"It's as lonesome as a desert, and Ernestine is selfish as a pig," declared Kittie, subsiding gloomily on to the stairs as the hack rattled out of sight.
"Two solemn facts, but they won't wash the dishes," rejoined Kat, balancing over the bannisters, in a way that threatened immediate perpendicularity, with a change of base from what was customary.
"I hate dishes and dish-pans and everything," exclaimed Kittie with much vehemence. "Any how, this is your week to wash, and mine to wipe; go along and get the old things ready, and I'll be out in a minute."
"I'll change with you next week," said Beatrice turning from the door, where she had stood contemplatively. "You and Kat may tend to all the sweeping, and dusting, and keeping the house in order, and I'll do the kitchen work."
"Hurrah, will you?" cried Kittie, flying up from her despondent attitude. "You're a jewel, Bea, shake hands."
Bea surrendered her hand with some misgiving, rightfully conjecturing that it would receive a shake and twist of over-powering heartiness in the high tide of Kittie's spirits; and that young lady, having done her best to dislocate that useful member, rushed off to impart the news to Kat, and swing her dish rag jubilantly.
The change of instruments, as the girls said, took place Monday morning. Bea awoke, to find her bed-posts ornamented variously, with a dish-pan, a flaunting rag and two scrupulously neat towels, while there was a sound of revelry in the lower hall, which would indicate that the twins were up, and at their new branch of work, with a vigor which novelty always imparts to labor. Not that there was anything so novel to a broom or dust-pan, but they were so tired of their work, that Bea's really seemed delightful and easy and much to be envied.
"You must have been anxious to get to work," said that sister, coming down the stairs with her post ornaments, and interrupting a lively skirmish, where brooms flew around through the air, with a cheerful disregard for the swinging lamp, or any one's head.
"Anxious to get through, you mean," laughed Kat, throwing down her weapon, and tumbling her dishevelled hair into a net. "Hollo, Kittie, your corners are swept cleaner'n mine."
"Of course," answered Kittie complacently, and turning her broom right end up, in a spasm of housewifely care. "You better go to work and do yours over; that's in the bargain, isn't it, Bea?"
"Work to be done well," said Bea, surveying Kat's corners with a critical eye. "And those are not clean; you've slipped right by them."
"Just as well," asserted Kat, whisking her broom about and scattering the dust that disgraced a small corner over such extent of surface that it could not be noticed. "That's the way. What's the use of being so particular?"
Bea shook her head and declared it wouldn't do, then gave to Kittie the overwhelming responsibility of keeping Kat straight, and departed for the kitchen.
"Set the blind to lead the blind," laughed Kat, spinning about on her heels, and finishing up with a hearty hug for Kittie, and the penitent remark: "You are getting lots better than I, that's a fact; and I must begin to brush up and sober down, or I'll be the black sheep of the flock,—as if I wasn't always that. But you really are getting terrible good, Kittie; I've seen it for a long time and it makes me uncomfortable; spin around and be gay like you used to."
"Nonsense," laughed Kittie, then looked sober, and sat down upon the stairs suddenly. "I'm not good, Kat, it isn't that; I don't know how to be; but some way, I can't be as terribly wild and gay as I used to be, there seems to be so much more to think about now, and seems to me we ought to help think as much as the others, and besides, I don't think we ought to be so wild any more; why, Kat, we're in our teens!"
"Suppose we are, dear me!" cried Kat, standing off and surveying her sister with a sort of vague alarm, "what ever is the matter with this family? Olive is getting so pleasant, and wears ribbons, and you're not going to be wild any more, and have gone to thinking; you'll both die next thing, good people always die; and anyhow, my fun's all up. I never can be gay if you sit around so solemn and goody-goody;" and Kat rumpled up her hair and looked desperate.
"The idea, what a speech!" exclaimed Kittie, looking as if her new resolutions had received a shock. "As if I couldn't be sensible without being goody-goody, whatever that is. Pick up your broom and don't worry, my dear. I'll never die of being too good."
Nevertheless, Kat looked forlorn all the rest of the day, and had spells of solemnly surveying Kittie, as though some wonderful change had taken place, and a pair of wings, or some equally astonishing thing might be the result. Next morning was as beautiful as a spring morning ever could be, and Kat took much comfort in the fact, that, in her haste to get out to the pond, Kittie flew about the sitting-room in a hurry, whisked the dirt under the stove, didn't stop to dust, except a rapid skim over the top, left the piano shut, neglected to put fresh flowers under father's portrait, and shut the blinds so as to hide all defects under a comfortable shielding gloom. Kat looked on and felt relieved. Kittie wasn't going to be so dreadfully good and proper after all, and much consoled, Kat put on her hat, and dashed out to the pond, where Kittie was already sailing about, with her head still ornamented in a dust-cap.
Bea had watched their early departure from the field of work, with some misgiving, and decided to go and take a view of the house as soon as she got the dishes put away, but just at that moment, the door bell rang; and dear me, what should she do? The twins were at the farthest end of the pond, yelling like bedlamites, Bea declared. Ernestine had finished her small share of work, then put on her cocked-up hat with a blue bow, and gone down town; so there was no one left to see to the door, and smoothing down her hair, Bea hurried through the hall with flushed cheeks and some anxiety.
True to a prophetic feeling which possessed her, the opening of the door disclosed to view the last person to be desired, on that or any other morning: Miss Strong, a regular Dickensonian old maid.
"Good morning, sweet child!" she exclaimed, the moment Bea's dismayed face presented itself.
"Good morning, Miss Strong; will you come in?"
"Come in? Surely, dear. I want to see you all; and then I hear that you and your sisters are such model little housekeepers, and I think it is so lovely that you all, in your heart-rending afflictions, should bow so meekly beneath God's chastening rod, and put your shoulders to the wheel."
Bea opened the sitting-room door in fear and trembling, and blinded by the spring sunshine, Miss Strong walked into the dark room, in her girlish, hasty way, and immediately stumbled over a footstool, and landed at full length on the lounge, with such force that she dropped her beaded reticule, and knocked her bonnet off.
"Oh, I am so sorry," cried Bea, running to pick up the things, and return them to the startled and scarlet-faced spinster. "I don't know why Kittie shut the blinds, she oughtn't to."
"No, I should say she hadn't, I should, indeed," returned Miss Strong, putting on her bonnet with a jerk, and snapping her reticule. "It's a sinful shame, the way some people keep their houses dark as dungeons, to hide dirt and dust. I have heard that you were neat housekeepers, but I can't help having my opinion of people who shut out every speck of light, and trip up respectable people in this way."
Poor Bea's face burned and burned, and her heart throbbed faster as she went to the window, to open the blinds, feeling that her reputation was at stake, and that the first ray of light would kindle the faggots. Not a speck of dust, from the ceiling down, would escape Miss Strong's eagle eyes, and oh, how she would talk about it! Well, it was done; she threw them open, and turned around in the calmness of despair. The glaring sunshine came boldly in, and danced over the dusty table, over the top of the piano, where you might have written your name, right under the stove where the dirt lay thick, all around the corners, into Miss Strong's scornful, roving eyes, and into Bea's burning face. Miss Strong was angry. She never liked to be seen or heard under a disadvantage, and she surely had received an unreconcilable insult just now. Besides, she always went about seeking whom she might devour; she wore little spit-curls all over her sallow, wrinkled forehead, had a hooked nose, a long, sharp chin, a dried-apple mouth, and two fiercely bright eyes, that looked clear through you, and plainly indicated that she thought you all wrong, and at fault. Whenever she heard any one praised, she immediately set about finding a flaw somewhere, and heralded it to the world, as soon as found. She knew the Dering family were not as nice and worthy of praise and sympathy, as people seemed to think, and she had come this morning on purpose to find out, and then correct the deluded public mind. She was quite satisfied, and the "I-told-you-so" spirit was so jubilant within her, that she could hardly keep from flaunting it before Bea's distressed face. She satisfied herself, however, with looking at each dusty article with great care, brushing some imaginary specks from her dress, settling her bonnet, and asking abruptly:
"How's your mother? I haven't long to stay."
"She was quite well, thank you, the last time she was home," answered Bea, watching those eagle eyes in terror.
"Umph! Pity she can't stay home," said Miss Strong, once more taking in the room with an unmistakable glance.
"It's very lonely without her," assented Bea, catching sight of the wilted flowers under her father's portrait, and fervently hoping that her visitor's eye would not see them. But vain hope! Miss Strong's eyes went straight from the dirt under the stove up to the neglected vase, and she smiled in a way, that made Bea long to jump up and scream.
"I have often wanted to see your father's portrait, and I have heard what beautiful flowers you always kept under it. So lovely!"
"We do," answered Bea, with much dignity, and flashing a resentful glance at Miss Strong. "Papa loved flowers dearly, and we always love to have them under his picture; but Kittie must have been in a hurry, and forgotten it this morning."
"In-deed," said Miss Strong slowly. "But excuse me, pray do, I wouldn't have spoken of it, but I supposed, of course, that this room had not been arranged for the day yet."
"Well, it is very early," retorted Bea, stung quite out of her patient politeness; and Miss Strong got up immediately, shutting her mouth with a vicious snap.
