"What are you all talking about?" I burst out, with vexed impatience. "What has Mrs. Podgill's death to do with father? and why is mother crying? and what makes you all so mysterious and tiresome?" for I was exasperated at the incongruity between mother's tears and Allan's amused face.
"Tell her," gasped out mother: and Uncle Geoffrey, clearing his voice, proceeded to be spokesman, only Allan interrupted him at every word.
"Why, you see, child, your mother is just a little upset at receiving some good news—"
"Battling good news," put in Allan.
"It is natural for her, poor thing! to think of your father; but we tell her that if he had been alive things would have shaped themselves differently—"
"Of course they would," from that tiresome Allan.
"Aunt Podgill, being a cantankerous—I mean a prejudiced—person, would never have forgotten her grudge against your father; but as in our last moments 'conscience makes cowards of us all,' as Shakespeare has it"—Uncle Geoffrey always quoted Shakespeare when he was agitated, and Allan said, "Hear, hear!" softly under his breath—"she could not forget the natural claims of blood; and so, my dear," clearing his throat a little more, "she has left all her little fortune to your mother; and a pretty little penny it is, close upon seven hundred a year, and the furniture besides."
"Uncle Geoffrey!" now it was my turn to gasp. Jack and Dot burst out laughing at my astonished face; only Dot squeezed my hand, and whispered, "Isn't it splendid, Essie?" Mother looked at me tearfully.
"It is for your sakes I am glad, that my darling girls may not have to work. Carrie can have every comfort now; and you can stay with us, Esther, and we need not be divided any longer."
"Hurrah," shouted Dot, waving his spoon over his head; but I only kissed mother without speaking; a strange, unaccountable feeling prevented me. If we were rich—or rather if we had this independence —I must not go on teaching Flurry; my duty was at home with mother and Carrie.
I could have beaten myself for my selfishness; but it was true. Humiliating as it is to confess it, my first feeling was regret that my happy days at the Cedars were over.
"You do not seem pleased," observed Allan, shrewdly, as he watched me.
"I am so profoundly astonished that I am not capable of feeling," I returned hastily; but I blushed a little guiltily.
"It is almost too good to believe," he returned. "I never liked the idea of you and Carrie doing anything, and yet it could not be helped; so now you will all be able to stay at home and enjoy yourselves."
Mother brightened up visibly at this.
"That will be nice, will it not, Esther? And Dot can have his lessons with you as usual. I was so afraid that Miss Ruth would want you back soon, and that Carrie would be dull. How good of your Aunt Podgill to make us all so happy! And if it were not for your father—" and here the dear soul had recourse to her handkerchief again.
If I was silent, no one noticed it; every one was so eager in detailing his or her plans for the future. It was quite a relief when the lengthy breakfast was over, and I was free to go and tell Carrie; somehow in the general excitement no one thought of her. I reproached myself still more for my selfishness, and called myself all manner of hard names when I saw the glow of pleasure on her pale face.
"Oh, Esther, how nice! How pleased dear mother must be! Now we shall have you all to ourselves, and you need not be spending all your days away from us."
How strange! Carrie knew of my warm affection for Ruth and Flurry, and yet it never occurred to her that I should miss my daily intercourse with them. It struck me then how often our nearest and dearest misunderstand or fail to enter into our feelings.
The thought recurred to me more than once that morning when I sat at my work listening to the discussion between her and mother. Carrie seemed a different creature that day; the wonderful news had lifted her out of herself, and she rejoiced so fully and heartily in our good fortune that I was still more ashamed of myself, and yet I was glad too.
"It seems so wonderful to me, mother," Carrie was saying, in her sweet serious way, "that just when I was laid by, and unable to keep myself or any one else, that this provision should be made for us."
"Yes, indeed; and then there is Dot, too, who will never be able to work," observed mother.
It was lucky Dot did not hear her, or we might have had a reproachful resume of his artistic intentions.
"Dear mother, you need not be anxious any longer over the fortune of your two cripples," returned Carrie, tenderly. "I shall not feel so much a burthen now; and then we shall have Esther to look after us." And they both looked at me in a pleased, affectionate way. What could I do but put down my work and join in that innocent, loving talk?
At our early dinner that day Allan seemed a little preoccupied and silent, but toward the close of the meal he addressed me in his off-hand fashion.
"I want you to come out with me this afternoon; mother can look after Carrie."
"It is a half holiday; may I come too?" added Jack, coaxingly.
"Wait till you are asked, Miss Jacky," retorted Allan good-humoredly. "No, I don't want your ladyship's company this afternoon; I must have Esther to myself." And though Jack grumbled and looked discontented, he would not change his decision.
