now and then I caught fragments of their talk.

"We shall have plenty of flowers to pick in heaven," Dot was saying as I worked near them.

"Oh, lots," returned Flurry, in an eager voice, "red and white roses, and lilies of the valley, miles of them—millions and millions, for all the little children, you know. What a lot of children there will be, Dot, and how nice to do nothing but play with them, always and forever."

"We must sing hymns, you know," returned Dot, with a slight hesitation in his voice. Being a well brought up little boy, he was somewhat scandalized by Flurry's views; they sounded somewhat earthly and imperfect.

"Oh, we can sing as we play," observed Flurry, irreverently; she was not at all in a heavenly mood this afternoon. "We can hang up our harps, as they do in the Psalms, you know, and just gather flowers as long as we like."

"It is nice to think one's back won't ache so much over it, there," replied poor Dot, who was quite weak and limp from his exertions. "One of the best things about heaven is, though it all seems nice enough, that we shan't be tired. Think of that, Flurry—never to be tired!"

"I am never tired, though I am sleepy sometimes," responded Flurry, with refreshing candor, "You forget the nicest part, you silly boy, that it will never be dark. How I do hate the dark, to be sure."

Dot opened his eyes widely at this. "Do you?" he returned, in an astonished voice; "that is because you are a girl, I suppose. I never thought much about it. I think it is nice and cozy when one is tucked up in bed. I always imagine the day is as tired as I am, and that she has been put to bed too, in a nice, warm, dark blanket."

"Oh, you funny Dot," crowed Flurry. But she would not talk any more about heaven; she was in wild spirits, and when she had swung enough she commenced pelting Dot with primroses. Dot bore it stoutly for awhile, until he could resist no longer, and there was a flowery battle going on under the trees.

It was quite late in the day when the tired children arrived home.

Carrie fairly hugged Dot when the overflowing baskets were placed at her feet.

"These are for all the sick women and little children," answered Dot, solemnly; "we worked so hard, Flurry and I."

"You are a darling," returned Carrie, dimpling with pleasure.

I believe this was the sweetest gift we could have made her. Nothing for herself would have pleased her half so much. She made Jack and me promise to help her carry them the next day, and we agreed, nothing loth. We had quite a festive afternoon in Nightingale lane.

I had never been with Carrie before in her rounds, and I was wonderfully struck with her manner to the poor folk; there was so much tact, such delicate sympathy in all she said and did. I could see surly faces soften and rough voices grow silent as she addressed them in her simple way. Knots of boys and men dispersed to let her pass.

"Bless her sweet face!" I heard one old road-sweeper say; and all the children seemed to crowd round her involuntarily, and yet, with the exception of Dot, she had never seemed to care for children.

I watched her as she moved about the squalid rooms, arranging the primroses in broken bowls, and even teacups, with a sort of ministering grace I had never noticed in her before. Mother had always praised her nursing. She said her touch was so soft and firm, and her movement so noiseless; and she had once advised me to imitate her in this; and as I saw the weary eyes brighten and the languid head raise itself on the pillow at her approach, I could not but own that Carrie was in her natural sphere.

As we returned home with our empty baskets, she told us a great deal about her district, and seemed grateful to us for sharing her pleasure. Indeed, I never enjoyed a talk with Carrie more; I never so thoroughly entered into the interest of her work.

One June afternoon, when I returned home a little earlier than usual, for Flurry had been called down to go out with her father, I found Miss Ruth sitting with mother.

I had evidently disturbed a most engrossing conversation, for mother looked flushed and a little excited, as she always did when anything happened out of the common, and Miss Ruth had the amused expression I knew so well.

"You are earlier than usual, my dear," said mother, with an odd little twitch of the lip, as though something pleased her. But here Dot, who never could keep a secret for five minutes, burst out in his shrill voice:

"Oh, Essie, what do you think? You will never believe it—you and I and Flurry are going to Roseberry for six whole weeks."

"You have forgotten me, you ungrateful child," returned Miss Ruth in a funny tone; "I am nobody, I suppose, so long as you get your dear Esther and Flurry."

Dot was instinctively a little gentleman. He felt he had made a mistake; so he hobbled up to Miss Ruth, and laid his hand on hers: "We couldn't do without you—could we, Essie?" he said in a coaxing voice. "Esther does not like ordering dinners; she often says so, and she looks ready to cry when Deb brings her the bills. It will be ever so much nicer to have Miss Ruth, won't it, Esther?" But I was too bewildered to answer him.

"Oh, mother, is it really true? Can you really spare us, and for six whole weeks? Oh, it is too delightful! But Carrie, does she not want the change more than I?"

I don't know why mother and Miss Ruth exchanged glances at this; but mother said rather sadly:

"Miss Lucas has been good enough to ask your sister, Esther; she thought you might perhaps take turns; but I am sorry to say Carrie will not hear of it. She says it will spoil your visit, and that she cannot be spared."

"Our parochial slave-driver is going out of town," put in Miss Ruth dryly. She could be a little sarcastic sometimes when Mrs. Smedley's name was implied. In her inmost heart she had no more love than I for the bustling lady.

"She is going to stay with her niece at Newport, and so her poor little subaltern, Carrie, cannot be absent from her post. One day I mean to give a piece of my mind to that good lady," finished Miss Ruth, with a malicious sparkle in her eyes.

"Oh, it's no use talking," sighed mother, and there was quite a hopeless inflection in her voice. "Carrie is a little weak, in spite of her goodness. She is like her mother in that—the strongest mind governs her. I have no chance against Mrs. Smedley."

"It is a shame," I burst out; but Miss Ruth rose from her chair, still smiling.

"You must restrain your indignation till I have gone, Esther," she said, in mock reproof. "Your mother and I have done all we could, and have coaxed and scolded for the last half-hour. The Smedley influence is too strong for us. Never mind, I have captured you and Dot; remember, you must be ready for us on Monday week;" and with that she took her departure.