"I'm sure I wouldn't have called so early," she said shortly. "But I am soliciting for the Church Fund, and having heard how exceedingly generous and willing you all were to give to all such causes, I made my first call here, confident that it would yield me encouragement."
Poor Bea colored violently again, remembering that she only had enough money to pay the grocery bill, due to-morrow, and yet Miss Strong had made her feel as though she must give something; every one would expect it.
"I'm very sorry," she said, slowly. "But I really cannot this morning."
"In-deed," said Miss Strong again. "But then, people will be mistaken once in a while; I must bid you good morning, Miss Dering;" and out she stalked, before Bea could gain her breath.
When Kittie and Kat came in from the pond a little while later, they found Bea, lying on the lounge and sobbing, with a despairing energy, that excited their liveliest alarm, and made all horrible things seem possible, from mother's death down to the breaking of the cherished family tea-pot. Bea told her story, but hadn't room to remonstrate, for the sobs that caught her breath; and the girls listened in grave alarm.
"Who cares for old Polly Strong?" cried Kat, with defiant irreverence, and throwing her hat to the ceiling.
"Well, I'm sorry," cried Kittie, running to comfort the prostrate chief. "It's all my fault; Kat swept the parlor this morning and I cleaned in here. Oh, I am ashamed, and so sorry, Bea dear."
"Well—well, I think it's too—too bad," sobbed Bea, uncomforted. "She talked so mean, and—and—she'll tell everybody that—that—I'm no housekeeper, and then—then, mama—"
"If she does," interrupted Kat fiercely, "I'll tell every mortal man, woman and child, in turn, that she's a meddling old thing, if they don't know it already; and I'll tell them just the truth about this room, too."
"It was horrible in me," sighed Kittie in great self-reproach. "And when you were so kind as to change, too. We'll go right back to the dishes, Bea, and not disgrace your work any more, and I'll go right to work and clean this room decent, so that everything will shine until you can see your face in it."
By this time Ernestine's wardrobe was pretty near ready to go upon her visit. She had exercised her ingenuity in making few things look their best and go a long way; and her selfishness in getting every available thing from the girls, without ever expressing a wish that they were going to share the pleasure; because, she reasoned in her mind, if they were going, she couldn't have all their pretty things, so better be still, than express an untruthful desire. On the day after the Strong visit, she came from down-town, and walked up to the house, very much as if she were a little ashamed to go in, but which she did, with an assumption of indifference, and came into the room where the girls were sitting.
"I've got the last things," she said with a laugh, tinged with an uneasiness that no one noticed, and unwrapping a small parcel.
"What?" asked Bea, glancing up with interest; then looked at the open paper, and did not say another word.
Kittie and Kat did likewise, and in a moment Ernestine broke the silence with an impatient laugh.
"Well, what do you all look so horrified at? It was my own money, I guess, and precious little at that."
"What did you pay for them?" asked Bea gravely.
"These—" Ernestine held up a pair of snowy kids, with three buttons—"I got for a dollar and a half, cheap, because one finger is a little soiled. This—" lifting a creamy tip, with pale blue shading—"was two dollars. Won't it look lovely in my black hat?"
"Yes, it will look lovely," said Bea slowly; she was really too astonished and hurt to say any more; but Kat cried out explosively:
"Oh Ernestine Dering! you selfish, selfish, old—pig, you—" "Know mama wants shoes," interrupted Kittie, with her voice full of indignant tears. "And you heard her say the last time she was home, that she did not want to spend the money for them, and here you spend three dollars and a half for—"
"Things that I want," finished Ernestine, getting up and pushing her chair away. "I've worked hard, and I think I might spend a very little bit of my own money. You all don't seem to think so, and you're not very pleasant, so I'll just leave you until you are in a better humor."
With that she went out, feeling really as though she were more aggrieved than aggressor, and stillness followed her departure.
"She's worked hard?" cried Kittie at length, with indignant scorn. "Very hard; but mama hasn't, nor we haven't—"
"Oh don't, please," exclaimed Bea, bursting into tears. "Don't say anything, girls; I don't know what I hadn't rather have, than for mama to know that Ernestine would do such a thing. Oh, I wish she need never to know it."
It did not take much thought to decide Ernestine, that she was much abused, and though her usually laggard conscience insisted on being touched, she solaced it by putting the tip in her hat, and seeing how becoming it was, and by trying on the gloves, which were a perfect fit. Then putting them away, she stole off to the garret, to carry out a plan, made in secrecy—that of rummaging the packed trunks there, and perhaps finding something that could be turned into a party dress, which she was quite sure she would need. The garret was roomy and sunny, and all the rest of the afternoon, Ernestine comforted herself, and her abused feelings by hunting among the old trunks, and spinning many gay dreams, wherein she dwelt in luxury, and all that heart could wish. She had selected a pale green silk, and a fine soft lawn from her mother's put aside wardrobe, and her mind's eye saw herself most becomingly, and beautifully dressed in them—if mama would only consent.
Over in the corner, something caught her eye presently, that she had never seen before. Only a small dark trunk with an air of secrecy about it; and something irresistibly took her right over to it, with her arm load of gay things.
"I wonder what it is," she mused, fingering the lock curiously, and feeling so strange as she did so.
"Go away!" something seemed to say imperatively; but she lingered, and fingered more curiously than ever the small key attached to a faded ribbon.
"Go away! Go away!" seemed to come again that voice, and she felt it to her inmost soul; but the very realization of an inward warning against it, urged her on. She put the key in the lock,—and hesitated; turned it slowly,—and hesitated again; then broke into a nervous little laugh, and tossed the cover open.
"Why I'm as cold as ice, what a goose! Now let's see what's in this wonderful trunk to make me feel so funny; something splendid I guess, but I couldn't help opening it, I really couldn't,—oh dear!"
It was of disappointment, for there was nothing there but a queer old basket, a pillow, with a plain little slip, and a worn faded letter on top.
WHERE IS ERNESTINE?
The odor of hot cakes brought everybody in a hurry, when Kat opened the dining-room door, and shouted, "supper!" as though she was a pop-gun and the single word a deadly fire, and everybody had fallen to work at demolishing the pile of aforesaid cakes, before Bea looked up suddenly and asked:
"Where is Ernestine?"
Nobody knew, but Kat ventured, that perhaps she was going to supper it, on gloves and feathers.
"You better call again, Kat, perhaps she didn't hear."
So Kat rushed to the door, and shouted:
"Er-nes-tin-e-e, cakes are getting cold," with an amount of energy and noise that might have reached that young lady, had she been sitting on the top-most round of the farthest chimney; but there was no response of any kind, neither was there any indications of a light up stairs, so Kat went back, remarking, as she again fell to work:
"She's put on her new toggery, most likely, and gone somewhere."
"But where should she go?" asked Bea with a strange uneasiness.
"Anywhere, just so people see her new things, and say how pretty she looks," answered Kat, who was not uneasy.
So they eat supper and waited; but no appearance of the delinquent. The twins began to clear up, putting a good supply in the oven to keep warm; but the dishes were through with, and all put away, and no Ernestine. Kittie began to feel anxious and worried, but Kat made fun of her, though she herself began to grow more quiet, as the evening went on. Eight. Nine. No Ernestine. What should they do?
Bea sprang up from her seat at the window, all in a pale tremor.
"I cannot stand it. Oh, Olive, what shall we do?"
"Why, I don't know," said Olive, putting down the book in which she had read nothing. "Have you looked for her hat and cloak?"
No. No one had. So they all rushed up stairs, as though it required five pairs of eyes to discover a hat and cloak, which was found lying on the bed, just as she had thrown them on coming up stairs. Bea went to her boxes, with a vague idea that the gloves and feather were in some way connected with the mystery; but they were put away with greatest possible care, and Kat, who always did the absurd things in hasty moments, reported that all her clothes and dresses were in their places, so she couldn't have gone away.
"Of course not; there's no place for her to go to," answered Olive.
"Mrs. Dane's, perhaps," suggested Kittie.
This was plausible.
"But what would she go for?" asked Bea in a moment. "And without any hat or shawl, and stay so late?"
Nobody knew, and all looked irresolute and anxious.
"Her blue shawl is gone," exclaimed Kat, in the midst of her second rummage in the closet; for what, no one knew, since it was impossible for Ernestine to be hanging over a hook; or settled in one of her pockets. "And her straw hat!"
At that, all five dived into the closet, with no clearly defined purpose, but it seemed the only thing to do just then; and in the scramble that followed, the missing straw hat was found on the floor, but no blue shawl kept its company. They all took hold of it in turn, looking at it solemnly, and turning it over and over, as though it possessed the secret of its missing mistress. But if it knew, it kept its knowledge, and only flapped its ribbons in feeble protest at being twisted about so. No one said any thing, until Bea discovered two long golden hairs clinging to the straw, then she threw it down, and burst into tears. Everybody looked aghast, and Bea cried out between her sobs:
"I can't help it—indeed—I feel as if something dreadful had happened—and I'm so frightened."
Just then the clock struck ten, such slow solemn strokes, echoing through the still house, and everybody shivered drearily, and looked fearfully out into the dark hall; wishing, oh, how fervently, that mother was home. Bea stopped crying with a great effort, and seemed to feel that she must do something—but what? She looked at the girls in anxious inquiry. Kittie and Kat were sitting on the bed, trembling and frightened. Olive was so dreadfully pale and still; and Beatrice was nearly at her wits end.