I had made up my mind to see Ruth, and tell her all about it; but it never entered my head to dispute Allan's will if he wanted me to walk with him. I must give up Ruth, that was all; and I hurried to put on my things, that I might not keep him waiting, as he possessed his full share of masculine impatience.
I thought that he had some plan to propose to me, but to my surprise he only talked about the most trivial subjects—the weather, the state of the roads, the prospects of skating.
"Where are we going?" I asked at last, for we were passing the Cedars, and Allan rarely walked in that direction; but perhaps he had a patient to see.
"Only to Eltham Green," he returned briefly.
The answer was puzzling. Eltham Green was half a mile from the Cedars, and there was only one house there, beside a few scattered cottages; and I knew Uncle Geoffrey's patient, Mr. Anthony Lambert, who lived there, had died about a month ago.
As Allan did not seem disposed to be communicative, I let the matter rest, and held my peace; and a few minutes quick walking brought us to the place.
It was a little common, very wild and tangled with gorse, and in summer very picturesque. Some elms bordered the road, and there was a large clear-looking pond, and flocks of geese would waddle over the common, hissing and thrusting out their yellow bills to every passer-by.
The cottages were pretty and rustic-looking, and had gay little gardens in front. They belonged to Mr. Lucas; and Eltham Cottage, as Mr. Lambert's house was called, was his property also.
Flurry and I had always been very fond of the common, where Flossy had often run barking round the pond, after a family of yellow ducklings.
"Eltham Cottage is still to let," I observed, looking up at the board; "it is such a pretty house"
Allan made no response to that, but bade me enter, as he wanted to look at it.
It was a long, two-storied cottage, with a veranda all round it, and in summer a profusion of flowers—roses and clematis, and a splendid passionflower—twined round the pillars and covered the porch.
The woman who admitted us ushered us into a charming little hall, with a painted window and a glass door opening on to the lawn. There was a small room on one side of it, and on the other the dining room and drawing-room. The last was a very long, pleasant room, with three windows, all opening French fashion on to the veranda, and another glass door leading into a pretty little conservatory.
The garden was small, but very tastefully laid out; but there was a southern wall, where peaches and nectarines were grown, and beehives stood, and some pretty winding walks, which led to snug nooks, where ferns or violets were hidden.
"What a sweet place!" I exclaimed, admiringly, at which Allan looked exultant; but he only bade me follow him into the upper rooms.
These were satisfactory in every respect. Some were of sunny aspect, and looked over the garden and some large park-like meadows; the front ones commanded the common.
"There is not a bad room in the house," said Allan; and then he made me admire the linen-presses and old-fashioned cupboards, and the bright red-tiled kitchen looking out on a laurestinus walk.
"It is a dear house!" I exclaimed, enthusiastically, at which Allan looked well-pleased. Then he took me by the arm, and drew me to a little window-seat on the upper landing—a proceeding that reminded me of the days at Combe Manor, when I sat waiting for him, and looking down on the lilies.
"I am glad you think so," he said, solemnly; "for I wanted to ask your advice about an idea of mine; it came into my head this morning when we were all talking and planning, that this house would be just the thing for mother."
"Allan!" I exclaimed, "you really do not mean to propose that we should leave Uncle Geoffrey?"
"No, of course not," with a touch of impatience, for he was always a little hasty if people did not grasp his meaning at once, "but, you, see, houses in Milnthorpe are scarce, and we are rather too tight a fit at present. Besides, it is not quiet enough for Carrie: the noise of the carts and gigs on Monday morning jars her terribly. What I propose is, that you should all settle down here in this pretty countrified little nook, and take Uncle Geoff and Deb with you, and leave Martha and me to represent the Camerons in the old house in the High street."
"But, Allan—" I commenced, dubiously, for I did not like the idea of leaving him behind; but he interrupted me, and put his views more forcibly before me.
Carrie wanted quiet and country air, and so did Dot, and the conservatory and garden would be such a delight to mother. Uncle Geoffrey would be dull without us, and there was a nice little room that could be fitted up for him and Jumbles; he would drive in to his work every morning and he—Allan—could walk out and see us on two or three evenings in the week.
"I must be there, of course, to look after the practice. I am afraid I am cut out for an old bachelor, Esther, like Uncle Geoff, for I do not feel at all dismal at the thought of having a house to myself," finished Allan with his boyish laugh.
TOLD IN THE SUNSET.
What a clever head Allan had! I always said there was more in that boy than half a dozen Freds! To think of such a scheme coming into his mind, and driving us all nearly wild with excitement!