Mother followed me up to my room, on pretense of looking over Jack's things, but in reality she wanted a chat with me.

The dear soul was quite overjoyed at the prospect of my holiday; she mingled lamentations over Carrie's obstinacy with expressions of pleasure at the treat in store for Dot and me.

"And you will not be lonely without us, mother?"

"My dear, how could I be so selfish! Think of the benefit the sea air will be to Dot! And then, I can trust him so entirely to you." And thereupon she began an anxious inquiry as to the state of my wardrobe, which lasted until the bell rang.

But, in spite of the delicious anticipations that filled me, I was not wholly satisfied, and when mother had said good-night to us I detained Carrie.

She came back a little reluctantly, and asked me what I wanted with her. She looked tired, almost worn out, and the blue veins were far too perceptible on the smooth, white forehead. I noticed for the first time a hollowness about the temples; the marked restlessness of an over-conscientious mind was wearing out the body; the delicacy of her look filled me with apprehension.

"Oh, Carrie!" I said, vehemently, "you are not well; this hot weather is trying you. Do listen to me, darling. I don't want to vex you, but you must promise me to come to Roseberry."

To my surprise she drew back with almost a frightened look on her face; well, not that exactly, but a sort of scared, bewildered expression.

"Don't, Esther. Why will none of you give me any peace? Is it not enough that mother and Miss Lucas have been talking to me, and now you must begin! Do you know how much it costs me to stand firm against you all? You distress me, you wear me out with your talk."

"Why cannot we convince you?" I returned, with a sort of despair. "You are mother's daughter, not Mrs. Smedley's: you owe no right of obedience to that woman."

"How you all hate her!" she sighed. "I must look for no sympathy from any of you—your one thought is to thwart me in every way."

"Carrie!" I almost gasped, for she looked and spoke so unlike herself.

"I don't mean to be unkind," she replied in a softening tone; "I suppose you all mean it for the best. Once for all, Esther, I cannot come to Roseberry. I have promised Mrs. Smedley to look after things in her absence, and nothing would induce me to forfeit my trust."

"You could write to her and say you were not well," I began; but she checked me almost angrily.

"I am well, I am quite well; if I long for rest, if the prospect of a little change would be delightful, I suppose I could resist even these temptations. I am not worse than many other girls; I have work to do, and must do it. No fears of possible breakdowns shall frighten me from my duty. Go and enjoy your holiday, and do not worry about me, Esther." And then she kissed me, and took up her candle.

I was sadly crestfallen, but no arguments could avail, I thought; and so I let her go from me. And yet if I had known the cause of her sudden irritability, I should not so soon have given up all hope. I little knew how sorely she was tempted; how necessary some brief rest and change of scene was to her overwrought nerves. If I had only been patient and pleaded with her, I think I must have persuaded her; but, alas! I never knew how nearly she had yielded.

There was no sleep for Dot that night. I found him in a fever of excitement, thumping his hot pillows and flinging himself about in vain efforts to get cool. It was no good scolding him; he had these sleepless fits sometimes; so I bathed his face and hands, and sat down beside him, and laid my head against the pillow, hoping that he would quiet down by-and-by. But nothing would prevent his talking.

"I wish I were out with the flowers in the garden," he said; "I think it is stupid being tucked up in bed in the summer. Allan is not in bed, is he? He says he is often called up, and has to cross the quadrangle to go to a great bare room where they bind up broken heads. Should you like to be a doctor, Essie?"

"If I were a man," I returned, confidently, "I should be either a clergyman or a doctor; they are the grandest and noblest of professions. One is a cure of bodies, and the other is a cure of souls."

"Oh, but they hurt people," observed Dot, shrinking a little; "they have horrid instruments they carry about with them."

"They only hurt people for their own good, you silly little boy. Think of all the dark sick rooms they visit, and the poor, helpless people they comfort. They spend their lives doing good, healing dreadful diseases, and relieving pain."

"I think Allan's life will be more useful than Fred's," observed Dot. Poor little boy! Constant intercourse with grown-up people was making him precocious. He used to say such sharp, shrewd things sometimes.

I sighed a little when he spoke of Fred. I could imagine him loitering through life in his velveteen coat, doing little spurts of work, but never settling down into thorough hard work.

Allan's descriptions of his life were not very encouraging. His last letter to me spoke a little dubiously about Fred's prospects.

"He is just a drawing-master, and nothing else," wrote Allan. "Uncle Geoffrey's recommendations have obtained admittance for him into one or two good houses, and I hear he has hopes of Miss Hemming's school in Bayswater. Not a very enlivening prospect for our elegant Fred! Fancy that very superior young man sinking into a drawing-master! So much for the hanging committee and the picture that is to represent the Cameron genius.

"I went down to Acacia road on Thursday evening, and dimly perceived Fred across an opaque cloud of tobacco smoke. He and some kindred spirits were talking art jargon in this thick atmosphere.

"Fred looked a Bohemian of Bohemians in his gaudy dressing-gown and velvet smoking-cap. His hair is longer than ever, and he has become aesthetic in his tastes. There was broken china enough to stock a small shop. I am afraid I am rather too much a Philistine for their notions. I got some good downright stares and shrugs over my tough John Bull tendencies.

"Tell mother Fred is all right, and keeping out of debt, and so one must not mind a few harmless vagaries."

"Broken china, indeed!" muttered Uncle Geoff when I had finished reading this clause. "Broken fiddlesticks! Why, the lad must be weak in his head to spend his money on such rubbish." Uncle Geoffrey was never very civil to Fred.

Dot did not say any more, and I began a long story, to keep his tongue quiet. As it was purposely uninteresting, and told in a monotonous voice, it soon had the effect of making him drowsy. When I reached this point, I stole softly from the room. It was bright moonlight when I lay down in bed, and all night long I dreamed of a rippling sea and broad sands, over which Dot and I were walking, hand in hand.