"Perhaps—perhaps—" ventured Kittie, looking around as though her voice frightened her: "she may be trying to frighten us; you know we were a little fussy when she came up stairs this afternoon."
Nobody seemed to think so, it might be a rather good joke, but Ernestine wouldn't keep it up until ten o'clock.
"Let's look in the rooms and then go down stairs, said Olive taking up the light. Perhaps she has gone to Mrs. Dane's after all, and is staying late to frighten us, as Kittie says. Come on, and when she comes, don't pretend to be surprised or a bit scared."
This being Olive's first suggestion, it was received as bearing some weight, as indeed suggestions and advice always are when they come from people who do not always have them at tongue's end, ready for all, or any occasions. A little brighter feeling dawned upon the forlorn group, as they went to the twin's and Olive's rooms, without finding any trace, and then returned to the sitting-room. Bea half hoped and expected that they would find Ernestine sitting by the fire, full of laugh, and ready to tease them on their fright and search; but she was disappointed, for the room was dreary and lonely, the light wood fire having died of neglect; and everything looked unutterably forlorn to their anxious eyes. In an ominous silence all four sat down on the lounge, closely huddled together, and tried to talk; but it was a vain attempt. It seemed impossible to bring any voice low enough so as that it did not sound like a trumpet in the painful stillness of the house; every one jumped when any one spoke, so by and by, they were perfectly still, while the clock ticked so loudly and every moment brought a deeper fear and trembling anxiety.
"Let us go to bed," whispered Olive. Somehow it seemed that whispering was the only admissible thing then. "See, the lamp was not filled fresh to-day, and it's burning down; we'll be in the dark in a few minutes."
"Oh, I'm so afraid," quavered Kat. "Let's all sleep together."
No one seemed to object, for really it was something to chill even a brave heart. Those four girls alone in the great still house at midnight, with the terrible fear at their hearts, and their wildest imagination in full play. They went up stairs as softly as though Ernestine lay dead in the house; and all went with their eyes shut except Olive, who carried the lamp, and even she kept her eyes away from everything save right where she walked. No one had cried yet but Bea; so when they knelt about the bed for prayer, each one broke down, and they finally dropped asleep, sobbing softly, with their arms about each other.
Morning came, with the brightest of sunshine, and put a more cheerful face upon things, as daylight always does. The girls jumped up merrily, quite convinced that it was all a joke, and that they were foolish to have been so frightened. Ernestine had gone to Mrs. Dane's and stayed all night; she would be home pretty soon and they would all have a good laugh over it. So they thought, and flew about lively with their work; but breakfast was over and cleaned up, the house was all in order, and the day fairly begun; still no Ernestine had arrived, and Olive had not gone.
"Seems to me, I can't go until we know something," she said, standing in the door and looking down the street. "I will be home to dinner, and surely she will be here by that time."
"I suppose so, of course," said Bea, feeling last night's fear beginning to tug at her heart again.
"Seems to me nothing could happen with a morning so lovely as this," said Kittie, looking anxious and sleepy.
"Well, I suppose I must go," said Olive at last. "I'm an hour late now, and I don't know what to tell Mr. Dane; but then, it's the first time I've ever been tardy, so he may not speak of it."
"If she comes pretty soon, I'll trot down and tell you," volunteered Kat, who was stretching on the stairs, and pretty near strangling with a succession of gasps.
"All right," said Olive, going out reluctantly.
Morning went slowly and heavily; the girls tried to study as usual, but found it impossible. There was only one thought in their minds; Ernestine! Ernestine! where was she?
"Kittie," said Bea, when it was nearly noon, "Olive is so tired, I expect, being worried and up so late, and then bothering over her business this morning, suppose you take her dinner down to her, and then go round by Mrs. Dane's?"
"All right," answered Kittie, glad of something to work off her feverish impatience. "You fix the basket, while I run up stairs and get ready; it will only take me a minute."
Olive was sitting at her desk, very pale and tired, when Kittie came in. She looked up eagerly, but in a glance, each saw that the other knew nothing.
"I brought your dinner," said Kittie, putting down the basket, "because—she hasn't come, and we thought you'd be so tired."
"I am, and so much obliged," answered Olive, with a grateful smile, thinking, as she put the lunch aside, how kind it was, for Kittie was tired too; and thinking also, that a few weeks ago they wouldn't have done so; but that had been much her own fault, she was quite convinced of it now.
"Mr. Dane went to the city on this morning's train," she said in a moment, "so I have not seen him."
"I'm going there," answered Kittie. "Mrs. Dane's, I mean. If Ernestine is there, I'll come back by here and tell you, and if I don't come you'll know that I haven't heard anything."
They both felt that nothing would be heard, but each said good-bye cheerfully, and Kittie hurried away.
Mrs. Dane was a dear, motherly-hearted lady who had no children of her own, and consequently felt a warm interest in any one's else. She had kept a watchful, loving eye on the Dering girls, especially, since their troubles, going to see them frequently, and dropping much comfort and encouragement in all that she said and did. When she saw Kittie coming, she met her at the door, with a warm, cheery smile and inquired gayly:
"Good morning, my dear; what is going to happen that you are without your mate? and which one are you?"
Kittie laughed as she went up the neat little walk, with early violets blooming either side, but Mrs. Dane noticed that she looked anxiously beyond her, into the house, and that her face was pale and worried, something unheard of, for either of the twins.
"I'm Kittie, and Kat was too busy to come," answered Kittie, as they went in, and she wondered what she should say next.
"It looks strange to ever see you without each other," said Mrs. Dane, detecting an uneasiness. "All well at home, dear?"
"Yes'm, pretty well, except spring fever."
"I saw Ernestine down town yesterday afternoon, and I thought she looked quite pale, but very pretty," continued Mrs. Dane.
"Yes'm," said Kittie again, with her heart jumping into her throat. "Mama is going to have her go out to Mrs. Raymond's for two weeks. Has she been by here this morning?"
"Not that I have seen. I should think it a very good plan for her to be in the country a while, if she will only be quiet; the Raymond home is a very lovely one. I notice here lately that she coughs a good deal."
"Yes'm," answered Kittie, guiltily conscious that she hadn't noticed it. "I hope it isn't much though."
"Nothing more than a spring cold, I fancy; you must all be very careful. Now, my dear, take off your hat, and stay to dinner with me. I'm all alone, to-day."
"I should like to; thank you, Mrs. Dane, but Bea will be expecting me home, and I guess I had better go," said Kittie, so intensely disappointed with her call that she could hardly keep the tears back. So she went, and Mrs. Dane soliloquized, as she recalled the troubled face. "Something the matter, I am quite positive; and those poor, dear, brave little girls all alone. I shall go over this evening and see if I am needed."
Kat was at the gate, and started out the moment she saw Kittie coming, to meet her. She was quite as ashy colored as ever brown-faced, rosy-cheeked Kat could be, and she was trembling as with a fit of ague, and as Kittie saw her, the question died on her lips, and she could only look her fear, as Kat burst forth:—
"She hasn't come—don't know anything about her; but Bea went up in the garret this morning to open the windows, and ever since she came down, she's been crying and pretty near fainted; won't tell me anything, and I thought you never would come. What shall we do?"
"Oh, I don't know; why didn't I tell Mrs. Dane? I felt as if I ought to," cried Kittie, standing still in despair for a moment; then pulling off her hat and shawl, she put them on her sister in a hurry.
"There, Kat, run; I'm so tired, you can go the fastest; go to Mr. Phillips, ask him to take Prince and go for mama, quick;" and, without a second thought, Kat dashed down the street at her most breathless flying speed, not caring who saw, or what they thought, and feeling as though she had done the right thing. Kittie hurried into the house; she was alarmed, indeed, at the violence of Bea's crying, and after trying in vain to find some cause, or give some comfort, gave up in despair.
"Don't ask me," Bea would cry, when questioned. "I can't tell! Oh, if mama was only here! What shall I do?"
"I've sent for her!" exclaimed Kittie, with a great sigh of relief. "Kat has gone now to ask Mr. Phillips, and she'll be here this afternoon, I know."
Bea looked up for an instant, with a flash of relief in her face, then burst out again, crying more bitterly than ever, and with a vehemence that shook her from head to foot.
"What ever can it be?" thought Kittie, flying up stairs, and off to the garret in desperation; but, pausing as she reached the door, and shaking with a sudden terror. What if Ernestine should be in there dead, or something? She shook and hesitated, but finally opened the door, for Kittie was brave, and looked in!
Nothing seemed to be the matter. The sunshine came warmly in at the windows and illumined every corner. The little black trunk stood there, but it was closed, and she did not notice it, though she went all around, and amazed to find nothing out of place. Over in an unused corner, for the garret was very large, stood a big dry-goods box that Mr. Dering had long kept some things packed in, but on the very day before his sudden death, he had been up in the garret, unnailed the heavy cover, and gone to the bottom for some things that he wanted, and then hurried away, intending to repack, and nail up, on his return; but in the little act, was a mighty working of Providence, or fate; the box had remained just so, with its dislodged contents at its side, the little black trunk among them, and the garret having been rarely entered during the winter, it had not been noticed or remedied.
