I was giddy and breathless by the time we reached the nook where Flurry was, and then we crept into the corner, the children clasping each other across me, and Flossy on my lap licking our faces alternately. Saved from a horrible death! For a little while I could do nothing but weep helplessly over the children and thank God for a merciful deliverance.
As soon as the first hysterical outburst of emotion was over, I did my best to make the children as comfortable as I could under such forlorn circumstances. I knew Flurry's terror of darkness, and I could well imagine how horribly the water would foam and splash beneath us, and I must try and prevent them from seeing it.
I made Dot climb into my lap, for I thought the hard rock would make his poor back ache, and I could keep him from being chilled; and then I induced Flurry to creep under my heavy waterproof cloak—how thankful I was I put it on!—and told her to hold Flossy in her arms, for the little creature's soft fur would be warm and comfortable; and then I fastened the cloak together, buttoning it until it formed a little tent above them. Flurry curled her feet into my dress and put her head on my shoulder, and she and Dot held each other fast across me, and Flossy rolled himself up into a warm ball and went to sleep. Poor little creatures! They began to forget their sorrows a little, until Flurry suddenly recollected that it was tea-time, and her father had arrived; and then she began crying again softly.
"I'm so hungry," she sobbed; "aren't you Dot?"
"Yes, but I don't mean to mind it," returned Dot, manfully. "Essie is hungry too." And he put up his hand and stroked my neck softly. The darling, he knew how I suffered, and would not add to my pain by complaining.
I heard him say to Flurry in a whisper, "It is all our fault; we ought to be punished for running away; but Essie has done nothing wrong. I thought God meant to drown us, as He did the disobedient people." But this awful reminder of her small sins was too much for Flurry.
"I did not mean to be wicked," she wailed. "I thought it would be such fun to play at smugglers in the cave, and Aunt Ruth and Esther never would let me."
"Yes, and I begged you not to run away, and you would," retorted Dot in an admonishing tone. "I did not want come, too, because it was so cold, and the wind blew so; but I promised Essie to take care of you, so I went. I think you were quite as bad as the people whom God drowned, because they would not be good and mind Noah."
"But I don't want to be drowned," responded Flurry, tearfully. "Oh, dear, Dot, don't say such dreadful things! I am good now, and I will never, never disobey auntie again. Shall we say our prayers, Dot, and ask God not to be so very angry, and then perhaps He will send some one to take us out of this dark, dreadful place?"
Dot approved of this idea, and they began repeating their childish petitions together, but my mind strayed away when I tried to join them.
Oh, how dark and desolate it was! I shivered and clasped the children closer to me as the hollow moaning of the waves reverberated through the cavern. Every minute the water was rising; by-and-by the spray must wet us even in our sheltered corner. Would the children believe me when I told them we were safe? Would not Flurry's terrors return at the first touch of the cold spray? The darkness and the noise and the horror were almost enough to turn her childish brain; they were too much for my endurance.
"Oh, heavens!" I cried to myself, "must we really spend a long, hideous night in this place? We are safe! safe!" I repeated; but still it was too horrible to think of wearing out the long, slow hours in such misery.
It was six now; the tide would not turn until three in the morning; it had been rising for three hours now; it would not be possible to leave the cave and make our way by the cliff for an hour after that. Ten hours—ten long, crawling hours to pass in this cramped position! I thought of dear mother's horror if she knew of our peril, and then I thought of Allan, and a lump came in my throat.
Mr. Lucas would be scouring the coast in search of us. What a night for the agonized father to pass! And poor, fragile Miss Ruth, how would she endure such hours of anxiety? I could have wrung my hands and moaned aloud at the thought of their anguish, but for the children—the poor children who were whispering their baby prayers together; that kept me still. Perhaps they might be even now at the mouth of the cave, seeking and calling to us. A dozen times I imagined I could hear the splash of oars and the hoarse cries of the sailors; but how could our feeble voices reach them in the face of the shrieking wind? No one would think of the smugler's cave, for it was but one of many hollowed out of the cliff. They would search for us, but very soon they would abandon it in despair; they knew I had gone to seek the children; most likely I had been too late, and the rising tide had engulfed us, and swept us far out to sea. Miss Ruth would think of her dreams and tremble, and the wretched father would sit by her, stunned and helpless, waiting for the morning to break and bring him proof of his despair.
The tears ran down my cheeks as these sad thoughts passed through my mind, and a strong inward cry for deliverance, for endurance, for some present comfort in this awful misery, shook my frame with convulsive shudders. Dot felt them, and clasped me tighter, and Flurry trembled in sympathy; my paroxysm disturbed them, but my prayer was heard, and the brief agony passed.
I thought of Jeremiah in his dungeon, of Daniel in the lions' den, of the three children in the fiery furnace, and the Form that was like the Son of God walking with them in the midst of the flames; and I knew and felt that we were as safe on that rocky shelf, with the dark, raging waters below us, as though we were by our own bright hearth fire at home; then my trembling ceased, and I recovered voice to talk to the children.
I wanted them to go to sleep; but Flurry said, in a lamentable voice, that she was too hungry, and the sea made such a noise; so I told them about Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego; and after I had finished that, all the Bible stories I could remember of wonderful deliverance; and by-and-by we came to the storm on the Galilean lake.
Flurry leaned heavily against me. "Oh, it is getting colder," she gasped; "Flossy keeps my hands warm, and the cloak is thick, and yet I can't help shivering." And I could feel Dot shiver, too. "The water seems very near us, I wish I did not feel afraid of it Esther," she whispered, after another minute; but I pretended not to hear her.
"Yes, it is cold, but not so cold as those disciples must have felt," I returned; "they were in a little open boat, Flurry, and the water dashed right over them, and the vessel rocked dreadfully"—here I paused—"and it was dark, for Jesus was not yet come to them."
"I wish He would come now," whispered Dot.
"That is what the disciples wished, and all the time they little knew that He was on His way to them, and watching them toiling against the wind, and that very soon the wind would cease, and they would be safe on the shore. We do not like being in this dark cave, do we, Flurry darling? And the sea keeps us awake; but He knows that, and He is watching us; and by-and-by, when the morning comes, we shall have light and go home."
Flurry said "Yes," sleepily, for in spite of the cold and hunger she was getting drowsy; it must have been long past her bedtime. We had sat on our dreary perch three hours, and there were six more to wait. I noticed that the sound of my voice tranquillized the children; so I repeated hymns slowly and monotonously until they nodded against me and fell into weary slumbers. "Thank God!" I murmured when I perceived this, and I leaned back against the rock, and tried to close my eyes; but they would keep opening and staring into the darkness. It was not black darkness—I do not think I could have borne that; a sort of murky half-light seemed reflected from the water, or from somewhere, and glimmered strangely from a background of inky blackness.
It was bitterly cold now; my feet felt numbed, and the spray wetted and chilled my face. I dared not move my arm from Dot, he leaned so heavily against it, and Flurry's head was against him. She had curled herself up like Flossy, and I had one hand free, only I could not disentangle it from the cloak. I dared not change my cramped position, for fear of waking them. I was too thankful for their brief oblivion. If I could only doze for a few moments; if I could only shut out the black waters for a minute! The tumults of my thoughts were indescribable. My whole life seemed to pass before me; every childish folly, every girlish error and sin, seemed to rise up before me; conversations I had forgotten, little incidents of family life, dull or otherwise; speeches I had made and repented, till my head seemed whirling. It must be midnight now, I thought. If I could only dare; but a new terror kept me wide awake. In spite of my protecting arms, would not Dot suffer from the damp chilliness? He shivered in his sleep, and Flurry moaned and half woke, and then slept again. I was growing so numbed and cramped that I doubted my endurance for much longer. Dot seemed growing heavier, and there was the weight of Flurry and Flossy. If I could only stretch myself! And then I nearly cried out, for a sudden flash seemed to light the cavern. One instant, and it was gone; but that second showed a grewsome scene —damp, black walls, with a frothing turbulous water beneath them, and hanging arches exuding moisture. Darkness again. From whence had that light flashed? As I asked myself the question it came again, startling me with its sudden brilliancy; and this time it was certainly from some aperture overhead, and a little beyond where we sat.
Gone again, and this time utterly; but not before I caught a glimpse of the broad rocky shelf beyond us. The light had flashed down not a dozen yards from where we stood; it must have been a lantern; if so, they were still seeking us, this time on the cliffs. It was only midnight, and there were still four weary hours to wait, and every moment I was growing more chilled and numbed. I began to dread the consequences to myself as well as to the children. If I could only crawl along the shelf and explore, perhaps there might be some opening to the cliff. I had not thought of this before, until the light brought the idea to my mind.
I perceived, too, that the glimmering half-light came from above, and not from the mouth of the cave. For a moment the fear of losing my balance and falling back into the water daunted me, and kept me from moving; but the next minute I felt I must attempt it. I unfastened my cloak and woke Dot softly, and then whispered to him that I was cramped and in pain, and must move up and down the platform; and he understood me, and crawled sleepily off my lap; then I lifted Flurry with difficulty, for she moaned and whimpered at my touch.
My numbness was so great I could hardly move my limbs; but I crawled across Flurry somehow, and saw Dot creep into my place, and covered them with my cloak; and then I commenced to move slowly and carefully on my hands and knees up the rocky path.
"YOU BRAVE GIRL!"