CHAPTER XV.

LIFE AT THE BRAMBLES.

It was a lovely evening when we arrived at Roseberry.

"We lead regular hermit lives at the Brambles, away from the haunts of men," observed Miss Ruth; but I was too much occupied to answer her. Dot and I were peeping through the windows of the little omnibus that was conveying us and our luggage to the cottage. Miss Ruth had a pretty little pony carriage for country use; but she would not have it sent to the station to meet us—the omnibus would hold us all, she said. Nurse could go outside; the other two servants who made up the modest establishment at the Brambles had arrived the previous day.

Roseberry was a straggling little place, without much pretension to gentility. A row of white lodging-houses, with green verandas, looked over the little parade; there was a railed-in green enclosure before the houses, where a few children played.

Half a dozen bathing-machines were drawn up on the beach; beyond was the Preventive station, and the little white cottages where the Preventive men lived, with neat little gardens in front.

The town was rather like Milnthorpe, for it boasted only one long street. A few modest shops, the Blue Boar Inn, and a bow-windowed house, with "Library" painted on it in large characters, were mixed up with pleasant-looking dwelling houses. The little gray church was down a country road, and did not look as though it belonged to the town, but the schools were in High street. Beyond Roseberry were the great rolling downs.

We had left the tiny parade and the lodging houses behind us, and our little omnibus seemed jolting over the beach—I believe they called it a road but it was rough and stony, and seemed to lead to the shore. It was quite a surprise when we drove sharply round a low rocky point, and came upon a low gray cottage, with a little garden running down to the beach.

Truly a hermit's abode, the Brambles; not another house in sight; low, white chalky cliffs, with the green downs above them, and, far as we could see, a steep beach, with long fringes of yellow sands, with the grey sea breaking softly in the distance, for it was low tide, and the sun had set.

"Is this too lonely for you, Esther?" asked Miss Ruth, as we walked up the pebbly path to the porch. It was a deep stone porch, with seats on either side, and its depth gave darkness to the little square hall, with its stone fireplace and oak settles.

"What a delicious place!" was my answer, as I followed her from one room into another. The cottage was a perfect nest of cozy little rooms, all very tiny, and leading into each other.

There was a snug dining-room that led into Mr. Lucas' study, and beyond that two little drawing-rooms, very small, and simply though prettily furnished. They were perfect summer rooms, with their Indian matting and muslin curtains, with wicker chairs and lounges, and brackets with Miss Ruth's favorite china.

Upstairs the arrangements were just as simple; not a carpet was to be seen, only dark polishes floors and strips of Indian matting, cool chintz coverings, and furniture of the simplest maple and pine wood —a charming summer retreat, fitted up with unostentatious taste. There was a tiny garden at the back, shut in by a low chalk cliff, a rough zigzag path that goats might have climbed led to the downs, and there was a breach where we could enjoy the sweet air and wide prospect.

It was quite a cottage garden. All the old-fashioned flowers bloomed there; little pink cabbage roses, Turks-caps, lilies, lupins, and monkshood and columbines. Everlasting peas and scarlet-runners ran along the wall, and wide-lipped convolvuli, scarlet weeds of poppies flaunted beside the delicate white harebells, sweet-william and gillyflowers, and humble southernwood, and homely pinks and fragrant clove carnations, and pansies of every shade in purple and golden patches.

"Oh, Essie, it reminds me of our cottage; why, there are the lilies and the beehives, and there is the porch where you said you should sit on summer evenings and mend Allan's socks." And Dot leaned on his crutches and looked round with bright wide-open eyes.

Our little dream cottage; well, it was not unlike it, only the sea and the downs and the low chalk cliffs were added. How Dot and I grew to love that garden! There was an old medlar tree, very gnarled and crooked, under which Miss Ruth used to place her little tea-table; the wicker chairs were brought out and there we often used to spend our afternoons, with little blue butterflies hovering round us, and the bees humming among the sweet thyme and marjoram, and sometimes an adventurous sheep looking down on us from the cliff.

We led a perfect gypsy life at the Brambles; no one called on us, the vicar of Roseberry was away, and a stranger had taken his duty; no interloper from the outer world broke the peaceful monotony of our days, and the sea kept up its plaintive music night and day, and the larks sang to us, and the busy humming of insect life made an undertone of melody, and in early mornings the little garden seemed steeped in dew and fragrance. We used to rise early, and after breakfast Flurry and I bathed. There was a little bathing-room beyond the cottage with a sort of wooden bridge running over the beach, and there Flurry and I would disport ourselves like mermaids.

After a brisk run on the sands or over the downs, we joined Miss Ruth on the beach, where we worked and talked, or helped the children build sand-castles, and deck them with stone and sea-weeds. What treasures we collected for Carrie's Sunday scholars; what stores of bright-colored seaweed—or sea flowers, as Dot persisted in calling them—and heaps of faintly-tinged shells!

Flurry's doll family had accompanied us to the Brambles. "The poor dear things wanted change of air!" Flurry had decided; and in spite of my dissuasion, all the fair waxen creatures and their heterogeneous wardrobe had been consigned to a vast trunk.

Flurry's large family had given her infinite trouble when we settled for our mornings on the beach. She traveled up and down the long stony hillocks to the cottage until her little legs ached, to fetch the twelve dolls. When they were all deposited in their white sun-bonnets under a big umbrella, to save their complexions, which, notwithstanding, suffered severely, then, and then only, would Flurry join Dot on the narrow sands.

Sometimes the tide rose, or a sudden shower came on, and then great was the confusion. Once a receding wave carried out Corporal Trim, the most unlucky of dolls, to sea. Flurry wrung her hands and wept so bitterly over this disaster that Miss Ruth was quite frightened, and Flossy jumped up and licked his little mistress' face and the faces of the dolls by turns.

"Oh, the dear thing is drownded," sobbed Flurry, as Corporal Trim floundered hopelessly in the surge. Dot's soft heart was so moved by her distress that he hobbled into the water, crutches and all, to my infinite terror.