Kittie, happening to glance that way, saw it; and with a vague idea that Ernestine might be in the box, went over to it, pushed the little black trunk nearer, and stood on it to look in; but saw only a confused lot of things, tumbled up in her father's haste, and so she got down, and left the garret slowly, more perplexed and bewildered than ever.
As she went down the stairs, she heard, she surely heard an unmistakable moan, that stopped her in an instant, and made her heart beat fast and loud with terror; and as she stood and listened, it came again, and it did not come from the garret either.
As I said, Kittie was brave. Kat would have torn wildly down stairs, and declared that the house was haunted; but she stood there, quite still, until that feeble moan came again; then with a thought as quick as lightning, she cleared the remaining steps with one jump, flew across the hall, and into the spare room!
There, at last, after all these hours of painful anxiety and fright, there, so near, that by simply opening an unused door, they would have found her—lay Ernestine.
As Kittie burst into the room, Ernestine tossed her arms above her head, and uttered that feeble moan again; and too astonished to utter a word of any kind, Kittie saw that she was unconscious, that her face was scarlet with fever, and that the dazed, wide open eyes recognized nothing.
She never exactly remembered how she got down stairs, and told Bea; or how it happened that Kat was with them when they went back; she only knew that Bea threw down her handkerchief, and worked swift and silent, that she helped, and that Kat flew off again to bring Mrs. Dane, and was back in just a moment, for that lady, being so forcibly impressed with an idea that something was wrong, had started over, and met Kat just a few minutes after she came tearing out of the gate.
It did not take long to get Ernestine into her own bed, to bathe her burning hands and face, and smooth her tangled hair, that lay all over the pillow like stray sun-beams. She submitted passively to all of it, and appeared to notice no one, except now and then to turn her eyes to Mrs. Dane, with a puzzled, pleading look, and mutter with a wistful longing: "It isn't so, is it? I know it isn't;" then would drift into some unintelligible murmurings, or lay quiet with no expression of any kind in her face.
"She was perfectly well yesterday," said Bea, in answer to Mrs. Dane's questions. "She came up stairs singing, about four o'clock, and that was the last we saw of her until just now, when Kittie found her."
"Poor child! What did you do all night?"
"We sat up until twelve o'clock, and it seemed like a week nearly, Olive said, and we all hoped that she had gone to spend the night with you, and that is what kept us from giving up entirely. We were having a little argument when she left us," added Bea, dropping her eyes, but feeling that a little explanation was necessary. "So we thought perhaps she went off without saying anything, so as to frighten us."
Kittie looked at Bea in curious amazement. She was so rejoiced that Ernestine was found, that she wondered why Bea should still be so white and tremble, and sit down every once in a while, as though too faint to stand. Finally concluding that it was fatigue and worrying, Kittie hurried down to the kitchen, built a fire, and had water boiling for tea in a hurry, and in just a little while, brought a cup of that invigorating beverage, and insisted on Bea's drinking it, and another, too, if she could.
"How kind you are," said Bea, looking grateful, and trying to smile, but failing utterly. "You better go and drink some yourself. Where is Kat?"
"She rushed right off again to tell Olive," answered Kittie, sitting down on the floor. "Poor dear, she will be tired to death. Oh, Bea, aren't you glad we found her before mama came?"
Bea nodded yes, and hid her face in the tea-cup, while Kittie hearing Kat down stairs, hurried down to have a social and rejoicing cup of tea with her.
Mrs. Dering arrived late in the afternoon; the twins threw open the big gate, shouting the good news as they did so, and Prince came gayly up the old familiar drive with a joyous whisk of his tail, and a loud neigh of recognition, and as Kittie and Kat fell to hugging him wildly, Mrs. Dering hurried into the house, and was met by Bea at the door.
"Were is she? What does it all mean?" cried the terrified mother.
"She was in the spare room—sick—we found her this afternoon," answered Bea, speaking as though the words choked her. "Come—come into the sitting-room, mama, and—let me tell you."
Mrs. Dering followed, with a terrible fear at her heart, and was obliged to sit down, so trembling and faint was she; and Beatrice meeting that anguished, imploring look, could not utter a word, but simply put her hand in her pocket, and drew out a worn, faded letter.
Mrs. Dering looked at it for an instant, then uttered a broken cry, and threw out her hands beseechingly.
"Oh, Beatrice! my daughter! Not that, not that, surely!"
Mrs. Dering dropped her face in her hands with a moan that came from the depths of her heart, and overcome with the confirmation of her fears, Bea sank into a chair and burst into tears; and nothing but her sobs were heard for several moments.
Under all circumstances, Mrs. Dering was a woman of wonderful self control; so in a moment she looked up and asked:
"Do you know anything about it?"
"No, mama," answered Bea, then repeated the circumstances in the case, adding, with a look of loving sympathy into the grief-stricken face opposite, "When I went up into the garret this morning, I saw one of your trunks open, and your green silk and white lawn lying on the floor by the little black trunk, which was open also, and the letter was dropped on the floor, and I knew she had been there, and thought perhaps it was something she had left, so I read—only a part of it, and—oh, mama!"
Mrs. Dering vouchsafed no explanation, as Bea paused with a sob; but looked out of the window with a world of puzzled inquiry in her face, and murmured to herself:
"How did it ever come out of the box?"
"Papa," answered Bea, catching the words, "He was up there the day before he—died, and I remember when he came down with what he wanted, he said that he had gone clear to the bottom of the big box for it, and that he would put things back, and nail it up when he came back home, and they were all left just that way, mama; and oh—please tell me—is it true?"
"Yes, Beatrice, it is true, too true," answered Mrs. Dering, sadly, then went up stairs, and left Bea sobbing on the lounge.
In just a few minutes Kittie came running in, and paused astonished at the sitting-room door, but as she surveyed her sister, and heard how bitterly she was sobbing, she went in and knelt by the lounge.
"Bea, can't you tell me yet, what the matter is?"
"No-o," sobbed Bea.
"Well, please tell me just one thing: I'm so frightened about something, I don't know what. But, is Ernestine very very sick, and is that what you are crying about? or—or, has something happened that we don't know anything about? Please tell me just this, Bea, and I won't ask any more."
"Yes, something has," was Bea's answer; and Kittie went sorrowfully away to tell Kat and Olive not to rejoice so much, yet.
It was quite late that night, and every one had gone to bed, except Mrs. Dering, who sat sleeplessly beside the bed, holding Ernestine's hot hand, and Bea, who nestled quietly in a large rocking chair, equally sleepless, and looking alternately from the loving, watchful face of mother, to the flushed, restless one on the pillow, while the big tears dropped unheeded down her cheeks.
The doctor had said, on leaving in the evening, that when Ernestine awoke, she would be herself, and for some time Mrs. Dering had been watching the feverish flush give way to pallor, and the restless, uneasy tossing to quiet slumber, and she knew, that before long, Ernestine would be herself, and ask a dreaded question. The house was painfully still. Bea shivered as the clock's ticking sounded loudly through the halls, and thought of last night when they all stood there, in that same room, and wondered where Ernestine was; and Mrs. Dering shivered, though, for quite another reason, for her mind held far different memories.
Just then, Ernestine turned, as though awakening, and the clock began to strike twelve. Through the dozen slow strokes she did not move again, but the moment they ceased, she moaned just a little bit, in a feeble, tired way, and opened her eyes.
At the same instant, Mrs. Dering held a tiny glass to her lips, raised the pillow and said quietly:
Ernestine did so, unresistingly, and lay for several minutes perfectly quiet, with her eyes wide open; and then they began to grow startled, and went suddenly to Bea's face, and stopped there. Bea smiled, notwithstanding she was trembling violently, and leaving her seat, came to the bed. But Ernestine was not noticing her now; she was looking all about the room in a terrified way, and suddenly sat up straight in bed, pushed her hair back, and saw her mother. For an instant she did not seem to know what it was she wanted; but it came to her suddenly, and with a beseeching cry, she threw out her arms.
"Oh, mama, mama! is it true? Am I somebody else's child?"
Bea turned away, and fell into her chair again, unable to see that pitiful, anguished face; and Mrs. Dering, sitting down on the bed, drew the trembling figure closely to her heart.
"My darling, you are my own dear little girl—" but Ernestine interrupted, with a pitiful cry:
"Oh! tell me if that letter is so, or if it means some other Ernestine? just tell me that, quick, mama, oh please do!"
What could Mrs. Dering say, with those clinging arms about her neck, and that pleading face, and the despairing eyes never moving from hers?
"You are dreaming, darling," she began soothingly; but Ernestine threw her head back, and her voice rose to a terrified shriek:
"You won't tell me; you won't tell me," she cried wildly. "Oh, I must know if it is true; I must. Oh, mama, say it isn't; tell me that you are my own mama, that the letter don't mean me; oh mama! mama!"
"Ernestine, darling, listen;" said Mrs. Dering, with the tears running down her pale face. "You shall know the truth. You have been my little girl ever since you were two months old, but your own mother gave you to me just before she went to heaven, and she was my—;" but it was needless to say more; Ernestine gave a little moan, and dropped her head, and Mrs. Dering was sobbing, as she laid her back on the pillow; while Bea ran for some water.
Mrs. Dering and Ernestine were alone; Ernestine had asked for the story of her own, or rather her mother's life, and now lay with her face turned away, while Mrs. Dering held her hand in that loving clasp, and began telling it quietly:
"We were all living in Virginia at the time, dear. Papa Dering lived with his uncle Ridley. Uncle Walter Dering lived in Staunton, and your mama's home and mine, also in the city, were only a little way apart, and we saw a great deal of each other. Florence Granger was her name, and she was the most beautiful girl that I have ever seen, except the little daughter here, who is going to be her mother's very image. She was lovable in every way, but possessed a restless, impatient, dissatisfied spirit, that brought her much unhappiness. She constantly yearned for some kind of life that would give her eager, uncontrollable spirits free play; she hated the restraints of home, and frequently threw out dark hints to me of what she would do sometimes, when the right moment presented itself. I often begged her to give up such restless longings, and be happy at home; for she certainly had a lovely one, and might have been the happiest of girls; but she would kiss me and laugh, and call me 'dear little proper Bess,' and really be so happy and gay for a time that I would lose my fears, and think her threats all lively fun. About this time, papa and I became engaged, and I, confiding to him a secret that I had discovered, that his brother Walter loved Florence, he said that Walter had confessed it to him but that he despaired of ever gaining her heart, and that he dreaded the depressing effect of discouragement on his health, for Walter was very delicate. So I promised to do all I could towards helping him, and finding out the true state of Florence's heart towards him, and I did so quite successfully, though it has always been a source of bitterest regret to me. I found, with very little trouble that she had no thought or feeling of love for him, and one day, when she was thoughtlessly laughing at him for something, I told her, in a hasty moment, how he loved her, and how the disappointment might kill him. I never can forget how surprised and grieved she looked, nor how bitterly I regretted my hastiness, for a more tender-hearted girl never lived, and it was impossible to guess, how, in a generous, impulsive moment, she might sacrifice herself. That night she stayed with me, and both Walter and papa called; and I saw in an instant, that in her generous pity, she was going to do a work that could never be undone. Poor Walter was nearly beside himself with joy and encouragement. She sang for him, and oh, how many times have I gone back to that night, when you have been singing to me, with your mother's voice, dear. She promised to ride with him next day, and as papa watched them, he said to me in great relief: 'She loves him, and they will be happy;' and I could only say 'I hope so, truly,' and pray that I might be forgiven for what I had done; for I knew she did not love him.
"In a few days, she came rushing to me in a perfect passion of stormy, bitter tears, and frightened me greatly with her fierce vehemence. She declared that she hated him, that she could not endure the sight of him, and yet, not half an hour before, she had promised to marry him, and now, if I did not say something to comfort her, she would do something dreadful, sure. I was perfectly at a loss what to say or do, and trembled for the end of it all, but I knew the only way to quiet her would be to appeal to her pity and tenderness, so I talked and talked for a great while about him, how he loved her, how the disappointment now would surely kill him, how happy we would be as sisters when married, and how we would all go to Europe if papa inherited uncle Congreve's estate; and so finally won her over to a more pleasing view of the case. In the weeks that followed, I had the same thing to do many, many times, and found it more difficult to accomplish each time. She was wildly rebellious, and in an unguarded moment, let fall her passion for stage life, and then confided to me all her former plans, hopes, and aspirations. She had been in correspondence with members of the profession and had many secret plans laid for carrying out her ideas. She showed me several letters from Clarence Clare, then a famous actor, and I did not dream, could not even realize then, how far matters had gone. She was to have joined his troupe when he reached Staunton, left her home and gone out into the world under an assumed name, to taste and know its bitterness, when it was all too late. I was in an agony of fear, and besought her to give it up and think, before she lost herself to home and friends, but she told me I need not worry, she had written to him that morning that she was to be married, and could not fulfill her plans with him, and that I could rest in peace, for she was going to be a really good girl now, and settle down as properly as I could wish. I believed her, and was entirely deceived by the quiet, contented aspect that marked her from that day, and was overjoyed at the happiness that seemed to come to her as the day of our double marriage drew near. She spent much of her time with Walter, and the rest almost entirely with me, and we had hours of delightful chatter of when we would be sisters indeed, and always live together, for papa and Walter were devoted brothers.
"It all comes back to me now, so terribly clear, how the day before our wedding came, and Florence was in such a state of ecstatic happiness; she left me in the evening with the warmest, tenderest kisses and embraces, and said she would be on hand early in the morning, for we were to be married at ten o'clock. While we were at breakfast next morning, her maid came over in great haste, to know if she was with me, that she wasn't at home, and evidently had not been, as her room was untouched. It seemed for a moment that I could not move, so great was the terror that possessed me; then I jumped up, snatched a hat and ran all the way to her home, without once thinking of amazed observers. She was gone. There was a little note left for me, and no word for any one else; she had gone with Clarence Clare, who had arrived the day before, and, perhaps, even as I stood there reading her hurried words, she was being married, or was already his wife. I can never tell you of the tempest of grief that fell upon two homes, or how we ever got through that wretched day. Papa came to me for just a few minutes, then hurried off to stay with Walter who had not spoken, or betrayed any signs of consciousness since the word of Florence's desertion reached him. We knew from that day that he could not live, and though he was never ill, he died slowly, lingering with us only about six months, and his last words were to papa and me, spoken just before he died: 'If she ever comes back, tell her I forgave her, that I loved her to the last, and prayed God every hour that she might be happy.'
"A little while after, papa and I were married, and moved to Richmond. He received nothing from Uncle Congreve, you know, so we both had to go to work, and we were very happy, for papa was brave, strong and honorable, and he prospered; so that in a little while we had a cosy home of our own, and envied no one their riches.
"Mr. and Mrs. Granger, your grandparents, were very proud, and left Staunton, rather than stay where their daughter had disgraced them, and we never knew where they went to, or whether they are still living or not. Two years went by, and in that time I sent many a loving, anxious thought to Florence, where ever she was, and wondered if we were ever to meet again; and one night my answer came to me. It was a bitter night, snowing hard and blowing fiercely. Papa and I, were sitting in our cosy, warm room, and Bea was sleeping, rosy and sweet, in her little crib, when there came the feeblest kind of a ring at the door-bell, and papa went to the door. In just a second he called me, and I hurried there, to find him holding a basket, with a queer bundle in it, and looking amazed out into the night; then he set it down suddenly, and hurried out. I had not collected my thoughts, when he came in again with a fainting figure in his arms; a woman with a face uncovered, and we both recognized her in an instant. She was nearly dead with exposure, and it was a long time before she was able to speak a word, but we doctored her strongly, got her into a hot bed, and after a while she opened her eyes, and knew us. When she could talk, she told us how unhappy she had been; how, after submitting to her husband's neglect and the trials of stage life, for over a year, she had left him, and as soon as her baby was born, began looking for us. She was very feeble, and after leaving her burden on the steps, fainted in the snow before reaching the gate."
Here Ernestine, who had lain motionless all the while, gave a quick sob, and shivered from head to foot, and bending down to kiss her tenderly, Mrs. Dering went on:
"She died with us, dear, in just a few days after, and with her last breath, gave you to me; and ever since I took you, a tiny, little babe from her arms, you have been just as dear to me as though God had sent you to me, my very own."
Ernestine was shivering violently, and as Mrs. Dering finished, hid her face deeper in the pillow with a pitiful heart-broken moan, that was hard to hear, and Mrs. Dering said softly:
"Here, darling, in this box are some things that were to belong to you, in case you ever knew the truth, though with her last breath, your mother besought us to keep it from you, if we could, and we have tried, that being one reason why we afterwards left Virginia for New York State. But God knows best; it is right for you to know, or it would not have been so. The ring in the box is the one given by Walter to your mother, and she wished you, if you ever knew the story, to wear it."
Some time after Mrs. Dering left the room, Ernestine slowly turned her head, looked at the box, and with trembling fingers lifted the cover. The first thing that met her eyes, was a picture, an exquisite face painted on porcelain, and she uttered a smothered cry as she looked at the face of her mother, of whom she was the living image. There was the same brown eyes, with their slender arches; the same fine straight nose, and wilful, determined mouth, and the same halo of sunny hair, covering the proud little head. But Ernestine, looking at it then, thought of the sweet, true, dear woman, she had always called mother, and threw it down with a bitter cry of pain. There was also a tiny note, written in a beautiful dashing hand, and after a while she read it slowly.
"You have always been my good angel, and I could cry if I wasn't so happy, to think how I am going to disappoint you after all. But you mustn't mind, only think how happy I am going to be, for Clarence loves me! I will be his wife when you read this, and oh Bess I cannot help but be happy then. Tell Walter he must not care, he never would have been happy with me, because I could not love him. I hope you will not feel badly when you get this; have a gay wedding, and think how happy I am. I expect it is wrong to run off this way, but I've always done things wrong, I always will, but it might have been different, if my mother had loved home more, society less, and been as true and good to me as a mother, as you have been as a friend.
There were many little trinkets, beside the diamond ring, which Ernestine declared she could never wear; and in a tiny little box, with "My Baby," written on the top, were four round bits of gold, each a five dollar piece.