They told me afterward that this was a daring feat, and fraught with awful peril, for in that painful groping in the darkness I might have lost my balance and fallen back into the water.
I was conscious of this at the time; but we cannot die until our hour is come, and in youth one's faith is more simple and trusting; to pray is to be heard, to grasp more tightly by the mantle of His Providence, so I committed myself to Heaven, and crept slowly along the face of the rock. In two or three minutes I felt cold air blowing down upon my face, and, raising myself cautiously, I found I was standing under an aperture, large enough for me to crawl through, which led to the downs. For one moment I breathed the fresh night air and caught the glimmer of starlight, and then I crept back to the children.
Flurry was awake and weeping piteously, and Dot was trying to comfort her in a sleepy voice; but she was quiet the moment I told them about the hole.
"I must leave you behind, Dot," I said, sorrowfully, "and take Flurry first;" and the brave little fellow said:
"All right, Essie," and held back the dog, who was whining to follow.
I put my arm round Flurry, and made her promise not to lose hold of the rock. The poor child was dreadfully frightened, and stopped every now and then, crying out in horror that she was falling into the water, but I held her fast and coaxed her to go on again; and all the time the clammy dews of terror stood on my forehead. Never to my dying day shall I forget those terrible moments.
But we were mercifully preserved, and to my joy I felt the winds of heaven blowing round us, and in another moment Flurry had crawled through the hole in the rock, and was sitting shivering on the grass.
"Now I must go back for Dot and Flossy," I exclaimed; but as I spoke and tried to disengage myself from Flurry's nervous grasp, I heard a little voice below.
"I am here, Essie, and I have got Flossy all safe. Just stoop down and take him, and then I shall clamber up all right."
"Oh, my darling, how could you?" The courageous child had actually dragged himself with the dog under one arm all along the dangerous path, to spare me another journey.
I could scarcely speak, but I covered his cold little face with kisses as he tottered painfully into my arms—my precious boy, my brave, unselfish Dot!
"I could not bring the crutches or the cloak, Essie," he whispered.
"Never mind them," I replied, with a catch in my voice. "You are safe; we are all safe—that is all I can take in. I must carry you, Dot, and Flurry shall hold my dress, and we shall soon be home."
"Where is your hat, Essie?" he asked, putting up his hand to my hair. It was true I was bareheaded, and yet I had never missed it. My cloak lay below in the cavern. What a strange sight I must have presented if any one could have seen us! My hair was blowing loosely about my face; my dress seemed to cling round my feet.
How awfully dark and desolate the downs looked under that dim, starry light. Only the uncertain glimmer enabled me to keep from the cliffs or discern the right path. The heavy booming of the sea and the wind together drowned our voices. When it lulled I could hear Flurry sobbing to herself in the darkness, and Flossy, whining for company, as he followed us closely. Poor Dot was spent and weary, and lay heavily against my shoulder. Every now and then I had to stop and gather strength, for I felt strangely weak, and there was an odd beating at my heart. Dot must have heard my panting breath, for he begged me more than once to put him down and leave him, but I would not.
My strength was nearly gone when we reached the shelving path leading down to the cottage, but I still dragged on. A stream of light came full upon us as we turned the corner; it came from the cottage.
The door was wide open and the parlor blinds were raised, and the ruddy gleam of lamplight and firelight streamed full on our faces.
No one saw us as we toiled up the pebbled path; no one waited for us in the porch. I have a faint recollection that I stood in the hall, looking round me for a moment in a dazed fashion; that Flossy barked, and a door burst open; there was a wave of light, and a man's voice saying something. I felt myself swaying with Dot in my arms; but some one must have caught us, for when I came to myself I was lying on the couch by the drawing-room fire, and Miss Ruth was kneeling beside me raining tears over my face.
"And Dot!" I tried to move and could not, and fell back on my pillow. "The children!" I gasped, and there was a sudden movement in the room, and Mr. Lucas stood over me with his child in his arms. Was it my fancy, or were there tears in his eyes, too?
"They are here, Esther," he said, in a soothing voice. "Nurse is taking care of your boy." And then he burst out, "Oh, you brave girl! you noble girl!" in a voice of strong emotion, and turned away.
"Hush, Giles, we must keep her quiet," admonished his sister. "We do not know what the poor thing has been through, but she is as cold as ice. And feel how soaking her hair is!"
Had it rained? I suppose it had, but then the children must be wet too!
Miss Ruth must have noticed my anxious look, for she kissed me and whispered:
"Don't worry, Esther; we have fires and hot baths ready. Nurse and the others will attend to the children; they will soon be warmed and in bed. Let me dry your hair and rub your cold hands; and drink this, and you will soon be able to move."
The cordial and food they gave me revived my numb faculties, and in a little while I was able, with assistance, to go to my room. Miss Ruth followed me, and tenderly helped me to remove my damp things; but I would not lie down in my warm bed until I had seen with my own eyes that Flurry was already soundly asleep and Dot ready to follow her example.
"Isn't it delicious?" he whispered, drowsily, as I kissed him; and then Miss Ruth led me back to my room, and tucked me up and sat down beside me.
"Now tell me all about it," she said, "and then you will be able to sleep." For a strong excitement had succeeded the faintness, and in spite of my aching limbs and weariness I had a sensation as though I could fly.
But when I told her she only shuddered and wept, and before I had half narrated the history of those dismal hours she was down on her knees beside the bed, kissing my hands.
"Do let me," she sobbed, as I remonstrated. "Oh, Esther, how I love you! How I must always love you for this!"
"No, I am not Miss Ruth any longer; I am Ruth. I am your own friend and sister, who would do anything to show her gratitude. You dear girl!—you brave girl!—as Giles called you."
This brought to my lips the question, "How had Mr. Lucas borne this dreadful suspense?"
"As badly as possible," she answered, drying her eyes. "Oh, Esther! what we have all been through. Giles came in half an hour after you left to search the shore. He was in a dreadful state, as you may imagine. He sent down to the Preventive station at once, and there was a boat got ready, and he went with the men. They pulled up and down for an hour or two, but could find no trace of you."
"We were in the cavern all the time," I murmured.
"That was the strangest part of all," she returned. "Giles remembered the cavern, and they went right into the mouth, and called as loudly as they could."
"We did not hear them; the wind was making such a noise, and it was so dark."
"The men gave up all hope at last, and Giles was obliged to come back. He walked into the house looking as white as death. 'It is all over,' he said; 'the tide has overtaken them, and that girl is drowned with them.' And then he gave a sort of sob, and buried his face in his hands. I turned so faint that for a little time he was obliged to attend to me, but when I was better he got up and left the house. It did not seem as though he could rest from the search, and yet he had not the faintest glimmer of hope. He would have the cottage illuminated and the door left open, and then he lighted his lantern and walked up and down the cliffs, and every time he came back his poor face looked whiter and more drawn. I had got hold of his hand, and was trying to keep him from wandering out again, when all at once we heard Flossy bark. Giles burst open the door, and then he gave a great cry, for there you were, my poor Esther, standing under the hall lamp, with your hair streaming over your shoulders and Dot in your arms, and Flurry holding your dress, and you looked at us and did not seem to see us, and Giles was just in time to catch you as you were reeling. He had you all in his arms at once," finished Miss Ruth, with another sob, "till I took our darling Flurry from him, and then he laid you down and carried Dot to the fire."
"If I could not have saved them I would have died with them; you knew that, Miss Ruth."
"Ruth," she corrected. "Yes, I knew that, and so did Giles. He said once or twice, 'She is strong enough or sensible enough to save them if it were possible, but no one can fight against fate.' Now I must go down to him, for he is waiting to hear all about it, and you must go to sleep, Esther, for your eyes are far too bright."
But, greatly to her surprise and distress, I resisted this advice and broke out into frightened sobs. The sea was in my ears, I said, when I tried to close my eyes, and my arms felt empty without Dot and I could not believe he was safe, though she told me so over and over again.
I was greatly amazed at my own want of control; but nothing could lessen this nervous excitement until Mr. Lucas came up to the door, and Miss Ruth went out to him in sore perplexity.
"What am I to do, Giles? I cannot soothe her in the least."
"Let her have the child," he returned, in his deep voice; "she will sleep then." And he actually fetched little Dot and put him in Miss Ruth's arms.
"Isn't it nice, Essie?" he muttered sleepily, as he nestled against me.
It was strange, but the moment my arm was round him, and I felt his soft breathing against my shoulder, my eyelids closed of their own accord, and a sense of weariness and security came over me.
Before many minutes were over I had fallen into a deep sleep, and Miss Ruth was free to seek her brother and give him the information for which he was longing.
It was nearly five in the morning when I closed my eyes, and it was exactly the same time on the following afternoon when I opened them.
My first look was for Dot, but he was gone, the sun was streaming in at the window, a bright fire burned in the grate, and Nurse Gill was sitting knitting in the sunshine.
She looked up with a pleasant smile on her homely face as I called to her rather feebly.
"How you have slept, to be sure, Miss Esther—a good twelve hours. But I always say Nature is a safe nurse, and to be trusted. There's Master Dot has been up and dressed these three hours and more, and Miss Flurry too."
"Oh, Nurse Gill, are you sure they are all right?" I asked, for it was almost too good news to be true.