"Don't cry. Flurry; I've got him by the hair of his head," shouted Dot, valiantly shouldering the dripping doll. Flurry ran down the beach with the tears still on her cheeks, and took the wretched corporal and hugged him to her bosom.

"Oh, my poor drownded Trim," cried Flurry tenderly, and a strange procession formed to the cottage. Flurry with the poor victim in her arms and Flossy jumping and barking delightedly round her, and snatching at the wet rags; Dot, also, wet and miserable, toiling up the beach on his crutches; Miss Ruth and I following with the eleven dolls.

The poor corporal spent the rest of the day watching his own clothes drying by the kitchen fire, where Dot kept him company; Flurry trotted in and out, and petted them both. I am afraid Dot, being a boy, often found the dolls a nuisance, and could have dispensed with their company. There was a grand quarrel once when he flatly refused to carry one. "I can't make believe to be a girl," said Dot, curling his lip with infinite contempt.

"We used to spend our afternoons in the garden. It was cooler than the beach, and the shade of the old medlar was refreshing. We sometimes read aloud to the children, but oftener they were working in their little gardens, or playing with some tame rabbits that belonged to Flurry. Dot always hobbled after Flurry wherever she went; he was her devoted slave. Flurry sometimes treated him like one of her dolls, or put on little motherly airs, in imitation of Miss Ruth.

"You are tired, my dear boy; pray lean on me," we heard her once say, propping him with her childish arm. "Sit down in the shade, you must not heat yourself;" but Dot rather resented her care of him, after the fashion of boys, but on the whole they suited each other perfectly.

In the evenings we always walked over the downs or drove with Miss Ruth in her pony carriage through the leafy lanes, or beside the yellow cornfields. The children used to gather large nosegays of poppies and cornflowers, and little pinky convolvuli. Sometimes we visited a farmhouse where some people lived whom Miss Ruth knew.

Once we stopped and had supper there, a homely meal of milk, and brown bread, and cream cheese, with a golden honeycomb to follow, which we ate in the farmyard kitchen. What an exquisite time we had there, sitting in the low window seat, looking over a bright clover field. A brood of little yellow chickens ran over the red-brick floor, a black retriever and her puppies lay before the fire—fat black puppies with blunt noses and foolish faces, turning over on their backs, and blundering under every one's feet.

Dot and Flurry went out to see the cows milked, and came back with long stories of the dear little white, curly-tailed pigs. Flurry wrote to her father the next day, and begged that he would buy her one for a pet. Both she and Dot were indignant when he told them the little pig they admired so much would become a great ugly sow like its mother.

Mrs. Blake, the farmer's wife, took a great fancy to Dot, and begged him to come again, which both the children promised her most earnestly to do. They both carried off spoils of bright red apples to eat on the way.

It was almost dark when we drove home through the narrow lanes; the hedgerows glimmered strangely in the dusk; a fresh sea-ladened wind blew in our faces across the downs, the lights shone from the Preventive station, and across the vague mist glimmered a star or two. How fragrant and still it was, only the soft washing of the waves on the beach to break the silence!

Miss Ruth shivered a little as we rattled down the road leading to the Brambles. Dorcas, mindful of her mistress' delicacy, had lighted a little fire in the inner drawing-room, and had hot coffee waiting for us.

It looked so snug and inviting that the children left it reluctantly to go to bed; but Miss Ruth was inexorable. This was our cozy hour; all through the day we had to devote ourselves to the children—we used to enjoy this quiet time to ourselves. Sometimes I wrote to mother or Carrie, or we mutually took up our books; but oftener we sat and talked as we did on this evening, until Nurse came to remind us of the lateness of the hour.

Mr. Lucas paid us brief visits; he generally came down on Saturday evening and remained until Monday. Miss Ruth could never coax him to stay longer; I think his business distracted him, and kept his trouble at bay. In this quiet place he would have grown restless. He had bought the Brambles to please his wife, and she, and not Miss Ruth, had furnished it. They had spent happy summers there when Flurry was a baby. The little garden had been a wilderness until then; every flower had been planted by his wife, every room bore witness to her charming taste. No wonder he regarded it with such mingled feelings of pain and pleasure.

Mr. Lucas made no difference to our simple routine. Miss Ruth and Flurry used to drive to the little station to meet him, and bring him back in triumph to the seven o'clock nondescript meal, that was neither dinner nor tea, nor supper, but a compound of all. I used to go up with the children after that meal, that he and Miss Ruth might enjoy their chat undisturbed. When I returned to the drawing-room Miss Ruth was invariably alone.

"Giles has gone out for a solitary prowl," she would say; and he rarely returned before we went upstairs. Miss Ruth knew his habits, and seldom waited up to say good-night to him.

"He likes better to be alone when he is in this mood," she would say sometimes. Her tact and cleverness in managing him were wonderful; she never seemed to watch him, she never let him feel that his morbid fits were noticed and humored, but all the same she knew when to leave him alone, and when to talk to him; she could be his bright companion, or sit silently beside him for hours. On Sunday mornings Mr. Lucas always accompanied us to church, and in the afternoon he sat with the children on the beach. Dot soon got very fond of him, and would talk to him in his fearless way, about anything that came into his head; Miss Ruth sometimes joined them, but I always went apart with my book.

Mr. Lucas was so good to me that I could not bear to hamper him in the least by my presence; with grown-up people he was a little stiff and reserved, but with children he was his true self.

Flurry doted on her father, and Dot told me in confidence that "he was the nicest man he had ever known except Uncle Geoffrey."

I could not hear their talk from my nest in the cliff, but I am afraid Dot's chief occupation was to hunt the little scurrying crabs into a certain pool he had already fringed with seaweed. I could see him and Flurry carrying the big jelly-fishes, and floating them carefully. They had left their spades and buckets at home, out of respect for the sacredness of the day; but neither Flurry's clean white frock nor Dot's new suit hindered them from scooping out the sand with their hands, and making rough and ready ramparts to keep in their prey.