Allan's strong will bore down all opposition. Mother's feeble remonstrances, which came from a sheer terror of change; even Uncle Geoffrey's sturdy refusal to budge an inch out of the old house where he had lived so long, did not weigh a straw against Allan's solid reasoning.
It took a vast amount of talking, though, before our young autocrat achieved his final victory, and went off flushed and eager to settle preliminaries with Mr. Lucas. It was all sealed, signed, and delivered before he came back.
The pretty cottage at Eltham was to be ours, furnished with Aunt Podgill's good old-fashioned furniture, and in the early days of April we were to accomplish our second flitting.
The only remaining difficulty was about Jack; but this Uncle Geoffrey solved for us. The gig would bring him into Milnthorpe every morning, and he could easily drive Jack to her school, and the walk back would be good for her. In dark, wintry weather she could return with him, or, if occasion required it, she might be a weekly boarder.
Mr. Lucas came back with Allan, and formally congratulated mother on her good fortune.
I do not know if it were my fancy, but he seemed a little grave and constrained in his manners that evening, and scarcely addressed me at all until the close of his visit.
"Under the circumstances I am afraid Flurry will have to lose her governess," he said, not looking at me, however, but at mother; and though I opened my lips to reply, my mother answered for me.
"Well, yes, I am afraid so. Carrie depends so much on her sister."
"Of course, of course," he returned, hastily; and actually he never said another word, but got up and said good-by to mother.
But I could not let him go without a word after all his kindness to me; so, as Allan had gone out, I followed him out into the hall, though he tried to wave me back.
"It is cold; I shall not open the hail door while you stand there, Miss Esther,"
"Oh, I do not mind the cold one bit," I returned, nervously; "but I want to speak to you a moment, Mr. Lucas. Will you give Ruth my love, and tell her I will come and talk to her to-morrow, and—and I am so sorry to part with Flurry."
"You are not more sorry than she will be," he returned, but not in his old natural manner; and then he begged me so decidedly to go back into the warm room that I dared not venture on another word.
It was very unsatisfactory; something must have put him out, I thought, and I went back to mother feeling chilled and uncomfortable. Oh, dear! how dependent we are for comfort on the words and manners of those around us.
I went to the Cedars the following afternoon, and had a long comfortable talk with Ruth. She even laid aside her usual quiet undemonstrativeness, and petted and made much of me, though she laughed a little at what she called my solemn face.
"Confess now, Esther, you are not a bit pleased about all this money!"
"Oh, indeed I am," I returned, quite shocked at this. "I am so delighted for mother and Dot and Carrie."
"But not for yourself," she persisted.
There was no deceiving Ruth, so I made a full confession, and stammered out, in great confusion, that I did not like losing her and Flurry; that it was wrong and selfish, when Carrie wanted me so; but I knew that even at Eltham I should miss the Cedars.
She seemed touched at that. "You are a faithful soul, Esther; you never forget a kindness, and you cannot bear even a slight separation from those you love. We have spoiled you, I am afraid."
"Yes, indeed," I returned, rather sadly, "you have been far too good to me."
"That is a matter of opinion. Well, what am I to say to comfort you, when you find fault with even your good luck? Will it make you any better to know we shall all miss you dreadfully? Even Giles owned as much; and as for Flurry, we had quite a piece of work with her."
"Mr. Lucas never even said he was sorry," I returned, in a piqued voice. It was true I was quite spoiled, for I even felt aggrieved that he did not join us in the drawing-room, and yet I knew he was in the house.
"Oh, you do not know Giles," she answered, brightly; "he is one of the unselfish ones, he would not have damped what he thought your happiness for the world. You see, Esther, no one in their senses would ever believe that you were really sorry at your stroke of good fortune; it is only I who know you, my dear, that can understand how that is."
Did she understand? Did I really understand myself? Anyhow, I felt horribly abashed while she was speaking. I felt I had been conducting myself in an unfledged girlish fashion, and that Ruth, with her staid common sense, was reproving me.
I determined then and there that no more foolish expression of regret should cross my lips; that I would keep all such nonsense to myself; so when Flurry ran in very tearful and desponding, I took Ruth's cue, and talked to her as cheerfully as possible, giving her such vivid descriptions of the cottage and the garden, and the dear little honeysuckle arbor where Dot and she could have tea, that she speedily forgot all her regrets in delicious anticipations.
"Yes, indeed," observed Ruth, as she benevolently contemplated us, "I expect Flurry and I will be such constant visitors that your mother will complain that there is no end of those tiresome Lucases. Run along, Flurry, and see if your father means to come in and have some tea. Tell him Esther is here."
Flurry was a long time gone, and then she brought back a message that her father was too busy, and she might bring him a cup there, and that she was to give his kind regards to Miss Cameron, and that was all.
I went home shortly after that, and found mother and Carrie deep in discussion about carpets and curtains. They both said I looked tired and cold, and that Ruth had kept me too long.
"I think I am getting jealous of Ruth," Carrie said, with a gentle smile.
And somehow the remark did not please me; not that Carrie really meant it, though; but it did strike me sometimes that both mother and she thought that Ruth rather monopolized me.
My visits to the Cedars became very rare after this, for we were soon engrossed with the bustle of moving. For more than six weeks I trudged about daily between our house and Eltham Cottage. There were carpets to be fitted, and the furniture to be adapted to each room, and when that was done, Allan and I worked hard in the conservatory; and here Ruth often joined us, bringing with her a rare fern or plant from the well-stocked greenhouses at the Cedars. She used to sit and watch us at our labors, and say sometimes how much she wished she could help us, and sometimes she spent an hour or two with Carrie to make up for my absence.
I rather reveled in my hard work, and grew happier every day, and the cottage did look so pretty when we had finished.
Ruth was with me all the last afternoon. We lighted fires in all the rooms, and they looked so cozy. The table in the dining-room was spread with Aunt Podgill's best damask linen and her massive old-fashioned silver; and Deborah was actually baking her famous griddle cakes, to the admiration of our new help, Dorcas, before the first fly, with mother and Carrie and Dot, drove up to the door. I shall never forget mother's pleased look as she stood in the little hall, and Carrie's warm kiss as I welcomed them.
"How beautiful it all looks!" she exclaimed; "how home-like and bright and cozy; you have managed so well, Esther!"
"Esther always manages well," observed dear mother, proudly. The extent to which she believed in me and my resources was astonishing. She followed me all over the house, praising everything. I was glad Ruth heard her, and knew that I had done my best for them all. Allan accompanied the others, and we had quite a merry evening.
Ruth stayed to tea. "She was really becoming one of us!" as mother observed; and Allan took her home. We all crowded into the porch to see them off; even Carrie, who was getting quite nimble on her crutches. It was a warm April night; the little common was flooded with moonlight; the spring flowers were sleeping in the white rays, and the limes glistened like silver. Uncle Geoffrey and I walked with them to the gate, while Ruth got into her pony carriage.
I did not like saying good-night to Allan; it seemed so strange for him to be going back to the old house alone; but he burst into one of his ringing laughs when I told him so.
"Why, I like it," he said, cheerily; "it is good fun being monarch of all I survey. Didn't I tell you I was cut out for an old bachelor? You must come and make tea for me sometimes, when I can't get out here." And then, in a more serious voice, he added, "It does put one into such good spirits to see mother and you girls safe in this pretty nest."
I had never been idle; but now the day never seemed long enough for my numerous occupations, and yet they were summer days, too.
The early rising was now an enjoyment to me. I used to work in the garden or conservatory before breakfast, and how delicious those hours were when the birds and I had it all to ourselves; and I hardly know which sang the loudest, for I was very happy, very happy indeed, without knowing why. I think this unreasoning and unreasonable happiness is an attribute of youth.
I had got over my foolish disappointment about the Cedars. Ruth kept her word nobly, and she and Flurry came perpetually to the cottage. Sometimes I spent an afternoon or evening at the Cedars, and then I always saw Mr. Lucas, and he was most friendly and pleasant. He used to talk of coming down one afternoon to see how I was getting on with my fernery, but it was a long time before he kept his promise.
The brief cloud, or whatever it was, had vanished and he was his own genial self. Flurry had not another governess, but Ruth gave her lessons sometimes, and on her bad days her father heard them. It was rather desultory teaching, and I used to shake my head rather solemnly when I heard of it; but Ruth always said that Giles wished it to be so for the present. The child was not strong, and was growing fast, and it would not hurt her to run wild a little.
When breakfast was over, Dot and I worked hard; and in the afternoon I generally read to Carrie; she was far less of an invalid now, and used to busy herself with work for the poor while she lay on her couch and listened. She used to get mother to help her sometimes, and then Carrie would look so happy as she planned how this garment was to be for old Nanny Stables, and the next for her little grandson Jemmy. With returning strength came the old, unselfish desire to benefit others. It put her quite into spirits one day when Mrs. Smedley asked her to cover some books for the Sunday school.
"How good of her to think of it; it is just work that I can do!" she said, gratefully; and for the rest of the day she looked like the old Carrie again.
Allan came to see us nearly every evening. Oh, those delicious summer evenings! how vividly even now they seem to rise before me, though many, many happy years lie between me and them.