It really seemed as though the girls could never recover from the shock. Their faces were pale and tear-stained for many days; and only Olive, whose self-control was greatest, could venture into Ernestine's presence, without bursting into tears, and having to beat a hasty retreat. Every fault that she had ever possessed, they lost sight of now; they only thought how they all loved her, how happy and sweet she had always been about home, how lovely she was, and how dreadful it would be if they were to lose her. For Mrs. Dering had told them some things that she had not told Ernestine, among them these:
"You have many times noticed how much more careful and anxious I have been of Ernestine's health than of yours. That was because I knew that God had given me my girls well and strong, and poor little Ernestine came, burdened with the fatal seeds of her mother's disease, consumption. I have known always, for the doctor told me, that she would become its victim sooner or later; and that if she lived to womanhood, he would be surprised. I also saw in early childhood, that she had inherited her mother's restless, eager, dissatisfied disposition, though the difference in her home life has modified it greatly; and knowing the weakness that would assail her if she lived, I have battled against it, and prayed that she might ever be spared a trial, or that a greater strength would be hers, than had been her mother's. As she has grown older, I have been grieved and troubled, beyond expression, to watch the growth of that spirit, and of a selfishness, that must have been her father's, as not an atom of it belonged to her mother, and many times I would have been discouraged utterly, if I had not had the faith that God would do all things for the best, and that all He wanted was for me to do all in my power, and trust the rest to Him."
As the days went by, Ernestine did not seem to grow any better, and friends hearing she was ill, began making kindly visits of sympathy, and were greatly surprised to find her so terribly altered by the brief illness. At first she refused to see any one; but Mrs. Dering asked if she could not, as they would think it strange, and she immediately assented.
It was indeed sad to look at her face, changed so suddenly from its laughing, exquisite beauty to such a pallid, hollow-eyed, heart-broken look, and every one pitied, and wondered, and privately talked it over. Miss Strong, who had industriously circulated the report of her visit, with many additions and wonderfully sly, meaning looks, now felt called upon to supply the public with a reason, so she told her dearest friend that Ernestine Dering had had a foolish little love affair, and broken her heart over it; and before twenty-four hours, the whole of Canfield had heard from, or told their dearest friend, the same thing; while Mrs. Dane, and a few other sensible ladies, were indignantly denying it, with what success, persons who deny rash stories, can guess.
"I declare," cried Kat one day in desperation, "I can't bear to go up stairs. I just dream about how sad she looks, and I can't keep from crying just to think that she really isn't our sister any more than—than Susie Darrow or any of the other girls. Oh, Kittie, just suppose we were ever to find out that we were not sisters, or belonged to somebody else, or something dreadful!"
Kittie gave a long, expressive shiver, and hugged her "fac-simile" by way of satisfaction, for such a dreadful thought.
"How often we have wondered where she got her lovely hair and eyes," she said slowly. "And how many times we fretted because mama watched her so, and seemed to humor her, where she never did us. I expect we have made mama unhappy lots of times by acting jealous that way."
"Like as not," answered Kat remorsefully. "It's all dreadful, every bit of it. I'd give worlds if it had never happened."
They all tried, by every way in their power, to win Ernestine back to something of her old self; but it seemed impossible. She spent hours and hours by herself, just sitting with her hands folded, looking out of the window with no sign of life or interest in her colorless face, and rarely speaking. Just brooding, brooding, and nursing her grief, until the doctor said she must go away, take a complete change, and then she would come back herself again. He accepted the lover-story, as indeed, most every one did, for surely the general behavior and symptoms were much the same, and then, besides, what could the reason be if it wasn't that?
Ernestine was perfectly indifferent about a visit anywhere. She was selfish in her grief, as in everything else, and took no interest in all their plans for her, expressing no satisfaction at the decision that Bea should go with her, and saying that she did not care when or where they went.
One afternoon, Kittie went up stairs and found her writing something and crying bitterly over it. She so seldom cried, that Kittie was alarmed, but Ernestine said it was only because she was nervous; then put her writing away, and took her old, listless attitude in the chair by the window.
That night Olive heard something; she was sure that she did, and started up in bed for a moment to listen, but everything was perfectly still, so in a moment she lay down again, but could not get to sleep until long after the whistle had blown for the midnight train that went through to the city.
Next morning Ernestine did not come to breakfast, but it was nothing unusual, so Kittie fixed a tempting waiter and took it up stairs.
In a few minutes she called "mama," in a frightened way, and Mrs. Dering instantly sprang up, followed by the girls, and ran up stairs.
Since her sickness, Ernestine had slept alone, and Bea had gone over with Olive; so now, as they hurried in, they saw her untumbled bed, with just the slight pressure made where she had lain down, as though gone to bed for the night; everything else was unchanged. Mrs. Dering sank trembling into a chair, and pointed to a paper lying on the table. Olive reached it, and read aloud in a frightened, awe-struck voice:
"I'm going away; I can't stay, and oh please don't look for me; for I could not come back. It seems as though my heart was broken, and it nearly made me crazy to think that I was all alone in the world, except a wicked, cruel father. Oh, I never knew how much I loved you all, until I found that I was nothing—neither daughter nor sister. I have taken the twenty dollars in gold, and fifteen dollars that I saved from my teaching, and I will go some where and work for my living. I know it will grieve you, and that is all that has kept me from going before; but I could not stand it any longer; something made me go. Oh, please forgive me, and do not look for me. I love you all so much, and it nearly broke my heart to look at the girls, and think they were all sisters, and you their own mama, while I was nothing. Don't grieve for me, please, but do love me.
A YEAR LATER.
Kathleen was sitting in the swing, and idly pushing a hole in the saw dust, with the toe of her shoe; while Katherine sat on a log hemming a handkerchief, a red rose stuck in her hair, and much thoughtfulness in her face.
"I think it's too horrible to think about," said the former, suddenly, and with a vinegary aspect of countenance.
"He may be nice," returned the latter, consolingly, though with much evident distaste to the fact.
"Who cares, and then besides, I bet he isn't."
"You mustn't bet."
"I will. You may be nice, and proper, and so awfully prim, if you want to, but I sha'n't."
"You're nearly fifteen."
"Suppose I am. Besides I'm not; it's three months yet."
"Well," said Kittie, after a pause, and turning a corner in her handkerchief with great nicety, "I suppose since it's settled, that he will be here in a few days. Bea has fixed his room so pretty."
"Pooh! I bet he'll never notice it, and he'll be an everlasting bother, and we'll never have any more fun; and I'm going to tell him the minute he gets here, that I hate him; and I hope that'll make him happy and want to stay," exclaimed Kat vehemently.
"Besides," continued Kittie, as placidly as though nothing was disturbing the serenity of her sister, "you see, my dear, how it will help mama."
Any remark of a like character, would, at any time, reduce the girls from the most active rebellion to passive acquiescence; and Kat immediately lost her ferocious determination and looked reflective, as she recalled the dear face they loved, with its pale patient sweetness, and the gray hair that had all come into the brown locks within the last year, since Ernestine went away.
"Well," she said in a moment, and beginning to swing, "I suppose it's all right, but I wish he wasn't so old. Twenty! my goodness! He'll be forever lecturing us and reading solemn books, because I know he's solemn; sick people always are, and everything will have to be poky and still to suit him, and I think it's abominable!"
"Exactly," answered Kittie, with a nod of agreement. "But Kat, there's one splendid big thing to offset all those little horrid ones; why don't you think of that?"
"Well, I do, and I'm most tickled to death, that mama won't have to teach any more; poor, dear, blessed mama, she's most tired and worried to death;" and Kat's face grew very tender as she swung and thought over it all.
"Oh Kat!" cried Kittie, with a sudden vehemence, though the question that hung on her lips had been asked countless times in the past year, "Where do you suppose Ernestine is?"
Kat stopped the swing, and faced her sister with a sudden decision.
"I think," she said slowly, "Kittie, I think she's—dead!"
"Oh no! you don't surely! She can't be!" cried Kittie in terror; for no one had ever hazarded that cruel belief before. "Our Ernestine dead! I couldn't believe it, and I think it would kill mama, if she thought we would never find her again."
"But I can't help but feel so," said Kat sadly. "Just think of her getting into New York in the night, and not knowing anything where to go. I just know something dreadful happened, because we never can find one thing about her after she got there."
"But I don't believe she's dead!" exclaimed Kittie firmly. "I wouldn't believe it if I wanted to; and I think some time, or somehow, we will find her, or she will come back to us."
"Well I hope so I'm sure, for it will never seem right without her," said Kat. "Seems to me, we all lived so happy, with no troubles of any kind, until all of a sudden, then everything happens all at once. Home has never seemed the same since papa died."
"When you look back and think how things have changed, don't it seem strange," said Kittie, dropping her sewing and looking pensively off at the wood-pile. "It seems so funny, to think that Miss Howard is married, and that people live in the little old school-house.
"Didn't we used to have fun there?"
"Yes, we did, and we're getting old dreadful fast," said Kat, ruefully.
"I can't imagine anything more dreadful than getting to be young ladies, and having to wear long dresses, and done-up hair, and always be polite and proper. I think it's horrible to be nearly fifteen!"