Mr. Lucas used to lie on the beach with his straw hat over his eyes, and watch their play, and pet Flossy. When he was tired of inaction he used to call to the children, and walk slowly and thought fully on. Flurry used to run after him.

"Oh, do wait for Dot, father," she would plead; nothing would induce her to leave her infirm and halting little playfellow. One day, when Mr. Lucas was impatient of his slow progress, I saw him shoulder him, crutches and all, and march off with him, Dot clapping his hands and shouting with delight. That was the only time I followed them; but I was so afraid Dot was a hindrance, and wanted to capture him, I walked quite a mile before I met them coming back.

Mr. Lucas was still carrying Dot; Flurry was trotting beside him, and pretending to use Dot's crutches.

"We have been ever so far, Essie," screamed Dot when he caught sight of me. "We have seen lots of seagulls, and a great cave where the smugglers used to hide."

"Oh, Dot, you must not let Mr. Lucas carry you," I said, holding out my arms to relieve him of his burden. "You must stay with me, and I will tell you a story."

"He is happier up here, aren't you, Frankie boy?" returned Mr. Lucas, cheerfully.

"Oh, but he will tire you," I faltered.

"Tire me, this little bundle of bones!" peeping at Dot over his shoulder; "why, I could walk miles with him. Don't trouble yourself about him, Miss Esther. We understand each other perfectly."

And then he left me, walking with long, easy strides over the uneven ground, with Flurry running to keep up with him.

They used to go on the downs after tea, and sit on the little green beach, while Miss Ruth and I went to church.

Miss Ruth never would use her pony carriage on Sunday. A boy used to draw her in a wheel-chair. She never stayed at home unless she was compelled to do so. I never knew any one enjoy the service more, or enter more fully into it.

No matter how out of tune the singing might be, she always joined in it with a fervor that quite surprised me. "Depend upon it, Esther," she used to say, "it is not the quality of our singing that matters but how much our heart joins with the choir. Perfect praise and perfect music cannot be expected here; but I like to think old Betty's cracked voice, when she joins in the hymns, is as sweet to angels' ears as our younger notes."

The children always waited up for us on Sunday evening, and afterward Miss Ruth would sing with them; sometimes Mr. Lucas would walk up and down the gravel paths listening to them, but oftener I could catch the red light of his cigar from the cliff seat.

I wonder what sad thoughts came to him as the voices floated out to him, mixed up with the low ripple of waves on the sand.

"Where loyal hearts and true"—they were singing that, I remember; Flurry in her childish treble. And Flurry's mother, lying in her quiet grave—did the mother in paradise, I wonder, look down from her starry place on her little daughter singing her baby hymn, and on that lonely man, listening from the cliff seat in the darkness?



CHAPTER XVI.

THE SMUGGLERS' CAVE.

The six weeks passed only too rapidly, but Dot and I were equally delighted when Miss Ruth petitioned for a longer extension of absence, to which dear mother returned a willing consent.

A little note was enclosed for me in Miss Ruth's letter.

"Make your mind quite easy, my dear child," she wrote, "we are getting on very well, and really Jack is improving, and does all sorts of little things to help me; she keeps her room tidier, and I have not had to find fault with her for a week.

"We do not see much of Carrie; she comes home looking very pale and fagged; your uncle grumbles sometimes, but I tell him words are wasted, the Smedley influence is stronger than ever.

"But you need not think I am dull, though I do miss my bright, cheery Esther, and my darling Frankie. Jack and I have nice walks, and Uncle Geoffrey takes me sometimes on his rounds, and two or three times Mr. Lucas has sent the carriage to take us into the country; he says the horses need exercise, now his sister is away, but I know it is all his kindness and thought for us. I will willingly spare you a little longer, and am only thankful that the darling boy is deriving so much benefit from the sea air."

Dear, unselfish mother, always thinking first of her children's interest, and never of her own wishes; and yet I could read between the lines, and knew how she missed us, especially Dot, who was her constant companion.

But it was really the truth that the sea air was doing Dot good. He complained less of his back, and went faster and faster on his little crutches; the cruel abscesses had not tried him for months, and now it seemed to me that the thin cheeks were rounding out a little. He looked so sunburned and rosy, that I wished mother could have seen him. It was only the color of a faintly-tinged rose, but all the same it was wonderful for Dot. We had had lovely weather for our holiday; but at the beginning of September came a change. About a week after mother's letter had arrived, heavy storms of wind and rain raged round the coast.

Miss Ruth and Dot were weather-bound, neither of them had strength to brave the boisterous wind; but Flurry and I would tie down our hats with our veils and run down the parade for a blow. It used to be quite empty and deserted; only in the distance we could see the shiny hat of the Preventive man, as he walked up and down with his telescope.

I used to hold Flurry tightly by the hand, for I feared she would be blown off her feet. Sometimes we were nearly drenched and blinded with the salt spray.

The sea looked so gray and sullen, with white curling waves leaping up against the sea wall; heaps of froth lay on the parade, and even on the green enclosure in the front of the houses. People said it was the highest tide they had known for years.

Once I was afraid to take Flurry out, and ran down to the beach alone. I had to plant my feet firmly in the shingles, for I could hardly stand against the wind. What a wild, magnificent scene it was, a study in browns and grays, a strange colorless blending of faint tints and uncertain shading.

As the waves receded there was a dark margin of heaped-up seaweed along the beach, the tide swept in masses of tangled things, the surge broke along the shore with a voice like thunder, great foamy waves leaped up in curling splendor and then broke to pieces in the gray abyss. The sky was as gray as the sea; not a living thing was in sight except a lonely seagull. I could see the gleam of the firelight through one of the windows of the cottage. It looked so warm and snug. The beach was high and dry round me, but a little beyond the Brambles the tide flowed up to the low cliffs. Most people would have shivered in such a scene of desolation, for the seagull and I had it all to ourselves, but the tumult of the wind and waves only excited me. I felt wild with spirits, and could have shouted in the exuberance of my enjoyment.