Somehow it had grown a sort of habit with us to spend them on the common. Mother loved the sweet fresh air, and would sit for hours among the furze bushes and gorse, knitting placidly, and watching the children at their play, or the cottagers at work in their gardens; and Uncle Geoffrey, in his old felt hat, would sit beside her, reading the papers.
Allan used to tempt Carrie for a stroll over the common; and when she was tired he and Jack and I would saunter down some of the long country lanes, sometimes hunting for glow-worms in the hedges, sometimes extending our walk until the moon shone over the silent fields, and the night became sweet and dewy, and the hedgerows glimmered strangely in the uncertain light.
How cozy our little drawing-room always looked on our return! The lamp would be lighted on the round table, and the warm perfume of flowers seemed to steep the air with fragrance; sometimes the glass door would lie open, and gray moths come circling round the light, and outside lay the lawn, silvered with moonlight. Allan used to leave us regretfully to go back to the old house at Milnthorpe; he said we were such a snug party.
When Carrie began to visit the cottages and to gather the children round her couch on Sunday afternoons, I knew she was her old self again. Day by day her sweet face grew calmer and happier; her eyes lost their sad wistful expression, and a little color touched her wan cheeks.
Truly she often suffered much, and her lameness was a sad hindrance in the way of her usefulness; but her hands were always busy, and on her well days she spent hours in the cottages reading to two or three old people, or instructing the younger ones.
It was touching to see her so thankful for the fragments of work that still fell to her share, content to take the humblest task, if she only might give but "a cup of cold water to one of these little ones;" and sometimes I thought how dearly the Good Shepherd must love the gentle creature who was treading her painful life-path so lovingly and patiently.
I often wondered why Mr. Lucas never kept his promise of coming to see us; but one evening when Jack and Allan and I returned from our stroll we found him sitting talking to mother and Uncle Geoffrey.
I was so surprised at his sudden appearance that I dropped some of the flowers I held in my hand, and he laughed as he helped me to pick them up.
"I hope I haven't startled you," he said, as we shook hands.
"No—that is—I never expected to see you here this evening," I returned, rather awkwardly.
"Take off your hat, Esther," said mother, in an odd tone; and I thought she looked flushed and nervous, just as she does when she wants to cry. "Mr. Lucas has promised to have supper with us, and, my dear, he wants you to show him the conservatory and the fernery."
It was still daylight, though the sun was setting fast; we had returned earlier than usual, for Allan had to go back to Milnthorpe, and he bade us goodnight hastily as I prepared to obey mother.
Jack followed us, but mother called her back, and asked her to go to one of the cottages and fetch Carrie home. Such a glorious sunset met our eyes as we stepped out on the lawn; the clouds were a marvel of rose and violet and golden splendor; the windows of the cottage were glittering with the reflected beams, and a delicious scent of lilies was in the air.
Mr. Lucas seemed in one of his grave moods, for he said very little until we reached the winding walk where the ferns were, and then——
I am not going to repeat what he said; such words are too sacred; but it came upon me with the shock of a thunderbolt what he had been telling mother, and what he was trying to make me understood, for I was so stupid that I could not think what he meant by asking me to the Cedars, and when he saw that, he spoke more plainly.
"You must come back, Esther; we cannot do without you any longer," he continued very gently, "not as Flurry's governess, but as her mother, and as my wife."
He was very patient with me, when he saw how the suddenness and the wonder of it all upset me, that a man like Mr. Lucas could love me, and be so clever and superior and good. How could such a marvelous thing have happened?
And mother knew it, and Uncle Geoffrey, for Mr. Lucas had taken advantage of my absence to speak to them both, and they had given him leave to say this to me. Well, there could be no uncertainty in my answer. I already reverenced and venerated him above other men, and the rest came easy, and before we returned to the house the first strangeness and timidity had passed; I actually asked him—summoning up all my courage, however—how it was he could think of me, a mere girl without beauty, or cleverness, or any of the ordinary attractions of girlhood.
"I don't know," he answered, and I knew by his voice he was smiling; "it has been coming on a long time; when people know you they don't think you plain, Esther, and to me you can never be so. I first knew what I really felt when I came out of the room that dreadful night, and saw you standing with drenched hair and white face, with Dot in your arms and my precious Flurry clinging to your dress; when I saw you tottering and caught you. I vowed then that you, and none other, should replace Flurry's dead mother;" and when he had said this I asked no more.
RINGING THE CHANGES.
When Mr. Lucas took me to mother, she kissed me and shed abundance of tears.
"Oh, my darling, if only your poor father could know of this," she whispered; and when Uncle Geoffrey's turn came he seemed almost as touched.
"What on earth are we to do without you, child?" he grumbled, wiping his eye-glasses. "There, go along with you. If ever a girl deserved a good husband and got it, you are the one."
"Yes, indeed," sighed mother; "Esther is every one's right hand."
But Mr. Lucas sat down by her side and said something so kind and comforting that she soon grew more cheerful, and I went up to Carrie.
She was resting a little in the twilight, and I knelt down beside her and hid my face on her shoulder, and now the happy tears would find a vent.
"Why, Esther—why, my dear, what does this mean?" she asked, anxiously; and then, with a sudden conviction dawning on her, she continued in an excited voice—"Mr. Lucas is here; he has been saying something, he—he——" And then I managed somehow to stammer out the truth.
"I am so happy; but you will miss me so dreadfully, darling, and so will Dot and mother."
But Carrie took me in her arms and silenced me at once.
"We are all happy in your happiness; you shall not shed a tear for us—not one. Do you know how glad I am, how proud I feel that he should think so highly of my precious sister! Where is he? Let me get up, that I may welcome my new brother. So you and your dear Ruth will be sisters," she said, rallying me in her gentle way, and that made me smile and blush.
How good Carrie was that evening! Mr. Lucas was quite touched by her few sweet words of welcome, and mother looked quite relieved at the sight of her bright face.
"What message am I to take to Ruth?" he said to me, as we stood together in the porch later on that evening.
"Give her my dear love, and ask her to come to me," was my half-whispered answer; and as I went to bed that night Carrie's words rang in my ears like sweetest music—"You and Ruth will be sisters."
But it was Allan who was my first visitor. Directly Uncle Geoffrey told him what had happened, he put on his broad-brimmed straw hat, and leaving Uncle Geoffrey to attend to the patients, came striding down to the cottage.
He had burst open the door and caught hold of me before I could put down Dot's lesson book. The little fellow looked up amazed at his radiant face.
"What a brick you are, Esther, and what a brick he is!" fairly hugging me. "I never was so pleased at anything in my life. Hurrah for Mr. Lucas at the Cedars!" and Allan threw up his hat and caught it. No wonder Dot looked mystified.
"What does he mean?" asked the poor child; "and how hot you look, Essie."
"Listen to me, Frankie," returned Allan, sitting down by Dot. "The jolliest thing in the world has happened. Esther has made her fortune; she is going to have a good husband and a rich husband, and one we shall all like, Dot; and not only that, but she will have a dear little daughter as well."
Dot fairly gasped as he looked at us both, and then he asked me rather piteously if Allan was telling him a funny story to make him laugh.
"Oh, no, dear Dot," I whispered, bringing my face on a level with his, and bravely disregarding Allan's quizzical looks. "It is quite true, darling, although it is so strange I hardly know how to believe it myself. But one day I am going to the Cedars."
"To live there? to leave us? Oh, Essie!" And Dot's eyes grew large and mournful.
"Mr. Lucas wants me, and Flurry. Oh, my darling, forgive me!" as a big tear rolled down his cheek. "I shall always love you, Dot; you will not lose me. Oh, dear! oh dear! what am I to say to him, Allan?"
"You will not love me the most any longer, Essie."
And as I took him in my arms and kissed him passionately his cheek felt wet against mine.
"Oh, Frankie, fie for shame!" interrupted Allan. "You have made Esther cry, and just now, when she was so happy. I did not think you were so selfish."
But I would not let him go on. I knew where the pain lay. Dot was jealous for the first time in his life, and for a long time he refused to be comforted.
Allan left us together by-and-by, and I took my darling on my lap and listened to his childish exposition of grief and the recital of grievances that were very real to him. How Flurry would always have me, and he (Dot) would be dull and left out in the cold. How Mr. Lucas was a very nice man; but he was so old, and he did not want him for a brother—indeed, he did not want a brother at all.
He had Allan and that big, stupid Fred—for Dot, for once in his sweet life, was decidedly cross. And then he confided to me that he loved Carrie very much, but not half so well as he loved me. He wished Mr. Lucas had taken her instead. She was very nice and very pretty, and all that, and why hadn't he?
But here I thought it high time to interpose.
"But, Dot, I should not have liked that at all. And I am so happy," I whispered.
"You love him—that old, old man, Essie!" in unmitigated astonishment.
"He is not old at all," I returned, indignantly; for, in spite of his iron-gray hair, Mr. Lucas could hardly be forty, and was still a young-looking man.
Dot gave a wicked little smile at that. In his present mood he rather enjoyed vexing me.
I got him in a better frame of mind by-and-by. I hardly knew what I said, but I kissed him, and cried and told him how unhappy he made me, and how pleased mother and Carrie and Jack were; and after that he left off saying sharp things, and treated me to a series of penitent hugs, and promised that he would not be cross with "my little girl" Flurry; for after that day he always persisted in calling her "my little girl."
Dot had been a little exhausting, so I went down to the bench near the fernery to cool myself and secure a little quiet, and there Ruth found me. I saw her coming over the grass with outstretched hands, and such a smile on her dear face; and though I was so shy that I could scarcely greet her, I could feel by the way she kissed me how glad—how very glad—she was.
"Dear Esther! My dear new sister!" she whispered.
"Oh, Ruth, is it true?" I returned, blushing. "Last night it seemed real, but this morning I feel half in a dream. It will do me good to know that you are really pleased about this."
"Can you doubt it, dearest?" she returned, reproachfully. "Have you not grown so deep into our hearts that we cannot tear you out if you would? You are necessary to all of us, Esther—to Flurry and me as to Giles——"
But I put my hand on her lips to stop her. It was sweet, and yet it troubled me to know what he thought of me; but Ruth would not be stopped.
"He came home so proud and happy last night. 'She has accepted me, Ruth,' he said, in such a pleased voice, and then he told me what you had said about being so young and inexperienced."
"That was my great fear," I replied, in a low voice.
"Your youth is a fault that will mend," she answered, quaintly. "I wish I could remember Giles' rhapsody—'So true, so unselfish, so womanly and devoted.' By-the-by, I have forgotten to give you his message; he will be here this afternoon with Flurry."
We talked more soberly after a time, and the sweet golden forenoon wore away as we sat there looking at the cool green fronds of the ferns before us, with mother's bees humming about the roses. There was summer over the land and summer in my heart, and above us the blue open sky of God's Providence enfolding us.
I was tying up the rose in the porch, when I saw Mr. Lucas and Flurry crossing the common. Dot, who was helping me, grew a little solemn all at once.
"Here is your little girl, Essie," he said very gravely. My dear boy, how could he?
"Oh, Esther," she panted, for she had broken away from her father at the sight of us, "auntie has told me you are going to be my own mamma, in place of poor mamma who died. I shall call you mammy. I was lying awake ever so long last night, thinking which name it should be, and I like that best."
"You shall call me what you like, dear Flurry; but I am only Esther now."
"Yes, but you will be mammy soon," she returned, nodding her little head sagely. "Mamma was such a grand lady; so big and handsome, she was older, too—" But here Mr. Lucas interrupted us.
Dot received him in a very dignified manner.
"How do you do?" he said, putting out his mite of a hand, in such an old-fashioned way. I could see Mr. Lucas' lip curl with secret amusement, and then he took the little fellow in his arms.
"What is the matter, Dot? You do not seem half pleased to see me this afternoon. I suppose you are very angry with me for proposing to take Esther away. Don't you want an old fellow like me to be your brother?"
Dot's face grew scarlet. Truth and politeness were sadly at variance, but at last he effected a compromise.
"Esther says you are not so very old, after all," he stammered.
"Oh, Esther says that, does she?" in an amused voice.
"Father is not old at all," interrupted Flurry, in a cross voice.
"Never mind, so that Esther is satisfied," returned Mr. Lucas, soothingly; "but as Flurry is going to be her little girl, you must be my little boy, eh, Dot?"
"I am Esther's and Allan's little boy," replied Dot, rather ungraciously. We had spoiled our crippled darling among us, and had only ourselves to blame for his little tempers.
"Yes, but you must be mine too," he replied, still more gently; and then he whispered something into his ear. I saw Dot's sulky countenance relax, and a little smile chase away his frown, and in another moment his arms closed round Mr. Lucas' neck; the reconciliation was complete.
What a happy autumn that was! But November found us strangely busy, for we were preparing for my wedding. We were married on New Year's Day, when the snow lay on the ground. A quiet, a very quiet wedding, it was. I was married in my traveling dress, at Giles' expressed wish, and we drove straight from the church door to the station, for we were to spend the first few weeks in Devonshire.
Dear Jessie, my old schoolmate, was my only bridesmaid; for Carrie would not hear of fulfilling that office on her crutches.
I have a vague idea that the church was very full and I have a misty recollection of Dot, with very round eyes, standing near Allan; but I can recall no more, for my thoughts were engaged by the solemn vows we were exchanging.
Three weeks afterward, and we were settled in the house that was to be mine for so many happy years; but never shall I forget the sweetness of that home-coming.
Dear Ruth welcomed us on the threshold, and then took my hand and Giles' and led us into the bright firelit room. Two little faces peeped at us from the curtained recess, and these were Dot and Flurry. I had them both in my arms at once. I would not let Giles have Flurry at first till he threatened to take Dot.
Oh, how happy we were. Ruth made tea for us, and I sat in my favorite low chair. The children scrambled up on Giles' knee, and he peeped at me between their eager faces; but I was quite content to let them engross him; it was pleasure enough for me to watch them.
"Why, how grand you look, Essie!" Dot said at last. "Your fingers are twinkling with green and white stones, and your dress rustles like old Mrs. Jameson's."
"'And she shall walk in silk attire, And silver have to spare,'"
sang Giles. "Never mind Dot, Esther. Your brave attire suits you well."
"She looks very nice," put in Ruth, softly; "but she is our dear old Esther all the same."
"Nonsense, auntie," exclaimed Flurry, in her sharp little voice. "She is not Esther any longer; she is my dear new mammy." At which we all laughed.
I was always mammy to Flurry, though my other darlings called me mother; for before many years were over I had Dots of my own—dear little fat Winnie, her brother Harold, and baby Geoffrey—to whom Ruth was always "auntie," or "little auntie," as my mischievous Harold called her.
As the years passed on there were changes at Eltham Cottage—some of them sad and some of them pleasant, after the bitter-sweet fashions of life.
The first great sorrow of my married life was dear mother's death. She failed a little after Harold's birth, and, to my great grief, she never saw my baby boy, Geoffrey. A few months before he came into the world she sank peacefully and painlessly to rest.
Fred came up to the funeral, and stayed with Allan; he had grown a long beard, and looked very manly and handsome. His pictures were never accepted by the hanging committee; and after a few years he grew tired of his desultory work, and thankfully accepted a post Giles had procured for him in the Colonies. After this he found his place in life, and settled down, and when we last heard from him he was on the eve of marriage with a Canadian girl. He sent us her photograph, and both Giles and I approved of the open, candid face and smiling brown eyes, and thought Fred had done well for himself.
Allan was a long time making his choice; but at last it fell on our new vicar's daughter, Emily Sherbourne; for, three years after our marriage, Mr. Smedley had been attacked by sudden illness, which carried him off.
How pleased I was when Allan told me that he and Emmie had settled it between them. She was such a sweet girl; not pretty, but with a lovable, gentle face, and she had such simple kindly manners, so different from the girls of the present day, who hide their good womanly hearts under such abrupt loud ways. Emily, or, as we always called her, Emmie, was not clever, but she suited Allan to a nicety. She was wonderfully amiable, and bore his little irritabilities with the most placid good humor; nothing put her out, and she believed in him with a credulity that amused Allan largely; but he was very proud of her, and they made the happiest couple in the world, with the exception of Giles and me.
Carrie lost her lameness, after all; but not until she had been up to London and had undergone skillful treatment under the care of a very skillful physician. I shall always remember Dot's joy when she took her first walk without her crutches. She came down to the Cedars with Jack, now a fine well-grown girl, and I shall never forget her sweet April face of smiles and tears.
"How good God has been to me, Essie," she whispered, as we sat together under the cedar tree, while Jack ran off for her usual romp with Winnie and Harold. "I have just had to lie quiet until I learned the lesson He wanted me to learn years ago, and now He is making me so happy, and giving me back my work."
It was just so; Carrie had come out of her painful ordeal strengthened and disciplined, and fit to teach others. No longer the weak, dreamy girl who stretched out over-eager hands for the work God in His wise providence withheld from her, she had emerged from her enforced retirement a bright helpful woman, who carried about her a secret fund of joy, of which no earthly circumstances could deprive her.
"My sweet sister Charity," Allan called her, and the poor of Milnthorpe had reason to bless her; for early and late she labored among them, tending the sick and dying, working often at Allan's side among his poorer patients.
At home she was Uncle Geoffrey's comfort, and a most sweet companion for him and Jack. As for Dot, he lived almost entirely at the Cedars. Giles had grown very fond of him, and we neither of us could spare him. They say he will always be a cripple; but what does that matter, when he spends day after day so happily in the little room Giles has fitted up for him?
We believe, after all, Dot will be an artist. He has taken a lifelike portrait of my Harold that has delighted Giles, and he vows that he shall have all the advantages he can give him; for Giles is very rich—so rich that I almost tremble at the thought of our responsibilities; only I know my husband is a faithful steward, and makes a good use of his talents. Carrie is his almoner, and sometimes I work with her. There are some almshouses which Giles is building in which I take great interest, and where I mean to visit the old people, with Winnie trotting by my side.
Just now Giles came in heated and tired. "What, little wife, still scribbling?"
"Wait a moment, dear Giles," I replied. "I have just finished."
And so I have—the few scanty recollections of Esther Cameron's life.