"Master Dot is as right as possible, though he is a little palish, and complains of his back and legs, which is only to be expected if they do ache a bit. Miss Flurry has a cold, but we could not induce her to lie in bed; she is sitting by the fire now on her father's knee, and Master Dot is with them: but there, Miss Ruth said she was to be called as soon as you woke, Miss Esther, though I did beg her not to put herself about, and her head so terribly bad as it has been all day."
"Oh, nurse, don't disturb her," I pleaded, eagerly, "I am quite well, there is nothing the matter with me. I want to get up this moment and dress myself;" for a great longing came over me to join the the little group downstairs.
"Not so fast, Miss Esther," she returned, good-humoredly. "You've had a fine sleep, to be sure, and young things will stand a mortal amount of fatigue; but there isn't a speck of color in your face, my poor lamb. Well, well," as I showed signs of impatience—"I won't disturb Miss Ruth, but I will fetch you some coffee and bread-and- butter, and we will see how you will feel then."
Mrs. Gill was a dragon in her way, so I resigned myself to her peremptory kindness. When she trotted off on her charitable errand, I leaned on my elbow and looked out of the window. It was Sunday evening, I remembered, and the quiet peacefulness of the scene was in strangest contrast to the horrors of yesterday; the wind had lulled, and the big curling waves ceased to look terrible in the sunlight; the white spray tossed lightly hither and thither, and the long line of dark seaweed showed prettily along the yellow sands. The bitter war of winds and waves was over, and the defeated enemy had retired with spent fury, and sunk into silence. Could it be a dream? had we really lived through that dreadful nightmare? But at this moment Nurse Gill interrupted the painful retrospect by placing the fragrant coffee and brown bread-and-butter before me.
I ate and drank eagerly, to please myself as well as her, and then I reiterated my intention to get up. It cost me something, however, to persevere in my resolution. My limbs trembled under me, and seemed to refuse their support in the strangest way, and the sight of my pale face almost frightened me, and I was grateful to Nurse Gill when she took the brush out of my shaking hand and proceeded to manipulate the long tangled locks.
"You are no more fit than a baby to dress yourself, Miss Esther," said the good old creature, in a vexed voice. "And to think of drowning all this beautiful hair. Why, there is seaweed in it I do declare, like a mermaid."
"The rocks were covered with it," I returned, in a weary indifferent voice; for Mrs. Gill's officiousness tired me, and I longed to free myself from her kindly hands.
When I was dressed, I crept very slowly downstairs. My courage was oozing away fast, and I rather dreaded all the kind inquiries that awaited me. But I need not have been afraid.
Dot clapped his hands when he saw me, and Mr. Lucas put down Flurry and came to meet me.
"You ought not to have exerted yourself," he said, reproachfully, as soon as he looked at me; and then he took hold of me and placed me in the armchair, and Flurry brought me a footstool and sat down on it, Dot climbed up on the arm of the chair and propped himself against me, and Miss Ruth rose softly from her couch and came across the room and kissed me.
"Oh, Esther, how pale you look!" she said, anxiously.
"She will soon have her color back again," returned Mr. Lucas, looking at me kindly. I think he wanted to say something, but the sight of my weakness deterred him. I could not have borne a word. The tears were very near the surface now, so near that I could only close my eyes and lean my head against Dot; and, seeing this, they very wisely left me alone. I recovered myself by-and-by, and was able to listen to the talk that went on around me. The children's tongues were busy as usual; Flurry had gone back to her father, and she and Dot were keeping up a brisk fire of conversation across the hearth-rug. I could not see Mr. Lucas' face, as he had moved to a dark corner, but Miss Ruth's couch was drawn full into the firelight, and I could see the tears glistening on her cheek.
"Don't talk any more about it, my darlings," she said at last. "I feel as though I should never sleep again, and I am sure it is bad for Esther."
"It does not hurt me," I returned, softly. "I suppose shipwrecked sailors like to talk over the dangers they escape; somehow everything seems so far away and strange to-night, as though it had happened months ago." But though I said this I could not help the nervous thrill that seemed to pass over me now and then.
"Shall I read to you a little?" interrupted Mr. Lucas, quietly. "The children's talk tires your head;" and without waiting for an answer, he commenced reading some of my favorite hymns and a lovely poem, in a low mellow voice that was very pleasant and soothing.
Nurse came to fetch Flurry, and then Dot went too, but Mr. Lucas did not put down the book for a long time. I had ceased to follow the words; the flicker of the firelight played fitfully before my eyes. The quiet room, the shaded lamplight, the measured cadence of the reader's voice, now rising, now falling, lulled me most pleasantly. I must have fallen asleep at last, for Flossy woke me by pushing his black nose into my hand; for when I sat up and rubbed my eyes Mr. Lucas was gone, and only Miss Ruth was laughing softly as she watched me.
"Giles went away half an hour ago," she said amused at my perplexed face. "He was so pleased when he looked up and found you were asleep. I believe your pale face frightened him, but I shall tell him you look much better now."
"My head feels less bewildered," was my answer.
"You are beginning to recover yourself," she returned, decidedly; "now you must be a good child and go to bed;" and I rose at once.
As I opened the drawing-room door, Mr. Lucas came out from his study.
"Were you going to give me the slip?" he said, pleasantly. "I wanted to bid you good-by, as I shall be off in the morning before you are awake."
"Good by," I returned, rather shyly, holding out my hand; but he kept it a moment longer than usual.
"Esther, you must let me thank you," he said, abruptly. "I know but for you I must have lost my child. A man's gratitude for such a mercy is a strong thing, and you may count me your friend as long as I live."
"You are very good," I stammered, "but I have done nothing; and there was Dot, you know." I am afraid I was very awkward, but I dreaded his speaking to me so, and the repressed emotion of his face and voice almost frightened me.
"There, I have made you quite pale again," he said, regretfully. "Your nerves have not recovered from the shock. Well, we will speak of this again; good-night, my child, and sleep well," and with another kind smile he left me.
A LETTER FROM HOME.
I was so young and healthy that I soon recovered from the shock, and in a few days I had regained strength and color. Mr. Lucas had gone to see mother, and the day after his visit she wrote a fond incoherent letter, full of praises of my supposed heroism. Allan, to whom I had narrated everything fully, wrote more quietly, but the underlying tenderness breathed in every word for Dot and me touched me greatly. Dot had not suffered much; he was a little more lame, and his back ached more constantly. But it was Flurry who came off worst; her cold was on her chest, and when she threw it off she had a bad cough, and began to grow pale and thin; she was nervous, too, and woke every night calling out to me or Dot, and before many days were over Miss Ruth wrote to her brother and told him that Flurry would be better at home.
We were waiting for his answer, when Miss Ruth brought a letter to my bedside from mother, and sat down, as usual, to hear the contents, for I used to read her little bits from my home correspondence, and she wanted to know what Uncle Geoffrey thought about Flurry. My sudden exclamation frightened her.
"What is wrong, Esther? It is nothing about Giles?"
"Oh, no!" I returned, the tears starting to my eyes, "but I must go home at once; Carrie is very ill, they are afraid it is an attack of rheumatic fever. Mother writes in such distress, and there is a message from Uncle Geoffrey, asking me to pack up and come to them without delay. There is something about Flurry, too; perhaps you had better read it."
"I will take the letter away with me. Don't hurry too much, Esther; we will talk it over at breakfast, and there is no train now before eleven, and nurse will help you to pack."
That was just like Miss Ruth—no fuss, no unnecessary words, no adding to my trouble by selfish regrets at my absence. She was like a man in that, she never troubled herself about petty details, as most women do, but just looked straight at the point in question.
Her calmness reassured me, and by breakfast-time I was able to discuss matters quietly.
"I have sent nurse to your room, Esther," she said, as she poured out the coffee; "the children have had their bread and milk, and have gone out to play; it is so warm and sunny, it will not hurt Flurry. The pony carriage will be round here at half-past ten, so you will have plenty of time, and I mean to drive you to the station myself."
"You think of everything," I returned, gratefully. "Have you read the letter? Does it strike you that Carrie is so very ill?"
"I am afraid so," she admitted, reluctantly; "your mother says she has been ailing some time, only she would not take care of herself, and then she got wet, and took her class in her damp things. I am afraid you have a long spell of nursing before you; rheumatic fever sometimes lasts a long time. Your uncle says something about a touch of pleurisy as well."
I pushed away my plate, for I could not eat. I am ashamed to say a strong feeling of indignation took possession of me.
"She would not give up," I burst out, angrily: "she would not come here to recruit herself, although she owned she felt ill; she has just gone on until her strength was exhausted and she was not in a state for anything, and now all this trouble and anxiety must come on mother, and she is not fit for it."
"Hush, Esther; you must not feel like this," she returned, gently. "Poor Carrie will purchase wisdom dearly; depend upon it, the knowledge that she has brought on this illness through her own self-will will be the sharpest pang of all. You must go home and be a comfort to them all, as you have been our comfort," she added, sweetly; "and, Esther, I have been thinking over things, and you must trust Dot to me. We shall all return to the Cedars, most likely to-morrow, and I will promise not to let him out of my sight."
And as I regarded her dubiously, she went on still more eagerly:
"You must let me keep him, Esther. Flurry is so poorly, and she will fret over the loss of her little companion; and with such a serious illness in the house, he would only be an additional care to you." And as she seemed so much in earnest, I consented reluctantly to wait for mother's decision; for, after all, the child would be dull and neglected, with Jack at school, and mother and me shut up in Carrie's sick room. So in that, as in all else, Miss Ruth was right.
Dot cried a little when I said good-by to him; he did not like seeing me go away, and the notion of Carrie's illness distressed him, and Flurry cried, too, because he did, and then Miss Ruth laughed at them both.
"You silly children," she said, "when we are all going home to-morrow, and you can walk over and see Esther every day, and take her flowers and nice things for Carrie." Which view of the case cheered them immensely, and we left them with their heads very close together, evidently planning all sorts of surprises for Carrie and me.
Miss Ruth talked very cheerfully up to the last moment, and then she grew a little silent and tearful.
"I shall miss you so, Esther, both here and at the Cedars," she said tenderly. "I feel it may be a long time before you come to us again; but there, I mean to see plenty of you," she went on, recovering herself. "I shall bring Dot every day, if it be only for a few minutes!" And so she sent me away half comforted.
It was a dreary journey, and I was thankful when it was over; there was no one to meet me at the station, so I took one of the huge lumbering flies, and a sleepy old horse dragged me reluctantly up the steep Milnthorpe streets.
It was an odd coincidence, but as we passed the bank and I looked out of the window half absently, Mr. Lucas came down the steps and saw me, and motioned to the driver to stop.
"I am very sorry to see you here," he said, gravely. "I met Dr. Cameron just now, and he told me your mother had written to recall you."
"Did he say how Carrie was?" I interrupted anxiously.
"She is no better, and in a state of great suffering; it seems she has been imprudent, and taken a severe chill; but don't let me keep you, if you are anxious to go on." But I detained him a moment.
"Flurry seems better this morning," I observed; "her cough is less hard."
He looked relieved at that.
"I have written for them to come home to-morrow, and to bring Dot, too; we will take care of him for you, and make him happy among us, and you will have enough on your hands."
And then he drew back, and went slowly down High street, but the encounter had cheered me; I was beginning to look on Mr. Lucas as an old friend.
Uncle Geoffrey was on the door-step as I drove up, and we entered the house together.
"This is a bad business, I am afraid," he said, in a subdued voice, as he closed the parlor door; "it goes to one's heart to see that pretty creature suffer. I am glad, for all our sakes, that Allan will be here next week." And then I remembered all at once that the year was out, and that Allan was coming home to live; but he had said so little about it in his last letters that I was afraid of some postponement.
"He is really coming, then?" I exclaimed, in joyful surprise; this was good news.
"Yes, next Thursday; and I shall be glad of the boy's help," he replied, gruffly; and then he sat down and told me about Carrie.
Foolish girl, her zeal had indeed bordered upon madness. It seems Uncle Geoffrey had taxed her with illness a fortnight ago, and she had not denied it; she had even consented to take the remedies prescribed her in the way of medicine, but nothing would induce her to rest. The illness had culminated last Sunday; she had been caught in a heavy rain, and her thin summer walking dress had been drenched, and yet she had spent the afternoon as usual at the schools. A shivering fit that evening had been the result.
"She has gradually got worse and worse," continued Uncle Geoffrey; "it is not ordinary rheumatic fever; there is certainly sciatica, and a touch of pleurisy; the chill on her enfeebled, worn-out frame has been deadly, and there is no knowing the mischief that may follow. I would not have you told before this, for after a nasty accident like yours, a person is not fit for much. Let me look at you, child. I must own you don't stem much amiss. Now listen to me, Esther. I have elected Deborah head-nurse, and you must work under her orders. Bless me," catching a glimpse of a crimson disappointed face, for I certainly felt crestfallen at this, "a chit like you cannot be expected to know everything. Deb is a splendid nurse; she has a head on her shoulders, that woman," with a little chuckle; "she has just put your mother out of the room, because she says that she is no more use than a baby, so you will have to wheedle yourself into her good graces if you expect to nurse Carrie."
"Why did you send for me, if you expect me to be of no use?" I returned, with decided temper, for this remark chafed me; but he only chuckled again.
"Deborah sent for you, not I," he said, in an amused voice. "'Couldn't we have Miss Esther home?' she asked; 'she has her wits about her,' which I am afraid was a hit at somebody."
This soothed me down a little, for my dignity was sadly affronted that Deborah should be mistress of the sick room. I am afraid after all that I was not different from other girls, and had not yet outgrown what mother called the "porcupine stage" of girlhood, when one bristles all over at every supposed slight, armed at every point with minor prejudices, like "quills upon the fretful porcupine."
Uncle Geoffrey bade me run along, for he was busy, so I went upstairs swallowing discontent with every step, until I looked up and saw mother's pale sad face watching me from a doorway, and then every unworthy feeling vanished.
"Oh, my darling, thank Heaven I have you again!" she murmured, folding me in her loving arms; "my dear child, who has never given me a moment's anxiety." And then I knew how heavily Carrie's willfulness had weighed on that patient heart.
She drew me half weeping into Carrie's little room, and we sat down together hand in hand. The invalid had been moved into mother's room, as it was large and sunny, and I could hear Deborah moving quietly as I passed the door.
Mother would not speak about Carrie at first; she asked after Dot, and was full of gratitude to Miss Ruth for taking care of him; and then the dear soul cried over me, and said she had nearly lost us both, and that but for me her darling boy would have been drowned. Mr. Lucas had told her so.
"He was full of your praises, Esther," she went on, drying her eyes; "he says he and Miss Ruth will be your fast friends through life; that there is nothing he would not do to show his gratitude; it made me so proud to hear it."
"It makes me proud, too, mother; but I cannot have you talking about me, when I am longing to hear about Carrie."
Mother sighed and shook her head, and then it was I noticed a tremulous movement about her head, and, oh! how gray her hair was, almost white under her widow's cap.
"There is not much to say," she said, despondently; "your uncle will not tell me if she be in actual danger, but he looks graver every day. Her sufferings are terrible; just now Deborah would not let me remain, because I fretted so, as though a mother can help grieving over her child's agony. It is all her own fault, Esther, and that makes it all the harder to bear."
I acquiesced silently, and then I told mother that I had come home to spare her, and do all I could for Carrie—as much as Deborah would allow.
"You must be very prudent, then," she replied, "for Deborah is very jealous, and yet so devoted, that one cannot find fault with her. Perhaps she is right, and I am too weak to be of much use, but I should like you to be with your sister as much as possible."
I promised to be cautious, and after a little more talk with mother I laid aside my traveling things and stole gently into the sick room.
Deborah met me on the threshold with uplifted finger and a resolute "Hush!" on her lips. She looked more erect and angular than ever, and there was a stern forbidding expression on her face; but I would not be daunted.
I caught her by both her hands, and drew her, against her will, to the door.
"I want to speak to you," I whispered; and when I had her outside, I looked straight into her eyes. "Oh, Deb," I cried, "is it not dreadful for all of us? and I have been in such peril, too. What should we do without you, when you know all about nursing, and understand a sick room so well? You are everything to us, Deborah, and we are so grateful, and now you must let me help you a little, and spare you fatigue. I daresay there are many little things you could find for me to do."
I do not know about the innocence of the dove, but certainly the wisdom of the serpent was in my speech; my humility made Deborah throw down her arms at once. "Any little thing that I can do," I pleaded, and her face relaxed and her hard gray eyes softened.
"You are always ready to help a body, Miss Esther, I will say that, and I don't deny that I am nearly ready to drop with fatigue through not having my clothes off these three nights. The mistress is no more help than a baby, not being able to lift, or to leave off crying."
"And you will let me help you?" I returned, eagerly, a little too eagerly, for she drew herself up.
"I won't make any promises, Miss Esther," she said, rather stiffly; "the master said I must have help, and I am willing to try what you can do, though you are young and not used to the ways of a sick room," finished the provoking creature; but I restrained my impatience.
"Any little thing that I can do," I repeated, humbly; and my forbearance had its reward, for Deborah drew aside to let me pass into the room, only telling me, rather sharply, to say as little possible and keep my thoughts to myself. Deborah's robust treatment was certainly bracing, and it gave me a sort of desperate courage; but the first shock of seeing Carrie was dreadful.
The poor girl lay swathed in bandages, and as I entered the room her piteous moanings almost broke my heart. Burning with fever, and racked by pain, she could find no ease or rest.
As I kissed her she shuddered, and her eyes looked at me with a terrible sadness in them.
"Oh, my poor dear, how sorry I am!" I whispered. I dared not say more with Deborah hovering jealously in the back-ground.
"Don't be sorry," she groaned; "I deserved it. I deserve it all." And then she turned away her face, and her fair hair shaded it from me. Did I hear it aright; and was it a whispered prayer for patience that caught my ear as she turned away.
Deborah would not let me stay long. She sent me down to have tea and talk to mother, but she promised that I should come up again by-and-by. I was surprised as I opened the parlor door to find Mr. Lucas talking to Uncle Geoffrey and mother with Jack looking up at him with awe-struck eyes. He came forward with an amused smile, as he noticed my astonished pause.
"You did not expect to see me here," he said, in his most friendly manner; "but I wanted to inquire after your sister. Mrs. Cameron has been so good as to promise me a cup of tea, so you must make it."
That Mr. Lucas should be drinking tea at mother's table! somehow, I could not get over my surprise. I had never seen him in our house before, and yet in the old times both he and his wife had been frequent visitors. Certainly he seemed quite at home.
Mother had lighted her pretty china lamp, and Uncle Geoffrey had thrown a log of wood on the fire, and the parlors looked bright and cozy, and even Jack's hair was brushed and her collar for once not awry. I suppose Mr. Lucas found it pleasant, for he stayed quite late, and I wondered how he could keep his dinner waiting so long; but then Uncle Geoffrey was such a clever man, and could talk so well. I thought I should have to leave them at last, for it was nearly the time that Deborah wanted me; but just then Mr. Lucas looked across at me and noticed something in my face.
"You want to be with your sister," he said, suddenly interpreting my thoughts, "and I am reducing my cook to despair. Good-by, Mrs. Cameron. Many thanks for a pleasant hour." And then he shook hands with us all, and left the room with Uncle Geoffrey.
"What an agreeable, well-bred man," observed mother. "I like him exceedingly, and yet people call him proud and reserved."
"He is not a bit," I returned, indignantly; and then I kissed mother, and ran upstairs.
"YOU WERE RIGHT, ESTHER."
For many, many long weeks, I might say months, my daily life was lived in Carrie's sick room.
What a mercy it is that we are not permitted to see the course of events—that we take moment by moment from the Father's hand, not knowing what lies before us!
It was September when I had that little altercation with Deborah on the threshold, and when she drew aside for me to pass into that dimly-lighted sickroom; it was Christmas now, and I was there still. Could I have foreseen those months, with their record of suffering, their hours of changeless monotony, well might my courage have failed. As it was, I watched the slow progression of nights and days almost indifferently; the walls of the sickroom closed round me, shutting me out from the actual world, and concentrating my thoughts on the frail girl who was fighting against disease and death.
So terrible an illness I pray to Heaven I may never see again; sad complications producing unheard-of tortures, and bringing the sufferer again and again to the very brink of death.
"If I could only die: if I were only good enough to be allowed to die!" that was the prayer she breathed; and there were times when I could have echoed it, when I would rather have parted with her, dearly as I loved her, than have seen her so racked with agony; but it was not to be. The lesson was not completed. There are some who must be taught to live, who have to take back "the turned lesson," as one has beautifully said, and learn it more perfectly.
If I had ever doubted her goodness in my secret soul, I could doubt no longer, when I daily witnessed her weakness and her exceeding patience. She bore her suffering almost without complaint, and would often hide from us how much she had to endure.
"'It is good to be still.' Do you remember that, Esther?" she said once; and I knew she was quoting the words of one who had suffered.
After the first day I had no further difficulty with Deborah; she soon recognized my usefulness, and gave me my share of nursing without grudging. I took my turn at the night-watching, and served my first painful apprenticeship in sick nursing. Mother could do little for us; she could only relieve me for a couple of hours in the afternoon, during which Uncle Geoffrey insisted that I should have rest and exercise.
Allan did not come home when we expected him; he had to postpone his intention for a couple of months. This was a sad disappointment, as he would have helped us so much, and mother's constant anxiety that my health should not suffer by my close confinement was a little trying at times. I was quite well, but it was no wonder that my fresh color faded a little, and that I grew a little quiet and subdued. The absence of life and change must be pernicious to young people; they want air, movement, a certain stirring of activity and bustle to keep time with their warm natures.
Every one was very kind to me. Uncle Geoffrey would take me on his rounds, and often Miss Ruth and Flurry would call for me, and drive me into the country, and they brought me books and fruit and lovely flowers for Carrie's room; and though I never saw Mr. Lucas during his few brief visits he never failed to send me a kind message or to ask if there was anything he could do for us.
Miss Ruth, or Ruth, as I always called her now, would sometimes come up into the sickroom and sit for a few minutes. Carrie liked to see her, and always greeted her with a smile; but when Mrs. Smedley heard of it, and rather peremptorily demanded admittance, she turned very pale, and calling me to her, charged me, in an agitated voice, never to let her in. "I could not see her, I could not," she went on, excitedly. "I like Miss Ruth; she is so gentle and quiet. But I want no one but you and mother."
Mother once—very injudiciously, as Uncle Geoffrey and I thought —tried to shake this resolution of Carrie's.
"Poor Mrs. Smedley seems so very grieved and disappointed that you will not see her, my dear. This is the third time she has called this week, and she has been so kind to you."
"Oh, mother, don't make me see her!" pleaded Carrie, even her lips turning white; and of course mother kissed her and promised that she should not be troubled. But when she had left the room Carrie became very much agitated.
"She is the last I ought to see, for she helped to bring me to this; she taught me to disobey my mother—yes, Esther, she did indeed!" as I expostulated in a shocked manner. "She was always telling me that my standard was not high enough—that I ought to look above even the wisest earthly parents. She said my mother had old-fashioned notions of duty; that things were different in her young days; that, in spite of her goodness, she had narrow views; that it was impossible for her even to comprehend me."
"Dear Carrie, surely you could not have agreed with her?" I asked, gently; but her only answer was a sigh as she sank back upon her pillows.
It was the evening Allan was expected, I remember. It was December now, and for nine weeks I had been shut up in that room, with the exception of my daily walk or drive.
Deborah had gone back to her usual work; it was impossible to spare her longer. But she still helped in the heaviest part of the nursing, and came from time to time to look after us both.
Dot had remained for six weeks at the Cedars; but mother missed him so much that Uncle Geoffrey decided to bring him home; and how glad and thankful I was to get my darling back!
I saw very little of him, however, for, strange to say, Carrie did not care for him and Jack to stay long in the room. I was not surprised that Jack fidgeted her, for she was restless and noisy, and her loud voice and awkward manners would jar sadly on an invalid; but Dot was different.
In a sick room he was as quiet as a little mouse, and he had such nice ways. It grieved me to see Carrie shade her eyes in that pained manner when he hobbled in softly on his crutches.
"Carrie always cries when she sees me!" Dot said once, with a little quiver of his lips. Alas! we neither of us understood the strange misery that even the sight of her afflicted little brother caused her.
Mother had gone downstairs when she had made her little protest about Mrs. Smedley, and we were left alone together. I was resting in the low cushioned chair Ruth had sent me in the early days of Carrie's illness, and was watching the fire in a quiet fashion that had become habitual to me. The room looked snug and pleasant in the twilight; the little bed on which I slept was in the farthest corner; a bouquet of hothouse flowers stood on the little round table, with some books Mr. Lucas had sent up for me. It must have looked cheerful to Carrie as she lay among the pillows; but to my dismay there were tears on her cheeks—I could see them glistening in the firelight.
"Do you feel less well to-night, dear?" I asked, anxiously, as I took a seat beside her; but she shook her head.
"I am better, much better," was her reply, "thanks to you and Deborah and Uncle Geoffrey," but her smile was very sad as she spoke. "How good you have been to me, Esther—how kind and patient! Sometimes I have looked at you when you were asleep over there, and I have cried to see how thin and weary you looked in your sleep, and all through me."
"Nonsense," I returned, kissing her; but my voice was not quite clear.
"Allan will say so to-night when he sees you—you are not the same, Esther. Your eyes are graver, and you seem to have forgotten how to laugh, and it is all my fault."
"Dear Carrie, I wish you would not talk so."
"Let me talk a little to-night," she pleaded. "I feel better and stronger, and it will be such a relief to tell you some of my thoughts. I have been silent for nine weeks, and sometimes the pent-up pain has been more than I could bear."
"My poor Carrie," stroking the thin white hand on the coverlid.
"Yes, I am that," she sighed. "Do you remember our old talks together? Oh, how wise you were, Esther, but I would not listen to you; you were all for present duties. I can recollect some of your words now. You told me our work lay before us, close to us, at our very feet, and yet I would stretch out my arms for more, till my own burdens crushed me, and I fell beneath them."
"You attempted too much," I returned; "your intention was good, but you overstrained your powers."
"You are putting it too mildly," she returned, with a great sadness in her voice. "Esther, I have had time to think since I have lain here, and I have been reviewing your life and mine. I wanted to see where the fault lay, and how I had missed my path. God was taking away my work from me; the sacrifice I offered was not acceptable."
"Oh, my dear, hush!" But she lifted her hand feebly and laid on my lips.
"It was weeks before I found it out, but I think I see it clearly now. We were both in earnest about our duty, we both wanted to do the best we could for others; but, Esther, after all it was you who were right; you did not turn against the work that was brought to you— your teaching, and house, and mother, and Dot, and even Jack—all that came first, and you knew it; you have worked in the corner of the vineyard that was appointed to you, and never murmured over its barrenness and narrow space, and so you are ripe and ready for any great work that may be waiting for you in the future. 'Faithful in little, faithful in much'—how often have I applied those words to you!"
I tried to stem the torrent of retrospection, but nothing would silence her; as she said herself, the pent up feelings must have their course. But why did she judge herself so bitterly? It pained me inexpressibly to hear her.
"If I had only listened to you!" she went on; "but my spiritual self-will blinded me. I despised my work. Oh, Esther! you cannot contradict me; you know how bitterly I spoke of the little Thornes; how I refused to take them into my heart; how scornfully I spoke of my ornamental brickmaking."
I could not gainsay her words on that point; I knew her to be wrong.
"I wanted to choose my work; that was the fatal error. I spurned the little duties at my feet, and looked out for some great work that I must do. Teaching the little Thornes was hateful to me; yet I could teach ragged children in the Sunday-school for hours. Mending Jack's things and talking to mother were wearisome details; yet I could toil through fog and rain in Nightingale lane, and feel no fatigue. My work was impure, my motives tainted by self-will. Could it be accepted by Him who was subject to His parents for thirty years, who worked at the carpenter's bench, when He could have preached to thousands?" And here she broke down, and wept bitterly.
What could I answer? How could I apply comfort to one so sorely wounded? And yet through it all who could doubt her goodness?
"Dear Carrie," I whispered, "if this be all true, if there be no exaggeration, no morbid conscientiousness in all you say, still you have repented, and your punishment has been severe."
"My punishment!" she returned, in a voice almost of despair. "Why do you speak of it as past, when you know I shall bear the consequences of my own imprudence all my life long? This is what is secretly fretting me. I try to bow myself to His will; but, oh! it is so hard not to be allowed to make amends, not to be allowed to have a chance of doing better for the future, not to be allowed to make up for all my deficiencies in the past; but just to suffer and be a burden."
I looked at her with frightened eyes. What could she mean, when she was getting better every day, and Uncle Geoffrey hoped she might be downstairs by Christmas Day?
"Is it possible you do not know, Esther?" she said incredulously; but two red spots came into her thin cheeks. "Have not mother and Uncle Geoffrey told you?"
"They have told me nothing," I repeated. "Oh, Carrie, what do you mean? You are not going to die?"
"To die? Oh, no!" in a tone of unutterable regret. "Should I be so sorry for myself if I thought that? I am getting well—well," with a slight catching of her breath—"but when I come downstairs I shall be like Dot."
I do not know what I said in answer to this terrible revelation. Uncle Geoffrey had never told me; Carrie had only extorted the truth from him with difficulty. My darling girl a cripple! It was Carrie who tried to comfort me as I knelt sobbing beside her.
"Oh, Esther, how you cry! Don't, my dear, don't. It makes me still more unhappy. Have I told you too suddenly? But you must know. That is why I could not bear to see Dot come into the room. But I mean to get over my foolishness."
But I attempted no answer. "Cruel, cruel!" were the only words that forced themselves through my teeth.
"You shall not say that," she returned, stroking my hair. "How can it be cruel if it be meant for my good? I have feared this all along, Esther; the mischief has set in in one hip. It is not the suffering, but the thought of my helplessness that frightens me." And here her sweet eyes filled with tears.
Oh, how selfish I was, when I ought to have been comforting her, if only the words would come! And then a sudden thought came to me.
"They also serve who only stand and wait," and I repeated the line softly, and a sort of inspiration came over me.
"Carrie," I said, embracing her, "this must be the work the loving Saviour has now for you to do. This is the Cross He would have you take up, and He who died to save the sinful and unthankful will give you grace sufficient to your need."
"Yes, I begin to think it is!" she returned; and a light came into her eyes, and she lay back in a satisfied manner. "I never thought of it in that way; it seemed my punishment—just taking away my work and leaving me nothing but helplessness and emptiness."
"And now you will look at it as still more difficult work. Oh, Carrie, what will mine be compared to that—to see you patient under suffering, cheerfully enduring, not murmuring or repining? What will that be but preaching to us daily?"
"That will do," she answered faintly; "I must think it out. You have done more for me this afternoon than any one has." And seeing how exhausted she was, I left her, and stole back to my place.
She slept presently, and I sat still in the glimmering firelight, listening to the sounds downstairs that told of Allan's arrival; but I could not go down and show my tear-stained face. Deborah came up presently to lay the little tea-table, and then Carrie woke up, and I waited on her as usual, and tried to coax her failing appetite; and by-and-by came the expected tap at the door.
Of course it was Allan; no one but himself would come in with that alert step and cheerful voice.
"Well, Carrie, my dear," he said, affectionately, bending over her as she looked up at him—whatever he felt at the sight of her changed face he kept to himself; he kissed me without a word and took his seat by the bedside.
"You know, Allan?" she whispered, as he took her hand.
"Yes, I know; Uncle Geoffrey has told me; but it may not be as bad as you think—you have much for which to be thankful; for weeks he never thought you would get over it. What does it matter about the lameness, Carrie, when you have come back to us from the very jaws of death?" and his voice trembled a little.
"I felt badly about it until Esther talked to me," she returned. "Esther has been such a nurse to me, Allan."
He looked at me as she said this, and his eyes glistened. "Esther is Esther," he replied, laconically; but I knew then how I satisfied him.
"When we were alone together that night—for I waited downstairs to say good-night to him, while Deborah stayed with Carrie—he suddenly drew me toward him and looked in my face.
"Poor child," he said, tenderly, "it is time I came home to relieve you; you have grown a visionary, unsubstantial Esther, with large eyes and a thin face; but somehow I never liked the look of you so well."
That made me smile. "Oh, Allan, how nice it is to have you with me again!"
"Nice! I should think so; what walks we will have, by the bye. I mean to have Carrie downstairs before a week is over; what is the good of you both moping upstairs? I shall alter all that."
"She is too weak too move," I returned, dubiously.
"But she is not too weak to be carried. You are keeping her too quiet, and she wants rousing a little; she feeds too much on her own thoughts, and it is bad for her; she is such a little saint, you know," continued Allan, half jestingly, "she wants to be leavened a little with our wickedness.
"She is good; you would say so if you heard her."
"Not a bit more good than some other people—Miss Ruth, for example;" but I could see from his mischievous eyes that he was not thinking of Ruth. How well and handsome he was looking: he had grown broader, and there was an air of manliness about him—"my bonnie lad," as I called him.
I went to bed that night with greater contentment in my heart, because Allan had come home; and even Carrie seemed cheered by the hopeful view he had taken of her case.
"He thinks, perhaps, that after some years I may not be quite so helpless," she whispered, as I said good-night to her, and her face looked composed and quiet in the fading firelight; "anyhow, I mean to bear it as well as I can, and not give you more trouble."
"I do not think it a trouble," was my answer as her arms released me; and as I lay awake watching the gleaming shadows in the room, I thought how sweet such ministry is to those we love, their very helplessness endearing them to us. After all, this illness had drawn us closer together, we were more now as sisters should be, united in sympathy and growing deeper into each other's hearts. "How pleasant it is to live in unity!" said the Psalmist; and the echo of the words seemed to linger in my mind until I fell asleep.
After all Allan's sanguine prognostication was not fulfilled. The new year had opened well upon us before Carrie joined the family circle downstairs.
But the sickroom was a different place now, when we had Allan's cheery visits to enliven our long evenings. A brighter element seemed introduced into the house. I wondered if Carrie felt as I did! if her heart leaped up with pleasure at the sound of his merry whistle, or the light springing footsteps that seemed everywhere!
His vigorous will seemed to dominate over the whole household; he would drag me out peremptorily for what he called wholesome exercise, which meant long, scrambling walks, which sent me home with tingling pulses and exuberant spirits, until the atmosphere of the sick room moderated and subdued them again.
He continued to relieve me in many ways; sometimes he would come in upon us in his quick, alert way, and bundle me and my work-basket downstairs, ordering me to talk to mother, while he gave Carrie a dose of his company. Perhaps the change was good for her, for I always fancied she looked less depressed when I saw her again.
Our choice of reading displeased him not a little; the religious biographies and sentimental sacred poetry that Carrie specially affected were returned to the bookshelves by our young physician with an unsparing hand; he actually scolded me in no measured terms for what he called my want of sense.
"What a goose you are, Esther," he said, in a disgusted voice; "but, there, you women are all alike," continued the youthful autocrat. "You pet one another's morbid fancies, and do no end of harm. Because Carrie wants cheering, you keep her low with all these books, which feed her gloomy ideas. What do you say? she likes it; well, many people like what is not good for them. I tell you she is not in a fit state for this sort of reading, and unless you will abide by my choice of books I will get Uncle Geoffrey to forbid them altogether."
Carrie looked ready to cry at this fierce tirade, but I am afraid I only laughed in Allan's face; still, we had to mind him. He set me to work, I remember, on some interesting book of travels, that carried both of us far from Milnthorpe, and set us down in wonderful tropical regions, where we lost ourselves and our troubles in gorgeous descriptions.
One evening I came up and found Allan reading the "Merchant of Venice," to her, and actually Carrie was enjoying it.
"He reads so well," she said, rather apologetically, as she caught sight of my amused face; she did not like to own even to me that she found it more interesting than listening to Henry Martyn's life.
It charmed us both to hear the sound of her soft laugh; and Allan went downstairs well satisfied with the result of his prescription.
On Christmas Eve I had a great treat. Ruth wanted me to spend the evening with her; and as she took Carrie into her confidence, she got her way without difficulty. Carrie arranged every thing; mother was to sit with her, and then Allan and Deborah would help her to bed. I was to enjoy myself and have a real holiday, and not come home until Allan fetched me.
I had quite a holiday feeling as I put on my new cashmere dress. Ruth had often fetched me for a drive, but I had not been inside the Cedars for months, and the prospect of a long evening there was delicious.
Flurry ran out into the hall to meet me, and even Giles' grave face relaxed into a smile as he hoped "Miss Cameron was better;" but Flurry would hardly let me answer, she was so eager to show me the wreaths auntie and she had made, and to whisper that she had hung out a stocking for Santa Claus to fill, and that Santa Claus was going to fill one for Dot too.
"Come in, you naughty little chatterbox, and do not keep Esther in the hall," exclaimed Ruth, from the curtained doorway; and the next minute I had my arms round her. Oh, the dear room! how cozy it looked after my months of absence; no other room, not even mother's pretty drawing-room at Combe Manor, was so entirely to my taste.
There was the little square tea-table, as usual, and the dark blue china cups and saucers, and the wax candles in their silver sconces, and white china lamp, and the soft glow of the ruddy firelight playing into the dim corner.
Ruth drew up the low rocking chair, and took off my hat and jacket, and smoothed my hair.
"How nice you look Esther, and what a pretty dress! Is that Allan's present? But you are still very thin, my dear.
"Oh, I am all right," I returned, carelessly, for what did it matter how I looked, now Carrie was better? "Dear Ruth," I whispered, as she still stood beside me, "I can think of nothing but the pleasure of being with you again."
"I hope you mean to include me in that last speech," said a voice behind me; and there was Mr. Lucas standing laughing at us. He had come through the curtained doorway unheard, and I rose in some little confusion to shake hands.
To my surprise, he echoed Miss Ruth's speech; but then he had not seen me for three months. I had been through so much since we last met.
"What have they been doing to you, my poor child?" Those were actually his words, and his eyes rested on my face with quite a grieved, pitying expression.
"Allan told me I was rather unsubstantial-looking," I returned, trying to speak lightly; but somehow the tears came to my eyes. "I was so tired before he came home, but now I am getting rested."
"I wonder at Dr. Cameron letting a child like you work so hard," he retorted, quite abruptly. He had called me child twice, and I was eighteen and a half, and feeling so old—so old. I fancy Ruth saw my lip quiver, for she hastily interposed:
"Let her sit down, Giles, and I will give her some tea. She looks as cold as a little starved robin."
And after that no one spoke again of my altered looks. It troubled me for a few minutes, and then it passed out of my mind.
After all, it could not be helped if I were a little thin and worn. The strain of those three months had been terrible; the daily spectacle of physical suffering before my eyes, the wakeful nights, the long monotonous days, and then the shock of knowing that Carrie must be a cripple, had all been too much for me.
We talked about it presently, while Flurry sat like a mouse at my feet, turning over the pages of a new book of fairy tales. The kind sympathy they both showed me broke down the barrier of my girlish reserve, and I found comfort in speaking of the dreary past. I did not mind Mr. Lucas in the least: he showed such evident interest in all I told them. After dinner he joined us again in the drawing-room, instead of going as usual for a short time to his study.
"When are you coming back to stay with us?" he asked, suddenly, as he stirred the logs until they emitted a shower of sparks.
"Yes," echoed his sister, "Carrie is so much better now that we think it is high time for you to resume your duties; poor Flurry has been neglected enough."
My answer was simply to look at them both; the idea of renewing work had never occurred to me; how could Carrie spare me? And yet ought I not to do my part all the more, now she was laid by? For a moment the sense of conflicting duties oppressed me.
"Please do not look pale over it," observed Mr. Lucas, kindly; "but you do not mean, I suppose, to be always chained to your sister's couch? That will do neither of you any good."
"Oh, no, I must work, of course," I returned, breathlessly. "Carrie will not be able to do anything, so it is the more necessary for me, but not yet—not until we have her downstairs."
"Then we will give you three weeks' grace," observed Mr. Lucas, coolly. "It is as you say, with your usual good sense, absolutely necessary that one of you should work; and as Flurry has been without a governess long enough, we shall expect you to resume your duties in three weeks' time."
I was a little perplexed by this speech, it was so dignified and peremptory; but looking up I could see a little smile breaking out at the corner of his mouth. Ruth too seemed amused.
"Very well," I returned in the same voice; "I must be punctual, or I shall expect my dismissal."
"Of course you must be punctual," he retorted; and the subject dropped, but I perceived he was in earnest under his jesting way. Flurry's governess was wanted back, that was clear.
As for me, the mere notion of resuming my daily work at the Cedars was almost too delightful to contemplate. I had an odd idea, that missing them all had something to do with my sober feelings. I felt it when I went up to kiss Flurry in her little bed; the darling child was lying awake for me.
She made me lie down on the bed beside her, and hugged me close with her warm arms, and her hair fell over my face like a veil, and then prattled to me about Santa Claus and the wonderful gifts she expected.
"Will Santa Claus bring you anything, Esther?"
"Not much, I fear," was my amused answer. We were rather a gift-loving family, and at Combe Manor our delight had been to load the breakfast table on Christmas day with presents for every member of the family, including servants; but of course now our resources were limited, and I expected few presents; but in my spare time I had contrived a few surprises in the shape of work. A set of embroidered baby linen for Flurry's best doll, dainty enough for a fairy baby; a white fleecy shawl for mother, and another for Carrie, and a chair-back for Ruth; she was fond of pretty things, but I certainly did not look for much in return.
Allan had brought me that pretty dress from London, and another for Carrie, and he had not Fortunatus' purse, poor fellow!
"I have got a present for you," whispered Flurry, and I could imagine how round and eager her eyes were; I think with a little encouragement she would have told me what it was; but I assured her that I should enjoy the surprise.
"It won't keep you awake trying to guess, will it?" she asked, anxiously; and when I said no, she seemed a little disappointed.
"Dot has got one too," she observed, presently; but I knew all about that. Dot was laboriously filling an album with his choicest works of art. His fingers were always stained with paint or Indian ink at meal times, and if I unexpectedly entered the room, I could see a square-shaped book being smuggled away under the tablecloth.
I think these sudden rushes were rather against the general finish of the pictures, causing in some places an unsightly smudge or a blotchy appearance. In one page the Tower of Babel was disfigured by this very injudicious haste, and the bricks and the builders were wholly indistinguishable for a sad blotch of ochre; still, the title page made up for all such defects: "To my dear sister, Esther, from her affectionate little brother, Frankie."
"Aunt Ruth has one, too," continued Flurry; but at this point I thought it better to say good-night. As it was, I found Allan had been waiting for me nearly half-an-hour, and pretended to growl at me for my dawdling, though in reality he was thoroughly enjoying his talk with Ruth.
Carrie was awake when I entered the room; she was lying watching the fire. She welcomed me with her sweetest smile, and though I fancied her cheek was wet as I kissed it, her voice was very tranquil.
"Have you had a pleasant evening, Esther?"
"Very pleasant. Have you missed me very much, darling?"
"I always miss you," she replied, gently; "but Allan has done his best to make the time pass quickly. And then dear mother was so good; she has been sitting with me ever so long; we have had such a nice talk. Somehow I begin to feel as if I had never known what mother was before."
I knew Carrie wanted to tell me all about it, but I pretended I was tired, and that it was time to be asleep. So she said no more; she was submissive to us even in trifles now; and very soon I heard the sound of her soft, regular breathing.
As for me, I laid wide awake for hours; my evening had excited me. The thought of resuming my happy duties at the Cedars pleased and exhilarated me. How kind and thoughtful they had been for my comfort, how warmly I had been welcomed!
I fell to sleep at last, and dreamed that Santa Claus had brought me a mysterious present. The wrappers were so many that Deborah woke me before I reached the final. I remember I had quite a childish feeling of disappointment when my pleasant dream was broken.
What a Christmas morning that was! Outside the trees were bending with hoar frost, a scanty whiteness lay on the lawn, and the soft mysterious light of coming snow seemed to envelope everything. Inside the fire burned ruddily, and Carrie lay smiling upon her pillows, with a little parcel in her outstretched hands. I thought of my unfinished dream, and told it to her as I unfolded the silver paper that wrapped the little box.
"Oh, Carrie!" I exclaimed, for there was her little amethyst cross and beautiful filagree chain; that had been father's gift to her, the prettiest ornament she possessed, and that had been my secret admiration for years.
"I want you to have it," she said, smiling, well pleased at my astonished face. "I can never wear it again, Esther; the world and I have parted company. I shall like to see you in it. I wish it were twice as good; I wish it were of priceless value, for nothing is too good for my dear little sister."
I was very near crying over the little box, and Carrie was praising the thickness and beauty of her shawl, when in came Dot, with his scrap-book under his arm, and Jack, with a wonderful pen-wiper she had concocted, with a cat and kitten she had marvelously executed in gray cloth.
Nor was this all. Downstairs a perfect array of parcels was grouped round my plate. There was a book from Allan, and a beautiful little traveling desk from Uncle Geoffrey. Mother had been searching in her jewel case, and had produced a pearl-ring, which she presented to me with many kisses.
But the greatest surprise of all was still in store for me. Flurry's gift proved to be a very pretty little photograph of herself and Flossy, set in a velvet frame. Ruth's was an ivory prayer-book: but beside it lay a little parcel, directed in Mr. Lucas' handwriting, and a note inside begging me to accept a slight tribute of his gratitude. I opened it with a trembling hand, and there was an exquisite little watch, with a short gold chain attached to it—a perfect little beauty, as even Allan declared it to be.
I was only eighteen, and I suppose most girls would understand my rapture at the sight. Until now a silver watch with a plain black guard had been my only possession; this I presented to Jack on the spot, and was in consequence nearly hugged to death.
"How kind, how kind!" was all I could say; and mother seemed nearly as pleased as I was. As for Uncle Geoffrey and Allan, they took it in an offhand and masculine fashion.
"Very proper, very prettily done," remarked Uncle Geoffrey, approvingly. "You see he has reason to be grateful to you, my dear, and Mr. Lucas is just the man to acknowledge it in the most fitting way."
"I always said he was a brick," was Allan's unceremonious retort. "It is no more than he ought to have done, for your pluckiness saved Flurry." But to their surprise I turned on them with hot cheeks.
"I have done nothing, it is all their kindness and goodness to me: it is far too generous. How ever shall I thank him?" And then I snatched up my treasure, and ran upstairs to show it to Carrie; and I do not think there was a happier girl that Christmas morning than Esther Cameron.
The one drawback to my pleasure was—how I was to thank Mr. Lucas? But I was spared this embarrassment, for he and Flurry waited after service in the porch for us, and walked down High street.
He came to my side at once with a glimmer of fun in his grave eyes.
"Well, Miss Esther, has Santa Claus been good to you? or has he taken too great a liberty?"
"Oh, Mr. Lucas," I began, in a stammering fashion, but he held up his hand peremptorily.
"Not a word, not a syllable, if you please; the debt is all on my side, and you do not fancy it can be paid in such a paltry fashion. I am glad you are not offended with me, that is all." And then he proceeded to ask kindly after Carrie.
His manner set me quite at my ease, and I was able to talk to him as usual. Dot was at the window watching for our approach. He clapped his hands delightedly at the sight of Mr. Lucas and Flurry.
"I suppose I must come in a moment to see my little friend," he said, in a kindly voice, and in another moment he was comfortably seated in our parlor with Dot climbing on his knee.
I never remember a happier Christmas till then, though, thank God, I have known still happier ones since. True, Carrie could not join the family gathering downstairs; but after the early dinner we all went up to her room, and sat in a pleasant circle round the fire.
Only Fred was missing; except the dear father who lay in the quiet churchyard near Combe Manor; but we had bright, satisfactory letters from him, and hoped that on the whole he was doing well.
We talked of him a good deal, and then it was that Dot announced his grand purpose of being an artist.
"When I am a man," he finished, in a serious voice, "I mean to work harder than Fred, and paint great big pictures, and perhaps some grand nobleman will buy them of me."
"I wonder what your first subject will be, Frankie?" asked Allan, in a slightly amused voice. He was turning over Dot's scrap-book, and was looking at the Tower of Babel in a puzzled way.
"The Retreat of the Ten Thousand under Xenophon," was the perfectly startling answer, at which Allan opened his eyes rather widely, and Uncle Geoffrey laughed. Dot looked injured and a little cross.
"People always laugh when I want to talk sense," he said, rather loftily.
"Never mind, Frankie, we won't laugh any more," returned Allan, eager to soothe his favorite; "it is a big subject, but you have plenty of years to work it out in, and after all the grand thing in me is to aim high." Which speech, being slightly unintelligible, mollified Dot's wrath.
ALLAN AND I WALK TO ELTHAM GREEN.
The next great event in our family annals was Carrie's first appearance downstairs.
Uncle Geoffrey had long wished her to make the effort, but she had made some excuse and put it off from day to day; but at last Allan took it into his head to manage things after his usual arbitrary fashion, and one afternoon he marched into the room, and, quietly lifting Carrie in his arms, as though she were a baby, desired me to follow with, her crutches, while he carried her downstairs.
Carrie trembled a good deal, and turned very white, but she offered no remonstrance; and when Allan put her down outside the parlor door, she took her crutches from me in a patient uncomplaining way that touched us both.
I always said we ought to have prepared Dot, but Allan would not hear of my telling him; but when the door opened and Carrie entered, walking slowly and painfully, being still unused to her crutches, we were all startled by a loud cry from Dot.
"She is like me! Oh, poor, poor Carrie!" cried the little fellow, with a sob; and he broke into such a fit of crying that mother was quite upset. It was in vain we tried to soothe him; that Carrie drew him toward her with trembling arms and kissed him, and whispered that it was God's will, and she did not mind so very much now; he only kept repeating, "She is like me—oh, dear—oh dear! she is like me," in a woe-begone little voice.
Dot was so sensitive that I feared the shock would make him ill, but Allan came at last to the rescue. He had been called out of the room for a moment, and came back to find a scene of dire confusion—it took so little to upset mother, and really it was heartbreaking to all of us to see the child's grief.
"Hallo, sonny, what's up now?" asked Allan, in a comical voice, lifting up Dot's tear-stained face for a nearer inspection.
"Oh, she is like me," gasped Dot; "she has those horrid things, you know; and it's too bad, it's too bad!" he finished, with another choking sob.
"Nonsense," returned Allan, with sturdy cheerfulness; "she won't use them always, you silly boy."
"Not always!" returned Dot, with a woe-begone, puckered-up face.
"Of course not, you little goose—or gander, I mean; she may have to hobble about on them for a year or two, perhaps longer; but Uncle Geoff and I mean to set her all right again—don't we, Carrie?" Carrie's answer was a dubious smile. She did not believe in her own recovery; but to Dot, Allan's words were full of complete comfort.
"Oh, I am so glad, I am so glad!" cried the unselfish little creature. "I don't mind a bit for myself; I shouldn't be Dot without my sticks, but it seemed so dreadful for poor Carrie."
And then, as she kissed him, with tears in her eyes, he whispered "that she was not to mind, for Allan would soon make her all right: he always did."
Carrie tried to be cheerful that evening, but it cost her a great effort. It was hard returning to everyday life, without strength or capacity for its duties, with no bright prospect dawning in the future, only a long, gray horizon of present monotony and suffering. But here the consolation of the Gospel came to her help; the severe test of her faith proved its reality; and her submission and total abnegation of will brought her the truest comfort in her hour of need.
Looking back on this part of our lives, I believe Carrie needed just this discipline; like many other earnest workers she made an idol of her work. It cost her months of suffering before she realized that God does not always need our work; that a chastened will is more acceptable to Him than the labor we think so all-sufficient. Sad lesson to poor human pride, that believes so much in its own efforts, and yet that many a one laid by in the vigor of life and work, has to learn so painfully. Oh, hardest of all work, to do nothing while others toil round us, to wait and look on, knowing God's ways are not our ways, that the patient endurance of helplessness is the duty ordained for us!
Carrie had to undergo another ordeal the following day, for she was just settled on her couch when Mrs. Smedley entered unannounced.
I had never liked Mrs. Smedley; indeed, at one time I was very near hating her; but I could not help feeling sorry for the woman when I saw how her face twitched and worked at the sight of her favorite.
Carrie's altered looks must have touched her conscience. Carrie was a little nervous, but she soon recovered herself.
"You must not be sorry for me," she said, taking her hand, for actually Mrs. Smedley could hardly speak; tears stood in her hard eyes, and then she motioned to me to leave them together.
I never knew what passed between them, but I am sure Mrs. Smedley had been crying when I returned to the room. She rose at once, making some excuse about the lateness of the hour—and then she did what she never had done before—kissed me quite affectionately, and hoped they would soon see me at the vicarage.
"There, that is over," said Carrie, as if to herself, in a relieved tone; but she did not seem disposed for any questioning, so I let her close her eyes and think over the interview in silence.
The next day was a very eventful one. I had made up my mind to speak to mother and Carrie that morning, and announce my intention of going back to the Cedars. I was afraid it would be rather a blow to Carrie, and I wanted to get it over.
In two or three days the three weeks' leave of absence would be over —Ruth would be expecting to hear from me. The old saying, "L'homme propose, Dieu dispose," was true in this case. I had little idea that morning, when I came down to breakfast, that all my cherished plans were to be set aside, and all through old Aunt Podgill.
Why, I had never thought of her for years; and, as far as I can tell, her name had not been mentioned in our family circle, except on the occasion of dear father's death, when Uncle Geoffrey observed that he or Fred must write to her. She was father's and Uncle Geoffrey's aunt, on their mother's side, but she had quarreled with them when they were mere lads, and had never spoken to them since. Uncle Geoffrey was most in her black books, and she had not deigned to acknowledge his letter.
"A cantankerous old woman," I remember he had called her on that occasion, and had made no further effort to propitiate her.
It was rather a shock, then, to hear Aunt Podgill's name uttered in a loud voice by Allan, as I entered the room, and my surprise deepened into astonishment to find mother was absolutely crying over a black-edged letter.
"Poor Mrs. Podgill is dead," explained Uncle Geoffrey, in rather a subdued voice, as I looked at him.
But the news did not affect me much; I thought mother's handkerchief need hardly be applied to her eyes on that account.
"That is a pity, of course; but, then, none of us knew her," I remarked, coldly. "She could not have been very nice, from your account, Uncle Geoffrey, so I do not know why we have to be so sorry for her death," for I was as aggrieved as possible at the sight of mother's handkerchief.
"Well, she was a cantankerous old woman," began Uncle Geoffrey; and then he checked himself and added, "Heaven forgive me for speaking against the poor old creature now she is dead."
"Yes, indeed, I have a great respect for Aunt Podgill," put in Allan; and I thought his voice was rather curious, and there was a repressed mirthful gleam in his eyes, and all the time mother went on crying.
"Oh, my dear," she sobbed at last, "I am very foolish to be so overcome; but if it had only come in Frank's—in your father's time, it might—it might have saved him;" and here she broke down.
"Ah, to be sure, poor thing!" ejaculated Uncle Geoffrey in a sympathizing tone; "that is what is troubling her; but you must cheer up, Dora, for, as I have always told you, Frank was never meant to be a long-lived man."