I could have danced in my glee, as the foamy snowflakes fell round me, and my face grew stiff and wet with the briny air. The white manes of the sea-horses arched themselves as they swept to their destruction. How the wind whistled and raved, like a hunted thing! "They that go down to the sea in ships, and do their business in the deep waters," those words seemed to flash to me across the wild tumult, and I thought of all the wonders seen by the mariners of old.

"Oh, Esther, how can you be so adventurous?" exclaimed Miss Ruth, as I thrust a laughing face and wet waterproof into the room; she and the children were sitting round the fire.

"Oh, it was delicious," I returned. "It intoxicated me like new wine; you cannot imagine the mighty duet of the sea and wind, the rolling sullen bass, and the shrill crescendo."

"It must have been horrible," she replied, with a little shiver. The wild tempestuous weather depressed her; the loud discordance of the jarring elements seemed to fret the quiet of her spirit.

"You are quite right," she said to me as we sat alone that evening, "this sort of weather disturbs my tranquillity; it makes me restless and agitates my nerves. Last night I could not sleep; images of terror blended with my waking thoughts. I seemed to see great ships driving before the wind, and to hear the roaring of breakers and crashing of timbers against cruel rocks; and when I closed my eyes, it was only to see the whitened bones of mariners lying fathoms deep among green tangled seaweed."

"Dear Miss Ruth, no wonder you look pale and depressed after such a night. Would you like me to sleep with you? the wind seems to act on me like a lullaby. I felt cradled in comfort last night."

"You are so strong," she said, with a little sadness in her voice. "You have no nerves, no diseased sensibilities; you do not dread the evils you cannot see, the universe does not picture itself to you in dim terrors."

"Why, no," I returned, wonderingly, for such suggestions were new to me.

"Sleep your happy sleep, my dear," she said, tenderly, "and thank God for your perfect health, Esther. I dozed a little myself toward morning, before the day woke in its rage, and then I had a horrible sort of dream, a half-waking scare, bred of my night-terrors.

"I thought I was tossing like a dead leaf in the gale; the wind had broken bounds, and carried me away bodily. Now I was lying along the margin of waves, and now swept in wide circles in the air.

"The noise was maddening. The air seemed full of shrieks and cries, as though the universe were lost and bewailing itself, 'Lamentation and mourning and woe,' seemed written upon the lurid sky and sea. I thought of those poor lovers in Dante's 'Inferno,' blown like spectral leaves before the infernal winds of hell; but I was alone in this tumultuous torrent.

"I felt myself sinking at last into the dim, choking surge—it was horribly real, Esther—and then some one caught me by the hair and drew me out, and the words came to me, 'for so He bringeth them to the haven where they would be.'"

"How strange!" I exclaimed in an awed tone, for Miss Ruth's face was pale, and there was a touch of sadness in her voice.

"It was almost a vision of one's life," she returned, slowly; "we drift hither and thither, blown by many a gust of passion over many an unseen danger. If we be not engulfed, it is because the Angel of His Providence watches over us; 'drawn out of many waters,' how many a life history can testify of that!"

"We have our smooth days as well," I returned, cheerfully, "when the sun shines, and there are only ripples on the waters."

"That is in youth," she replied; "later on the storms must come, and the wise mariner will prepare himself to meet them. We must not always be expecting fair weather. Do you not remember the lines of my favorite hymn:

"'And oh, the joy upon that shore To tell our shipwrecked voyage o'er.'

"Really, I think one of the great pleasures in heaven will be telling the perils we have been through, and how He has brought us home at last."

Miss Ruth would not let me sleep with her that night; but to my great relief, for her pale, weary looks made me anxious, the wind abated, and toward morning only the breaking surge was heard dashing along the shore.

"I have rested better," were the first words when we met, "but that one night's hurly-burly has wrecked me a little," which meant that she was only fit for bed.

But she would not hear of giving up entirely, so I drew her couch to the fire, and wrapped her up in shawls and left Dot to keep her company, while Flurry and I went out. In spite of the lull the sea was still very unquiet, and the receding tide gave us plenty of amusement, and we spent a very happy morning. In the afternoon, Miss Ruth had some errands for me to do in the town—wools to match, and books to change at the library, after which I had to replenish our exhausted store of note-paper.

It was Saturday, and we had decided the pony carriage must go alone to the station to meet Mr. Lucas. He generally arrived a little before six, but once he had surprised us walking in with his portmanteau, just as we were starting for our afternoon's walk. Flurry begged hard to accompany me; but Miss Ruth thought she had done enough, and wished her to play with Dot in the dining-room at some nice game. I was rather sorry at Miss Ruth's decision, for I saw Flurry was in one of her perverse moods. They occurred very seldom, but gave me a great deal of trouble to overcome them. She could be very naughty on such occasions, and do a vast amount of mischief. Flurry's break-outs, as I called them, were extremely tiresome, as Nurse Gill and I knew well. I was very disinclined to trust Dot in her company, for her naughtiness would infect him, and even the best of children can be troublesome sometimes. Flurry looked very sulky when I asked her what game they meant to play, and I augured badly from her toss of the head and brief replies. She was hugging Flossie on the window-seat, and would not give me her attention, so I turned to Dot and begged him to be a good boy and not to disturb Miss Ruth, but take care of Flurry.

Dot answered amiably, and I ran off, determining to be back as soon as I could. I wished Nurse Gill could sit with the children and keep them in good temper, but she was at work in Miss Ruth's room and could not come down.

My errands took longer than I thought; wool matching is always a troublesome business, and the books Miss Ruth wanted were out, and I had to select others; it was more than an hour before I set off for home, and then I met Nurse Gill, who wanted some brass rings for the curtains she was making, and had forgotten to ask me to get them.