Kittie loved fun as much as Kat, but she was not quite so frolicsome in her tastes, nor so averse to a graceful train, or a lady-like structure of hair. In fact, she had many ideas of ideal young-ladyhood that would have amazed and dismayed her twin, had they been known. Any one who knew them well was no longer at a loss to know which was which, for while in childhood they had been too similar to ever be distinguished, the coming years brought different ideas to each, and left their print in looks and manner. Kat was wildly rebellious at the thought of growing up; she wanted to remain in the blissful days of short hair and dresses, when she could race with anybody, jump a fence, climb trees, and in every way be as boyish as she could, to pay up for being a girl. Consequently she always had a fly-away, unsettled look about her, rebelled at the lengthened dresses, insisted on wearing her hair in a flying braid, wouldn't be induced to cultivate ease and grace, and altogether was as wild and unconquerable on the threshold of fifteen as she had been in the freedom of twelve. Kittie, on the contrary, had a decided love for grace, and the ease of a cultivated young lady. She did her hair up in various and complicated fashions, occasionally practiced with a train, and had learned to bow with the latest grace and twist. She remembered Ernestine's little graceful ways, and profited by the remembrance, thereby driving Kat to the verge of desperation, by giving frequent lectures on the necessity of sitting still gracefully, and walking without a skip or jump every third step. With all their little growing differences, they were just as devoted and inseparable as ever. Kittie would sit and sew with a lady-like air, and a posy in her belt, while Kat would lounge in the window-seat, and read aloud, or amuse them with nonsense; or, if they went out on the pond, Kittie would wear her gloves and ply her oar with an eye to grace, while Kat would, perhaps, be encased in a sun-bonnet, or be bareheaded and row as if on a contract to outdo the champion club in existence. In their work was the same little mark of distinction, and so now-a-days it was very easy to tell which was Kittie and which was Kat.
It was just a year since Ernestine had gone, and such a long, sad, hopeless year! Not a clue or trace of any kind could they find except that she had gone to New York. The Canfield ticket agent had had his suspicions when a lady had bought a ticket and gone on the midnight train; but it was none of his business, to be sure; so she had gone on her way unmolested, and farther than that, they knew nothing. Where she went on reaching the city, no one knew, though no mode of search had been left untried, and no expense spared, either by Mrs. Dering, or the relatives and friends who so heartily sympathized in her heart-broken search. There was nothing, from himself to the last dollar he possessed, that Mr. Congreve did not offer; and Jean sent a tear-stained note with a crisp ten dollars—all she had, and saying: "Mama, please spend it to find Ernestine; and I ask God every few minutes, if He won't please let us have her again."
But it had all been in vain. In the long days when Ernestine had sat and thought and grieved, she must have matured her plans well, or else she had gone blindly forth, on the wild impulse of despair, and been swallowed in the black wickedness of the great city, into which she went. It was a ceaseless question in the anxious hearts of those who loved her, but there never came any answer; and the days and weeks dragged into months until the year had rolled around, and they had heard nothing. The name of the lost became more precious than ever, and many things she had left behind, that all spoke so eloquently of her, they treasured as priceless, and wet them with many a sad tear, while heart and lips pleaded for the return of the dear one. The year of anxiety had told on Mrs. Dering, for the soft brown hair was thickly lined with grey, and there was a never-dying look of prayerful anxiety in her face, as though in some way, her life-work had been remiss and the fault of this one, gone astray, lay at her door. Still she never once gave up hope that at some time God would return this dear one to her, though it required constant prayer to strengthen the faith that trembled on the threshold of this affliction.
Under the strain of mental and physical work, her health was slowly giving way, and for many weeks there had been the anxious question, "what can be done to relieve mama?" and there had been no way discovered, for money was low, and each one already doing her utmost; so Mrs. Dering held her position at the seminary, and was obliged to content herself with one visit home a week, and sometimes not even that, for the hack drive was so fatiguing, and besides, it cost fifty cents every time.
Well, after all, God never fails to give us something to cheer our flagging steps, never fails to know when a burdened child is falling with its load, and never fails to take the hand outstretched to Him, and help that child along!
In the midst of an anxious controversy one evening, when Mrs. Dering had just arrived home, and was lying exhausted on the lounge; Olive came in from the store and brought a letter with the Boston post mark; it proved to be from Mr. Dering's cousin, a wealthy widow, with an only son whose health was failing, and for whom the doctor prescribed a summer's rest, and relief from study. She had once visited the Dering home, and said she knew of no one, to whom she would so willingly trust her boy, in his delicate health, as to Robert's wife. The price named for his board was lavishly liberal, and filled the long felt want, for it would more than admit of mother's being free and at home to rest, and regain her own health and strength.
So this was what Kat, viewing matters from a personal standpoint, thought was "horrible," and what Kittie tried to reconcile her to by reviewing the good things that would result from it. Bea was to room with Olive, and the sunny front room was fixed for the coming invalid, and it is a pity that all the knick-knacks arranged by the girls could not have retained all the curious conjectures uttered in their hearing, as to what the coming cousin was apt to be like, and repeated them to that same person.
He came one evening, a tall pale youth, with very black eyes, quiet gentlemanly manners, and a faint suspicion of a mustache, and Kat instantly declared that she didn't like him.
"I told you he'd be solemn, and look like a preacher. I bet he's got consumption too, and I suppose he'll call me Kathleen and ask me if I'm prepared to die?" she exclaimed, after they had met him and he had gone to his room.
"I think he's very polite and nice," said Bea.
"He looks very intelligent," added Olive, with a pleasing idea in her mind, of having some one with whom she could discuss her books, and study Latin.
"Some fun in him I know," laughed Kittie. "And what nice manners he has, and black eyes, I wonder if he appreciates them?"
"Poor fellow, just hear him cough," exclaimed Bea in sympathy. "Girls, what have you nice for supper?"
"Slap-jacks," answered Kat grimly. "I hope he'll enjoy them."
"O Kat, you surely have something else besides cakes," cried Bea in dismay. "It'll never do, he's used to everything nice."
"Suppose he is, we're not, and he mustn't expect it here."
"Dear me," explained Bea, starting for the kitchen; but Kittie interrupted her, with the consoling remark:
"It's all right, I made a nice pudding with sugar sauce, and there is cold meat and hot biscuit, that's enough, mama said so."
"I bet you he'll sit and mope in his room, and cry for his mama, dear little boy, I'll give him a sugar horn," laughed Kat, then caught her breath suddenly, and flushed scarlet, for there in the door stood the new cousin, also rather flushed, but with his eyes twinkling, and his arms full of things.
"Thank you, Cousin Kathleen," he said gravely; "I really hadn't thought of crying, but your promise is tempting, I'll begin in a few moments. In the meantime, here are some messages that mother sent with her love. She selected for each, as she remembered you, and I hope that none of you have so changed in tastes, that these little things will be out of keeping."
His genial tone, and winning smile were very taking, and made every one feel acquainted at once, so Bea pushed an easy chair forward, saying with a smile:
"We'll try hard to be grateful, Cousin Ralph. Come, take this easy chair and deliver your messages, you see we're anxious."
He did so, holding up a splendid copy of Dante.
"For Olive, whom mother remembers as a studious book-loving little girl, and hoped she would enjoy this grand work."
"I shall indeed," cried Olive joyfully. "How kind your mother is."
"She is indeed," answered Ralph. "And very dear to me, I assure you."
"This for Beatrice," he added, holding up a stout package; "I assure you, the interior is more attractive than the exterior," he said with a laugh; and so Bea found it, for there was a box of kid gloves, a dozen beautiful handkerchiefs, with her monogram worked in the corner, and a beautiful set of jet jewelry.
Bea was in ecstasies, and put on her ornaments at once, while Ralph next unfastened two boxes exactly alike and handed them, with their contents exposed, to their owners.
"For Kittie," he said, "and Kathleen."
Kittie gave a little scream of delight, but Kat simply made a bow, and said "Thanks," with the grace of a ramrod, and shut her box with a snap. They were two beautiful chains and lockets, of ebony and gold, with the letters "K. D." in raised letters on the lockets, and a picture of the giver within. Ralph took no notice of Kat's reception of the gift, but complimented Kittie as she put hers on, and then asked for Mrs. Dering.
Her gift was a dress of heavy black silk, with everything necessary to its make-up, and yards and yards of beautiful lace and fringe for its trimming. Oh, how happy the girls were over that, and how splendid it would seem to see mama once more in an elegant dress, such as she used to wear.
For Ernestine, were elegantly bound copies of the old composers, and for Jeanie an exquisite little pearl ring. The one of these, Mrs. Dering laid away with tears, and a silent prayer, such as came from her heart every hour of the day for the absent one; the other, she sent with a long, loving letter to the little girl in Virginia, and thought, with a grateful heart, that the bitterest sorrows have a drop of joy somewhere, for the doctors had said that Jeanie could be cured.
In just a little while, it seemed as though Ralph had been with them always, such a comfort as he was to all, and such a genial, jovial companion as he became on all occasions. Mrs. Dering, or Aunt Elizabeth, he very soon lifted to the niche of affection next to his mother's; and she, in turn, loved him as an own son, and in his ambitious moments, gave him long earnest talks, wherein she drew his unremembered Uncle Robert, as an example of truth, manhood and honor, such as she hoped to see him follow.
For Bea, who now revelled in all the bliss of being a young lady nearly eighteen, he exerted all his most courtly politeness and gallant manners, and she wondered how she had ever gotten on without him before.
To Olive, he was confidential, and finally won her to the same state. They studied, read and discussed, disagreed and argued, but he was always so polite, and ready to gracefully yield when a contested point could not be settled, that Olive grew ashamed of her more abrupt manners and hasty speech, and so the intimacy helped her in more ways than one. He confided to her all his ambitious plans of being a great lawyer, and his impatience at having to drop his studies for so many months. She, in turn, confided to him her longing for artistic study, and made him ashamed by the patience with which she had laid aside her cherished plans, and given all her time to the work which necessity demanded. So their friendship prospered.
To Kittie, he was invaluable, and a more devoted brother and sister surely never lived. They boated, walked, sang, played and, in short, were almost constantly together. He was quick to discover the girlish longing to be graceful, refined and accomplished, and he helped her much, both as an example of polished, polite manners, and by rehearsing for her many of the accomplishments and graces of ladies of his acquaintance. And many times had he said to her in their little chats: "You have a constant example before you, Kittie, in your mother. She is so refined, and such a true, noble woman, I would love to see you like her."
To Kat, he was nothing, unless it was a stumbling block in the way of her happiness. She didn't like him, and was furiously jealous of the flourishing friendship between him and Kittie. He had not been solemn and poky, as she had prophesied, and the fact nettled her. She never could make him angry, though she left no way untried, and that was exasperating. He was always catching her at a disadvantage, and what she thought was anger at the fact, was, in truth, wounded pride. She was as rude as she dared be, and never lost an opportunity to sharp-shoot; and while he realized the impoliteness of a return shot, the temptation was too great to resist; so they had some lively skirmishes, in all good humor on his side, but in lively anger on hers.
He came out on the porch one day, and found her sitting on the steps, with her hat tilted over her eyes, and a generally woe-begone look in her whole attitude; and they had just had a wordy battle out at the pond.
"Why, Kathleen," he exclaimed, in mock penitence, "is it possible? Why, I never meant to hurt your feelings. I didn't suppose they could be hurt."
"No; they can't, by you," retorted Kat, knocking off her hat, and showing her eyes scornfully bright and dry. "Whenever you speak, I consider the source, and it never amounts to much."
"Is it possible?" he exclaimed, laughing. "When I speak to you, you are the source of every inspiring word."
"Then I am heartily ashamed of myself."
"I don't wonder; I'm often ashamed of you."
"You're hideous," cried Kat, fiercely. "I wonder if you have the ghost of an idea how horrible you are, Ralph Tremayne?"
"No, indeed, I never found any one impolite enough to tell me; but you will, I'm sure."
"Don't judge my politeness by your own!"
"I can't for you have none," he rejoined coolly.
Kat could have slapped him with a relish, and like as not, if he had been nearer her own age she would have tried it. As it was, she looked into his laughing eyes and knew that she was angry, and he was not, therefore he would win, for a cool head can think a great deal faster than a hot one; so she turned on her heel with a contemptuous spin, and left him.
That afternoon she heard Ralph and Kittie planning a walk to the woods next day, and her jealous heart ached and burned fiercely. How despicable he was to take all of Kittie's time, and make himself such a paragon in her eyes, that she could talk of no one else. Kat shook her head in dire vengeance, and might have cried if she hadn't been too proud. But just then Kittie said:
"I don't know, Ralph, whether I can go or not; I have some sewing that I ought to do; you remember how I tore my dress the last time we went boating? well, I ought to darn it, you see."
"No, I don't happen to see, unless you take it out in the woods and mend it, while I make you a crown and put it on your head as queen of industrious girls. Violets would be very becoming to your brown hair and winsome face."
"What nonsense!" muttered Kat, in disgust, while all the time her heart ached. "Wouldn't it be a joke if he was saying all those things to me instead of Kittie, and didn't know the difference. He wouldn't think I had a winsome face if I was the last girl alive, and yet I'm the moral image of Kittie."
"Perhaps I can find time to darn my dress this afternoon, and if I do, then I'll go to-morrow," Kittie was saying, and then in a few moments Ralph went away. The moment he was gone Kat came around into the arbor, and threw herself on the grass.
"Now then, Kittie."
"Well, my dear."
"I would just like to know a thing or two?"
"What, for instance?"
"Who are you going with to-morrow? That abomination wants you to go with him, and I've set my heart on having you go with me down town. You haven't been with me, since the dear knows when, and upon my word, I feel real bad."
"I'll mend my dress now, go with Ralph in the morning, and you in the afternoon," smiled Kittie sweetly.
"No you don't," cried Kat, sitting up. "I'd like to have you to myself for one day, at least. If he can get you from me so much in six weeks, by the end of summer you'll be beyond speaking to me."
"Oh, Kat," cried Kittie reproachfully. "How can you?"
"Well, will you go with me to-morrow?"
"I'll darn your old dress right now. Will you?"
"I don't believe you care half as much for me to go, as you do to spite Ralph," said Kittie thoughtfully, and to Kat's amazement she suddenly realized that this was so, not but what she really wanted Kittie, but the predominant desire was to spite Ralph, and she was bound to do it now, so she ran off for the dress, brought it back, and darned it immaculately, whereupon Kittie felt that the thing was settled.
Kat was jubilant all the evening, and seized the first opportunity of announcing the change in the programme. Shortly after they came into the sitting-room, Ralph asked:
"Is the dress darned, Kittie?"
"Yes, it is, and I darned it, and Kittie's going down town with me to-morrow," answered Kat glibly.
Ralph lifted his eye-brows with a smile, instantly detecting the little spite-work.
"Why, did I speak to you?"
"Believe not; I spoke to you."
"Suppose you try the novelty of speaking when you're spoken to."
"I generally do; also at any other time that I take a notion. I've done it all my life, and it'll take more than you to stop me."
"Some people talk to hear themselves."
"So I've heard, and I'm quite convinced that no one has a better right to come under that head than yourself."
"Quite true; I'm amazed at your powers of penetration. Perhaps you also observed that I rank only a little ways below my illustrious cousin, Kathleen."
"I'm not your cousin, thank goodness."
"Don't thank anything with which you have so little acquaintance; it's apt to never be appreciated."
"No acquaintance that I have with anything, or any body troubles me as much as the acquaintance that I have with you."
"You have my sympathy, for I'm troubled with the same feeling."
"Do hush," exclaimed Kittie. "It's perfectly awful the way you two do talk. Ralph, come play chess. Kat, I'm astonished."
"I don't wonder; so am I; but I never had such an object to deal with before, so no wonder I do some unusual things," cried Kat, and bounced out of the room to hide the tears that would come; for Kittie's voice was reproof, and she took Ralph's part, and that was altogether too much!
STUDY OR PLAY?
Olive was standing at the window, with a thoughtful face. Any one who remembered seeing her on the porch one evening, a little over two years ago, and recalled her face then, compared to what it was now, would have said in incredulous amaze:
"What a change!"
She was now nearly seventeen, though she looked every day of twenty, both in face and figure. There was such a settled, purposeful look in the face, and so much strength and soul looking out from the eyes, that had been used to scowling fiercely, so much determination expressed in the mouth, that had caught the trick of smiling much more readily than it once had. Nor was this all of the change either; she had come to realize that care in personal attire, and a study of pleasing others, could frame the most unattractive in attractive guise, and indeed, they had done their work for her. Instead of wearing the very things that she knew did not harmonize with her peculiar dark complexion, she studied what was becoming. Her hair, which was luxuriously long and heavy, she wore in such a manner as to soften the severe outline to head and face, and waved it deeply in front, so that curly tendrils of hair lessened the height of her too-high brow, and gave a more girlish look to the thoughtful face. In short, the Olive of two years ago was not much like the Olive of to-day, and in what her character had changed, I leave you to find out for yourself.
She stood there, looking out, and something pleasing, evidently, caught her eye, for it brightened suddenly, then in a moment a look of regret chased the smile from her face.
"What is it, dear?" inquired Mrs. Dering.
"The faces of my girls are so dear to me, that I can read them quickly. Something pleased you, then brought an after-thought that was sad. What was it?"
"Nothing. I only saw Bea coming with Dr. Barnett."
"Ah!" The same smile, followed by a look of regret and a little sigh crossed Mrs. Dering's face, and she sewed a little faster than before, as if her thoughts were suddenly quickened by something. Dr. Walter Barnett had come to Canfield within the past year, rented a modest little office, hung out a neat, pretty sign to indicate that all persons afflicted with any of the ills to which flesh is heir, would always find him ready and anxious to do his best; and after a patient, hopeful struggle, he had now settled in a flourishing practise; for he was courteous and gentle, ready and willing, and always inspired the children with a liking, which old Dr. Potts, with his blue glasses and loud voice, could never do. Dr. Walter also taught the bible-class, and won the flinty hearts of the congregation, and the susceptible ones of the young ladies. He also frequently walked home with Beatrice Dering, and had fallen into the way of occasionally stopping in the evenings, if he happened to be passing and saw them in the yard. The old house, with its shady porches, clambering vines, and sheltering trees, made him think of his own home he said, and then Mrs. Dering, with her sweet, motherly ways, and surrounded by such lovely attractions, seemed to charm him; and Ralph Tremayne possessed a wonderful influence over him some way, which served to bring him there more frequently than he could have found an excuse for coming, if that young gentleman had not formed a part of the household.