The wind was rising again, and I was surprised to find Miss Ruth in the porch with her handkerchief tied over her head, and Dorcas running down the garden path.

"Have you seen them, Miss Esther?" asked the girl, anxiously.

"Who—what do you mean?" I inquired.

"Miss Florence and Master Dot; we have been looking for them everywhere. I was taking a cup of tea just now to mistress, and she asked me to go into the dining-room, as the children seemed so quiet; but they were not there, and Betty and I have searched the house and garden over, and we cannot find them."

"Oh, Esther, come here," exclaimed Miss Ruth in agony, for I was standing still straining my eyes over the beach to catch a glimpse of them. "I am afraid I was very wrong to send you out, and Giles will be here presently, and Dorcas says Dot's hat is missing from the peg, and Flurry's sealskin hat and jacket."

Dot out in this wind! I stood aghast at the idea, but the next moment I took Miss Ruth's cold little hands in mine.

"You must not stand here," I said firmly; "come into the drawing-room, I will talk to you there, and you too, Dorcas. No, I have not seen them," as Miss Ruth yielded to my strong grasp, and stood shivering and miserable on the rug. "I came past the Preventive station and down the parade, and they were not there."

"Could they have followed Nurse Gill?" struck in Dorcas.

"No, for I met her just now, and she was alone. I hardly think they would go to the town. Dot never cared for the shops, or Flurry either. Perhaps they might be hidden in one of the bathing machines. Oh, Miss Ruth," with an access of anxiety in my voice, "Dot is so weakly, and this strong wind will blow him down; it must be all Flurry's naughtiness, for nothing would have induced him to go out unless she made him."

"What are we to do?" she replied, helplessly. This sudden terror had taken away her strength, she looked so ill. I thought a moment before I replied.

"Let Dorcas go down to the bathing machines," I said, at last, "and she can speak to the Preventive man; and if you do not mind being alone, Miss Ruth, and you must promise to lie down and keep quiet, Betty might go into the town and find Nurse Gill. I will just run along the beach and take a look all around."

"Yes, do," she returned. "Oh, my naughty, naughty Flurry!" almost wringing her hands.

"Don't frighten yourself beforehand," I said, kissing her and speaking cheerfully, though I did feel in a state about Dot; and what would mother and Mr. Lucas say? "I daresay Dorcas or I will bring them back in a few minutes, and then won't they get a scolding!"

"Oh, no; I shall be too happy to scold them," she returned, with a faint smile, for my words put fresh heart in her, and she would follow us into the porch and stand looking after us.

I scrambled over the shingles as fast as I could, for the wind was rising, and I was afraid it would soon grow dusk. Nothing was in sight; the whole shore was empty and desolate—fearfully desolate, even to my eyes.

It was no use going on, I thought; they must be hiding in the bathing machines after all. And I was actually turning round when something gray on the beach attracted my attention, and I picked it up. To my horror, it was one of Dot's woolen mittens that mother had knitted for him, and which he had worn that very afternoon.

I was on their track, after all. I was sure of it now; but when I lifted my eyes and saw the dreary expanse of shore before me, a blank feeling of terror took possession of me. They were not in sight! Nothing but cloudy skies and low chalky cliffs, and the surge breaking on the shingles.

All at once a thought that was almost an inspiration flashed across me—the smugglers' cave! Flurry was always talking about it; it had taken a strong hold of her imagination, and both she and Dot had been wild to explore it, only Miss Ruth had never encouraged the idea. She thought caves were damp, dreary places, and not fit for delicate children. Flurry must have tempted Dot to accompany her on this exploring expedition. I was as convinced of the fact as though I had overheard the children's conversation. She would coax and cajole him until his conscience was undermined. How could he have dragged himself so far on his crutches? for the cave was nearly half a mile away from where I stood, and the wind was rising fearfully. And now an icy chill of terror came over me from head to foot—the tide was advancing! It had already covered the narrow strip of sand; in less than an hour it would reach the cliffs, for the shore curved a little beyond the cottage, and with the exception of the beach before the Brambles, the sea covered the whole of the shingles.

I shall never, to my dying day, forget that moment's agony when my mind first grasped the truth of the deadly peril those thoughtless babes had incurred. Without instant help, those little children must be drowned, for the water flowed into the cave. Even now it might be too late. All these thoughts whirled through my brain in an instant.

Only for a moment I paused and cast one despairing glance round me. The cottage was out of sight. Nurse Gill, and Dorcas, and Betty were scouring the town; no time to run back for help, no hope of making one's voice heard with the wind whistling round me.

"Oh, my God! help me to save these children!" I cried, with a sob that almost choked me. And then I dashed like a mad thing toward the shore.

My despair gave me courage, but my progress was difficult and slow. It was impossible to keep up that pace over the heavy shingles with the wind tearing round me and taking away my breath.

Several times I had to stand and collect my energies, and each time I paused I called the children's names loudly. But, alas! the wind and the sea swallowed up the sound.

How fast the tide seemed coming up! The booming of the breakers sounded close behind me. I dared not look—I dared not think. I fought and buffeted the wind, and folded my cloak round me.

"Out of the depth I have cried unto Thee." Those were the words I said over and over to myself.

I had reached the cave at last, and leaned gasping and nearly faint with terror before I began searching in its dim recesses.

Great masses of slimy seaweed lay heaped up at the entrance; a faint damp odor pervaded it. The sudden roar of wind and sea echoed in dull hollowness, but here at least my voice could be heard.

"Flurry-Dot!" I screamed. I could hear my own wild shriek dying away through the cave. To my delight, two little voices answered:

"Here we are Esther! Come along, we are having such a game! Flurry is the smuggler, and I am the Preventive man, and Flossy is my dog, and—oh, dear! what is the matter?" And Dot, who had hobbled out of a snug, dry little corner near the entrance, looked up with frightened eyes as I caught him and Flurry in my arms. I suppose my face betrayed my fears, for I could not at that moment gasp out another word.



CHAPTER XVII.

A LONG NIGHT.

"What is the matter, Essie?" cried Dot, piteously, as I held him in that tight embrace without speaking. "We were naughty to come, yes, I know, but you said I was to take care of Flurry, and she would come. I did not like it, for the wind was so cold and rough, and I fell twice on the shingles; but it is nice here, and we were having such a famous game."

"Esther is going to be cross and horrid because we ran away, but father will only laugh," exclaimed Flurry, with the remains of a frown on her face. She knew she was in the wrong and meant to brave it out.

Oh, the poor babes, playing their innocent games with Death waiting for them outside!

"Come, there is not an instant to lose," I exclaimed, catching up Dot in my arms; he was very little and light, and I thought we could get on faster so, and perhaps if the sea overtook us they would see us and put out a boat from the Preventive station. "Come, come," I repeated, snatching Flurry's hand, for she resisted a little: but when I reached the mouth of the cave she uttered a loud cry, and tugged fiercely at my hand to get free.

"Oh, the sea, the dreadful sea!" she exclaimed, hiding her face; "it is coming up! Look at the waves—we shall be drownded!"

I could feel Dot shiver in my arms, but he did not speak, only his little hands clung round my neck convulsively. Poor children! their punishment had already begun.

"We shall be drowned if you don't make haste," I returned, trying to speak carefully, but my teeth chattered in spite of myself. "Come, Flurry, let us run a race with the waves; take hold of my cloak, for I want my hands free for Dot." I had dropped his crutches in the cave; they were no use to him—he could not have moved a step in the teeth of this wind.

Poor Flurry began to cry bitterly, but she had confidence in my judgment, and an instinct of obedience made her grasp my cloak, and so we commenced our dangerous pilgrimage. I could only move slowly with Dot; the wind was behind us, but it was terribly fierce. Flurry fell twice, and picked herself up sobbing; the horrors of the scene utterly broke down her courage, and she threw her arms round me frantically and prayed me to go back.

"The waves are nearly touching us!" she shrieked; and then Dot, infected by her terrors, began to cry loudly too. "We shall be drownded, all of us, and it is getting dark, and I won't go, I won't go!" screamed the poor child trying to push me back with her feeble force.

Then despair took possession of me; we might have done it if Flurry had not lost all courage; the water would not have been high enough to drown us; we could have waded through it, and they would have seen us from the cottage and come to our help. I would have saved them; I knew I could; but in Flurry's frantic state it was impossible. Her eyes dilated with terror, a convulsive trembling seized her. Must we go back to the cave, and be drowned like rats in a hole? The idea was horrible, and yet it went far back. Perhaps there was some corner or ledge of rock where we might be safe; but to spend the night in such a place! the idea made me almost as frantic as Flurry. Still, it was our only chance, and we retraced our steps but still so slowly and painfully that the spray of the advancing waves wetted our faces, and beyond—ah!—I shut my eyes and struggled on, while Flurry hid her head in the folds of my cloak.

We gained the smugglers' cave, and then I put down Dot, and bade him pick up his crutchers and follow me close, while I explored the cave. It was very dark, and Flurry began to cry afresh, and would not let go of my hand; but Dot shouldered his crutches, and walked behind us as well as he could.

At each instant my terror grew. It was a large winding cave, but the heaps of seaweed everywhere, up to the very walls, proved that the water filled the cavern. I became hysterical too. I would not stay to be drowned there, I muttered between my chattering teeth; drowned in the dark, and choked with all that rotten garbage! Better take the children in either hand, and go out and meet our fate boldly. I felt my brain turning with the horror, when all at once I caught sight of a rough broken ledge of rock, rising gradually from the back of the cave. Seaweed hung in parts high up, but it seemed to me in the dim twilight there was a portion of the rock bare; if so, the sea did not cover it—we might find a dry foothold.

"Let go my hand a moment, Flurry," I implored; "I think I see a little place where we may be safe. I will be back in a moment, dear." But nothing could induce her to relax her agonized grasp of my cloak. I had to argue the point. "The water comes all up here wherever the seaweed, is," I explained. "You think we are safe, Flurry, but we can be drowned where we stand; the sea fills the cave." But at this statement Flurry only screamed the louder and clung closer. Poor child! she was beside herself with fright.

So I said to Dot:

"My darling is a boy, and boys are not so frightened as girls; so you will stay here quietly while Flurry and I climb up there, and Flossy shall keep you company."

"Don't be long," he implored, but he did not say another word. Dear, brave little heart, Dot behaved like a hero that day. He then stooped down and held Flossy, who whined to follow us. I I think the poor animal knew our danger, for he shivered and cowered down in evident alarm, and I could hear Dot coaxing him.

It was very slippery and steep, and I crawled up with difficulty, with Flurry clambering after me, and holding tightly to my dress. Dot watched us wistfully as we went higher and higher, leaving him and Flossy behind. The seaweed impeded us, but after a little while we came to a bare piece of rock jutting out over the cave, with a scooped-out corner where all of us could huddle, and it seemed to me as though the shelf went on for a yard or two beyond it. We were above water-mark there; we should be quite safe, and a delicious glimmer of hope came over me.

I had great difficulty in inducing Flurry to stay behind while I crawled down for Dot. She was afraid to be alone in that dark place, with the hollow booming of wind and waves echoing round her; but I told her sternly that Dot and Flossy would be drowned and then she let me go.

Dot was overjoyed to welcome me back, and then I lifted him up and bade him crawl slowly on his hands and knees, while I followed with his crutches, and Flossy crept after us, shivering and whining for us to take him up. As we toiled up the broken ledge it seemed to grow darker, and we could hardly see each other's faces if we tried, only the splash of the first entering wave warned me that the sea would soon have been upon us.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse