"I believe you're glad to go," Kittie would say to him when he would often be telling of what he was going to work for and accomplish. "You'll go back to Boston, and study, and make yourself a great lawyer, and you'll see such elegant ladies in society there, that you will forget all about this little country town, and these little country girls."
"Kittie," Ralph would exclaim in return, as though this little doubt of his faithfulness hurt him, "you know you don't mean it, and if you knew what this summer has been to me, you never would say so."
"Why don't you tell us, then?" asked Kat, who happened to overhear this remark one day.
"Perhaps I will some time, if I find that you are glad to see me when I come back," answered Ralph with a mysterious smile.
"Can you ever doubt that?" asked Bea. "After the blessing and comfort that you have been to us all? I don't know what we ever will do without you, Ralph; it will be so lonesome."
"Why, you ought not to care," said Ralph with a laugh, and touching the hand that wore the gold ring, with a significant gesture. "My place was taken long ago in your fickle heart, mademoiselle."
It did not really seem as though they were going to lose him until September came, and the days crept around, till the one came when a trunk stood packed in the hall, the front room up stairs looked forsaken, and Ralph was really going next morning.
Right after dinner, Kat took her book and went off to the farthest corner of the back-yard, where a gigantic apple-tree stood, with a magnificent seat of curled branches up in its centre, into which, Kat found her way, with some speedy climbing, and then sat down and looked thoughtfully at nothing for nearly half an hour. Yes, she did look very thoughtful, and after a while, she opened her book, but did not read much, for something kept coming between her and the leaves, and two or three times she might have been seen to slide her hand across her eyes, and wink pretty fast, which plainly indicated that something must be the matter. She never could have told afterwards what made her stay there all the afternoon, but stay she did, and never came down until the sun had commenced to throw slanting shadows across the grass. On the way up to the house, she walked slowly, and appeared to be holding some internal communion or argument with herself, and was seen to shake herself rather fiercely before she went in.
"Well, where in the world have you been?" was the remark that greeted her, as she appeared in the sitting-room door; and the speaker was Bea, who turned from the window with wet eyes.
"Been? Up in the big tree out below the pond."
"Why I thought you had gone up town," exclaimed Kittie, who was crying on the piano-stool, like one bereft. "Ralph's gone."
"Gone!" echoed Kat, slowly.
"Yes, gone," repeated Bea. "He found that he could make connections right through by taking this afternoon's train, and he raced all around town an hour before train-time, to find you. Kittie said you were going after dinner."
"Yes, but I changed my mind," said Kat slowly, then turned and went out. Gone, and with no good-bye to her! She wondered a little to see how much the thought hurt her. Ralph's old straw hat, with its broad band of blue ribbon, just as he used to wear it around the yard, hung on the rack. She took it down with a queer little feeling in her throat, and slapped it on to her head, then went out into the yard again.
AT THE OPERA.
The sun came warmly in at the great west window of the picture gallery, and showed Olive sitting before a tall frame, and working busily at the sketch that lay in her lap. Very near to her lay Jean, on a luxurious little divan, with an open book in her hands, from which she read a little now and then, and watching her sister in the meantime. It was very still, for when Olive was at work she was always too absorbed to think of aught else, and objected to being talked to, so the deep silence lay unbroken, and Jean satisfied herself with being allowed to watch to her heart's content.
At last Olive raised her head with a sigh, partly of fatigue, and partly of blissful content, and after taking a professional squint at her subject and her copy, passed it over to Jean with the remark:
"There, how do you like that, Jean? Does his nose look right?"
"Just beautiful!" cried Jean with enthusiasm. "How splendidly you do it, Olive. He looks as if he was going to speak. It must be so nice to be an artist; you'll be a great one, some day, won't you?"
"I want to be," answered Olive, who had lately learned that nothing so threw Jean into raptures, as to be appealed to, and confided in. "After I learn to draw heads just as nicely as possible, I am going to sketch yours and Ernestine's for mama."
"Are you really?" exclaimed Jean in delight, "and like that one?"
"Yes, like this," said Olive, looking at her sketch, which was a copy of a magnificent head of Demosthenes, cast in bas-relief against black velvet. "Don't you think she will like it?"
"Oh, she'll just be too happy!" cried Jean, slipping from her lounge, and limping over to Olive with her cane. "I want to talk a little while now, will you, Olive?"
The young artist cast a hasty regretful look at her drawing, and was on the point of putting off the little talk, for her fingers fairly trembled to go on with her work, and catch with her pencil the peculiar life-like expression about the mouth of the great orator; but the temptation was thrust aside, and the next moment, Jean was sitting in her lap, with the contented air of one who expects no rebuffs or unreturned caresses.
"I've been watching you so long," she began, touching with loving fingers, the long, heavy braid of beautiful hair, that had fallen over Olive's shoulder, "and I just wanted to tell you how different you look from the way you used to, you know."
"Yes," answered Olive, who had grown used to these loving bursts of admiration from the observing little girl.
"I used to think," continued Jean, "that you was the most unhappy girl I ever saw, and it made me feel so sorry, 'cause I thought it must be somebody's fault, and then I wanted to kiss you, or something, but you always looked so, I didn't know whether you'd like it or not, and so I never did."
"But I would have been glad," said Olive, who could remember very well the many times she had frozen the little girl's loving advances.
"I'll tell you why I was so unhappy, Jeanie; I thought no body loved me, and that I was in the way."
"Why, Olive! Olive!" cried Jean in greatest amaze. "How could you think so; who made you?"
"I made myself," said Olive. "I was so cross, that I made you all stay away from me, and then I thought it was because no one cared for me, because I was so ugly."
"You wasn't pretty then," was Jean's honest remark. "But you are now, really, and so splendid looking some way. You haven't got rosy cheeks like Miss Foster, nor yellow hair like Ernestine, but somehow I love to look at you, and so does Cousin Roger, 'cause sometimes when you are drawing, he just looks right straight at you all the whole time."
"Does he?" laughed Olive, and then revealed the utter want of romance in her nature, by never giving the complimentary fact another thought. "I'll tell you something, Jean, if you'll not repeat it."
"Oh, no, Olive, never!"
"Well, I'm drawing Cousin Roger's head."
"You are, and he don't know it?"
"No, I take good looks when he don't see, then go and draw awhile; it's good practise, and he has such a strong, clear face, and splendidly shaped head, that I have to work hard to make my picture good, and I find it is helping me a great deal," said Olive, with never a thought of doing a thing that might be termed romantic.
"How nice, and may I see it?"
"Yes, when it is done."
"And may I see it?" inquired a new voice, that made them both start and turn, to see Roger Congreve coming down the gallery.
"Did you hear?" asked Olive, looking a little vexed; and Jean opened her mouth to say something, then shut it in a hurry.
"No, I didn't except the last two sentences; but from the way you both look, I think it must be something that I ought to hear," answered the gentleman, sitting down on Jean's divan with a laugh.
"Tell him," whispered Jean, and as Olive looked up, and saw his head with gleams of sunshine falling across it, she realized the advantage of having it to look at steadily, and how grand his forehead was.
"Yes, I'd just as soon tell you as not," she said frankly. "I've been taking a sketch of your head."
"Have you indeed," he exclaimed, with a sudden light in his face that Olive could not understand, if indeed, she thought anything about it.
"Yes, it makes a splendid study, but I haven't made much progress, because I've had so few chances."
"Why did you do it on the sly?" he asked, hoping to detect a little confusion in her answer, such as might indicate a little deeper interest than the mere study; but not a bit of it; she answered readily enough:
"I thought you might consider it a bore to sit still, doing nothing, just for the sake of being copied, so I never said anything about it, but studied by piece-meal."
"On the contrary, believe me, nothing would be greater bliss than to sit still doing nothing, by the hour, for the sake of being copied—by you," said Roger with an unmistakable accent.
"It is very kind of you, I am sure," replied Olive, on whom all such things were thrown away; as indeed he had found out long ago, being a little nettled at the discovery. Not that he was given such, to any extreme, but then he was a society man, born and bred, with all of society's pleasing little airs, which might have made him a society fool, if he had not also possessed too much manhood and good common sense. Between his handsome self, and it being known that he was "old Congreve's heir," it's a never ending wonder that he wasn't spoiled; but he had kept clear headed, and also clear hearted so far, and had come to find out that there were but few women who were not susceptible to flattery, and who would not drop into a harmless flirtation with little invitation. Therefore, when Olive came, and never seemed to regard him as any extraordinary being, he decided to make her; so after trying indifference, equal to her own awhile, he was somewhat amazed to find that his was feigned, and hers was too genuine to be complimentary; after which he tried the attentive, which rarely fails to bring a girl around, and was astonished beyond measure, to find that it was in vain. To be sure, Olive accepted his flowers, sometimes wearing a bud or two in her hair, and seemed to think it very kind in him to remember her in that way. And she went riding day after day with him, with the most hearty enjoyment, for did she not see the most magnificent scenery from the mountain roads, round which they cantered in the lovely days? And they frequently spent evenings together, when at her request he would read aloud from books she might name, and then they would discuss them, when he would find that hers was no ordinary school-girlish mind, that could be bent according to another's ideas. And so, at last, he came to feel a genuine desire to win some feeling from her, since she was rousing so much in him; but the genuine desire seemed as vain as the former idle one, for while Olive undoubtedly enjoyed his society, since he assisted her in discovering the best sketching points, and was an able conversationalist in what he had read and seen; there was nothing beyond it, and she would have enjoyed the same, just as well, in any one else. Most any girl but Olive, would have come to understand and appreciate, the evident preference he at last professed for her society, above that of the Staunton belles; and most any girl would have been flattered by the attentions which now bore sincerity in their face; but to Olive they seemed only courtesies paid to her as a guest, for which she was grateful, and gave no extra thought. She was wrapped too deeply in her art to have any thought of lovers, besides she was not at all romantic; all her cravings for affection were satisfied in the home circle, and the deeper fountains of her heart, that, once reached, would be a well-spring of deathless unchanged devotion, lay deeply buried now. So it was that Roger Congreve had met the first woman whom he could not attract in some way, who won from him the strongest feelings, and gave him nothing in return but polite friendliness; and that she should be nothing but a seventeen year old girl, was something rather humiliating. When the study on the head began, as it did the next day, it was both a pleasure and almost a pain to him to feel that he might as well have been a piece of statuary as for all the attention she gave him, aside from the long careful looks her thoughtful eyes bestowed on some particular curve to his nose, or expression about his mouth. But then it gave him plenty of time to study the quiet face, with its clear colorlessness, the lowered eyelids with curling lashes, the nose, that was purely aristocratic in its fine outline, and the wavy sweep of brown hair from the high, white brow. The study was always a pleasure to him, and made ten times stronger his resolve to win some feeling and expression thereof from her.
"Are you sleepy?" Olive asked once, when he had fallen into a reverie, and was regarding her with eyes dreamily tender. "I'm ready for your eyes now, and that expression will never do. I've put your head and face in an expression of strong defiance, and those eyes would ruin it. Look real angry for a minute, and let me catch the expression!—no, not that way, it's too fierce; but just steady and earnest, as though you were determined to do something, whether or no."
"Very well; look at me now," he said, turning his eyes on her with a flash of determination, such as set her pencil to work in a hurry. "I want to tell you that I have made up my mind to do a certain thing, which I will tell you about when accomplished."
She was too busy replacing that look on paper to heed the gracious promise; and he had the questionable pleasure of knowing that he was entirely forgotten for the next few minutes, save in the capacity of a model, and that thought accomplished what Olive wanted, for it kept that look of roused defiance in his eyes.
Occasionally old Mr. Congreve would come into the gallery and take a look at the work, on which he would pass some characteristic comment, and then depart, taking Jean with him, and saying to her with a chuckle, that sounded like intense satisfaction:
"Come along with me, Jeanie, and let's leave the young folks alone with their drawing. I guess they can manage it better alone;" and Jean would go regretfully, and with an innocent wondering how her staying would make any difference.
One evening, towards the latter part of September, Roger came up from the city, and meeting Olive on the lawn, drew two tickets from his pocket, and threw them into her lap.
"There! The first opera of the season, and pretty early for that, too! but I hear they are rather good, and they give 'Bohemian Girl' to-night, so I bought tickets. Shall we go?"
"Yes, it was kind of you. I would like to hear it very much," answered Olive with a pleased smile. "Do you know, I never heard an opera in my life."
"Is it possible?" in intense surprise. "Why, we will go every night they are here, if you say so."
"Oh, no," with an air of reproof. "That would be very nice, but too extravagant. I know money is nothing to you, but then it wouldn't seem right to spend so much for mere pleasure when there are so many poor."
He looked at her in surprise for a moment, but was too modest to tell that he gave twice as much to worthy poor as he ever gave to personal pleasure; so the subject dropped, and they were silent until Olive asked, with a sudden recollection of how she had frequently heard him describe ladies' toilets:
"Do they—I will have to ask you because there is no one else—but do the ladies dress much at opera, here?"
"Just as they please. It is not so popular as formerly. Street dress is mostly worn now."
"Well, I don't know as it makes any difference, for I've got just so much to dress in, and would have to wear it anyhow," said Olive, with a composed laugh, which indicated how little she cared for what was popular aside from a polite desire to be becomingly attired in the eyes of her escort.
"Will you wear some flowers if I will send them up to you?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Why do you always thank me for every little thing as if we were perfect strangers?" he exclaimed, with a little impatience, and a sort of vague feeling that if she realized or cared for the devotion accompanying the acts, she would accept them more as a matter of course.
"Why should I not thank you?" with an air of surprise. "Is it any reason that I should not be polite since we are well acquainted?"
"No, to be sure not," with a slight laugh; "but, then—what flowers do you prefer?"
"Make your own selection."
"I shall choose white then. Are you going in?"
"Yes; this is Jean's day to go to the doctor's, and I promised to go with her," and with a little nod, she walked off and left him where he had thrown himself on the grass at her feet.
That night, many a glass was turned towards their box for Roger Congreve was too eligible not to be a perfect magnet of interest, and any lady that he might choose to show a slight preference for, became, at once, a target for glances and comments; so, for a while, Olive was conscious of a dazzling battery of eyes and glasses; but Roger noticed, with some wonder, that the fact did not seem to disturb her more than as though it had been the commonest occurrence in her life. She looked exceedingly well to-night, dressed entirely in black, with lillies-of-the-valley in her hair, and fastened in the lace at her throat, while the pleasing excitement brought a bright flash into her eyes, and more color than usual into the lips that clearly showed their curved outline.
The evening's amusement began, and progressed pleasurably through the first act, to which Olive listened attentively, saying with a little sigh of regret when the curtain fell:
"How lovely it all is! Ernestine always wanted to go on the stage! It must be delightful if one can?"
"Delightful, possibly; but a life of drudgery until one has worked to the top, and even then, there are hardships," Roger answered, noting how a look of sadness chased the gay smile from her lips when she spoke of the absent sister. Somehow, the place seemed replete with memories of Ernestine; the music which she had often played, the glitter of wealth and fashion that she always loved and longed for, the very atmosphere of gayety and excitement, such as she had always craved to draw breath in, seemed to recall her now, as Olive, caring so little for it, sat in its midst, and lost in memory. Roger regretted that any sadness should have obtruded itself, and was relieved to see, that when the curtain rose on the second act, that Olive soon became absorbed in the picturesque gypsy scene and lovely music. The robbery of Florestein was being committed with the usual success of brilliancy, and the gipsies were taking French leave, when the figure of a woman enters, drops her cloak, and—Roger sees no more. He hears a sudden painful gasp at his side, and turns to see Olive, whiter than her lilies, rising from her seat slowly, as if faint.
"Olive," he exclaimed, hastily drawing the curtain between them and the audience, but she put out her hand, and then sank back in her chair, too weak to stand, for the first time in her life:
"Ernestine!" she said, huskily. "It is Ernestine!"
In incredulous amaze, he looked back at the stage, just as the queen was leading Florestein off, and he sees a frail-looking figure heaped in gaudy toggery, that looks as though it would drag her down with its weight; and, above it, is a pale flower-like face, with great dark, weary-looking eyes, and a heavy coronet of yellow hair twisted with tinsel and gauze.
"How can I go to her?" Olive is saying with intense eagerness, and leaving her seat with a new strength. "Tell me quick, for I must go at once—tell me, quick."
"It will do no good," said Roger, laying a detaining hand on her arm. "Listen to me a moment, Olive,"—as she threw it off in wild impatience. "They would not admit us behind the scenes, and besides, do you not see how frail and weak she looks? The shock would unfit her for the rest of the performance and—"
"What do I care for that? She shall leave them at once. I will go to her. I'll go alone, if you will not go with me," cried Olive with glowing eyes and trembling lips, and moving towards the door.
"But she dare not leave, and they would not allow you to see her," said Roger earnestly. "Only wait until the performance is over, and we will be at the stage entrance to meet her as she comes out. It will be best so; believe me, and trust in my interest, that is doubly deep for your sake."
Olive hesitated, but reason conquered, and she came trembling back to her seat, saying in an excited whisper:
"I cannot look at her again; I shall certainly betray myself if I do. Oh, how deathly she looks! I cannot bear it!"
Roger did not doubt her self-control, until the gypsy queen appeared from her tent to disturb the love-scene of Thaddeus and Arline; and then, as Olive started forward and leaned against the box-rail, with parted, colorless lips, he certainly thought the name hovering on them would escape. But it did not. She pressed her hands tightly together and looked down, with such glittering eyes that it is a wonder their intense gaze did not make itself felt, and draw an answering look from the pale, worn queen, who, it was very evident, was making every particle of her strength work, to carry her through her part. Roger noticed, with an excitement almost equal to Olive's, that as she advanced to unite the lovers' hands, that she cleared her throat huskily and grew even yet paler in the tent-lights, and that twice she opened her lips before any sound crossed them. The next moment Olive had sprung to her feet, as with the first words:—
"Hand to hand, and heart to heart—"
The voice ceased, a thin stream of blood crossed the queen's white lips and the curtain was rung down in a hurry, as she fell back into the gypsy's arms and was carried off.
"This way, give me your arm," said Roger, pausing to say nothing else as they left the box and made their way through the dim little hall to the stage door. It was locked, and the most imperative and repeated knocks, failed to bring any response; and pitying the trembling eagerness that made Olive cling to his arm, he turned back, making all possible haste through the auditorium. The greater part of the audience still kept their seats to hear what would follow, but several were leaving, so that their hurrying through was hardly noticed, though neither gave it a thought. Just as they turned into the alley-way, from which the stage entrance led, a hack was seen to drive hurriedly from the door, and Olive's trembling strength almost forsook her, as she gasped out—
"That is she—they are taking her away,—and we do not know where!"
But it only took a moment to find where, to call another hack, help Olive in, to shout: "To the Virginia!" and then to be rattled off, through the darkness, in frantic haste; as cabby realized, from the excited order, that greatest speed was wanted.
Olive spoke no word through that drive, but the moment the hack stopped before the hotel, she sprang from it, and rushed into the house, appealing eagerly to the first one met—
"Where is she—the lady they have just brought in?"
"The actress? Miss Clare? Third floor, but I don't know the number."
Olive turned to see Roger coming in with a tall, kindly faced man, who hurried up stairs, while Roger said to her:
"It is the doctor, we will follow him;" and together they went up, through the dim halls, and climbing the steep stairs, until they saw him enter a door, around which several curious persons stood, and then Roger paused, saying with decision:
"You risk her life if you go in now, when she is in such a condition; the shock might bring on another hemorrhage."
"I will wait," said Olive, beginning to feel the stern necessity of rigid self-control. "But cannot you go in, and ask the doctor how she is, and ask him how long before I can see her?"
"I will try, wait here;" and Olive waited, while he went to the door, and tapped. She saw that he was refused admittance; but that in a few moments the doctor came out, and talked with him, after which they walked down to where she stood.
"Dr. Pierce, Olive; and I have told him a few of the sad facts of the case," was Roger's hurried introduction and explanation.
"And can I see her?" asked Olive, with trembling eagerness.
"I think not, but I am sorry," was the kindly answer. "The hemorrhage was not very severe, but she is perfectly prostrated with overwork and excitement, so that I would dread the effect of any shock. Besides I have given her an opiate, from which she may not wake for hours, if it has the desired effect."
"But may I not see her when she gets to sleep?" pleaded Olive, tremulously. "I will be very quiet indeed."
"Yes, you may; I will call you," answered the doctor, and then some of the bystanders brought Olive a chair, and she dropped into it, and leaning her head against the door casing, waited, hardly noticing that through the hour that followed, Roger Congreve stood close by her side and studied the pale, anxious face, while pondering the revelation made to him that evening. He had almost decided that she had no heart, simply because it had not responded to his; but had she not?
"You may come now," whispered an attendant, opening the door; and with her heart bounding so that she could scarcely stand, Olive went in slowly, and holding her breath as she drew near the bed whereon lay the motionless figure. Oh, could it be Ernestine? She stood and looked, with eyes blinded by hot tears, and once ventured to touch one of the thin waxen-like hands lying on the coverlid. Did it seem possible? Light-hearted, beautiful Ernestine Dering, and this white, shadowy, motionless being, one and the same? The face, as seen in the glare of lights, and under its gaudy trappings, was a picture of health, compared to what it was now, lying on the small, hard pillow, with the golden hair pushed straight back, and the face as pallid as marble, with sunken eyes, and pinched, white lips. Olive stood and looked for several moments, with the sobs swelling in her throat; then she knelt down beside the bed, and hid her face in the coverings, and no one disturbed her; but with Ernestine's first move she drew back, and out of sight across the room, which was needless, for the sleeper only turned her head, and then sank into that death-like stillness again.
"Has she been ill long?" asked Olive of the single woman who still remained in the room. "Do you know anything about her?"
"Oh, yes, miss. I am Madame T——, the prima donna's maid, and I helped dress Miss Clare to-night," answered the quiet-faced woman, who was nearly dead with curiosity, but stood in some awe of the tall, strange young lady. "She has not been strong any of the time since she's been with us; but yesterday, Miss Downs took sick, and Mr. Hurst, he's the manager, put Miss Clare in her place, and she's studied and sung every minute since, to be ready for to-night; and I thought when I dressed her, that she looked more like going into her coffin, than on the stage in all that toggery. She needs proper good care now, or she'll be like to die;—might you be a—friend, miss?"
"Yes; and I shall remove her from here as soon as she is able. What has she in the way of clothes, and where are they?"
"Laws! miss, not much, I guess, only that little trunk there," answered the woman, pointing to what might have been a good sized band-box, that stood in the corner, and which, in other days would hardly have held Ernestine's sashes, ribbons and trinkets, let alone the smallest corner of her wardrobe.
"I am going," said Roger, tiptoeing carefully to Olive's side. "It is past eleven, and the carriage will have come for us and gone back, and Uncle Ridley will be alarmed. I shall return immediately, and is there anything you want brought?"
"Yes," whispered Olive. "Pillows, eight or ten of them, wine, and my blue wrapper; Jean will be asleep; Bettine will get it for you;—that is all, I think;" and he went carefully away, to bear the startling news out to Congreve Hall; and Olive was left to her lonely vigil, for the troupe arrived presently from the theatre, and the maid was obliged to attend to Madame T——. Most of the performers had rooms on the third floor, and after a loiter down stairs, came up noisily, singing and chatting right by the sick-room, and Olive was horrified to hear that they stopped next door, from which place the merriment continued to flow forth unceasing. Did they not know that the sick girl lay next door, or at least that she was in the house? Olive stood it as long as she could, then sprang to her feet, and in a moment had tapped at the next door.
The sounds ceased for a moment, then some one threw it open, and the light flashed on her pale, indignant face and flashing eyes, with the wilted lilies at her throat, and the unmistakable air of a woman "born to command," in her erect head, and clear, indignant glance.
"Are you not aware,"—she had no time to couch her language in pleasing terms,—"Are you not aware that a lady lies at the point of death in the next room?"
The four men looked at the apparition in silent amaze for a moment, then one of them said, with an unmistakable hiccough and a silly smile:
"You don't say so! hic, come in, an' tell us all about it."
"Shut up, Bunce! can't you see it's a lady?" retorted he, who sheepishly held the door. "I'm—I'm sorry, mam," he continued, with a bow to Olive. "I—we—forgot; I hope we've not disturbed her much; there shall be no more noise, I promise you."
Olive disappeared, and returned to Ernestine, her heart swelling with furious indignation. If she had not been there, would the maid have gone to Madame T——, and would the sick girl have been left alone in that death-like stupor? It seemed too heartlessly cruel to be true; Olive could not understand it.
Roger Congreve returned just before twelve, and found Olive sitting alone by the sleeper, and his wrath was fully equal to hers.
"But they all know you are with her," he said, "and there are all manner of curious conjectures floating round. Here are pillows, and wine, and I have brought Bettine back with me."
"Oh, I am so glad," said Olive, with a sigh of relief, "I have been pondering what I would do if she should wake up. What did Uncle Ridley say?"
"Say? Why, it was all I could do to keep him from coming here right away; and I left him trying to comfort Jean, who was nearly in a spasm of joy. She was awake and insisted on knowing why you did not come; otherwise I should not have told her to-night. Here, Bettine, bring one of those largest pillows."
Bettine came forward from where she stood near the door, bringing a large, soft pillow, very unlike the little hard one on which Ernestine's head rested; and as Olive carefully lifted the sleeper's head, they were exchanged, without disturbing the heavy stupefied slumber.
"I think the manager will be up here in a moment," said Roger, when Olive had taken her seat and Bettine had retreated to the corner, wiping her eyes on the rough little pillow-case; and even as he spoke, there came steps in the hall and a slight tap at the door, and Bettine admitted the doctor, followed by a tall, surly-faced man, who looked fiercely around the room, and scowled at Olive, who took her seat by the bed, with an instinctive feeling that the unconscious sleeper might need her protection.
"You see for yourself," said the doctor, stepping to the bed with the stranger, after having bowed to Olive and Roger. "She is alive, and really doing better than I expected; but a slight turn may be her instant death, or she may live several months yet with perfect rest and comfort. She can never be of further use to you, for her last note had been sung, and her last act given."
The manager scowled down at the death-like sleeper.
"Nevertheless, I have a claim on her. I paid her fifty dollars in advance to buy necessary stage-wardrobe," he said, with a heartless coolness. "I never was such a fool before, but she had a fine voice and good stage air, and I thought she'd last."
Almost before he finished speaking, Olive had leaped to her feet with flashing eyes and quivering white lips, but before she could speak, Roger's quiet voice interrupted:
"Will you step this way, sir, and make out your bill against the young lady? I am quite ready to cancel all or any demands."
The manager turned and looked at him for a moment, in silence, then crossed the room with a shrug of his shoulders, and took the pencil held out to him, also the little page of blanks.
"Sign her release, while I make out your check," said Roger, drawing his bank book from his pocket, and hastily filling a page, while the manager slowly scrawled a few words on the blank, attached his name, and passed it over, receiving the check in exchange.
"It's not half what I ought to receive," he said, with surly grimace. "Here I've got to go and look up some one else, and she made the performance fizzle out to-night, besides being a deal of trouble all along with her delicate airs."
"Leave the room!" cried Olive fiercely, trembling and white with uncontrollable rage. "You have killed her. I hope you will remember it to your last day. You are her murderer, and whatever you paid her, it is more than likely she had given her life to work out for you, so what you are paid now is wages for your brutish work. Leave the room, I say; you have no longer a right here, nor any claim, if indeed you ever had one, for I tell you I don't believe you ever paid her a cent, even what you owed her, and you shall not breathe the same air with her longer."
"Young woman, be careful!" thundered the manager, growing an irate scarlet, as the fiercely uttered words rolled in upon him; but Olive met his gaze with flashing, undaunted eyes, and then the good doctor recovered from his speechless amaze and came between them, after which, Bettine, trembling with awe and fright, let the two gentlemen out. Olive dropped back into her seat, and through it all, Ernestine slept, her thin hands folded over her quiet bosom, and an air of utter repose on her face, as of one too near another world to heed struggles in this, even though they reached her weary hearing.
So the night wore on, and save the doctor returning for a moment, utter silence reigned. Olive never moved from her low seat by the bed, with her face hid. Bettine dropped asleep in her chair, and Roger, over by the window, found that his busy thoughts kept him awake for hours, but that he finally grew drowsy, and at last dropped into a doze, with his head against the casing.
As the city bell tolled the hour of three, Ernestine opened her eyes slowly, with a weary air that seemed like regret, and looked about the dimly lighted room, with only a half conscious air. Roger received a slow wondering look, then Bettine, and then her eyes fell on the figure by the bed, with crushed white flowers in her hair, and face bowed from sight; but it seemed to matter little who they all were, for she made no move and looked away beyond them all, with a dreamy air of lingering stupor, that still held thoughts and memory in check. But presently a brighter light of reason crept into the eyes that made them open wider and look about once more at the three silent figures, with more wonder and closer attention, and at last she put out her hand slowly, and touched the bowed head beside her; and startled by the light pressure, Olive raised her head quickly, and they looked at each other.
For a moment her heart stood still in terror, as the dark eyes rested on her face, then there came a feeble, husky moan of delirious joy. "Olive! Oh, Olive!" and Roger, wakened by the slight sound, sprang up, to find Ernestine fainted entirely away, and Olive rushed wildly for water; at which Bettine also awakened, and shaking with fright, as her first thought was, that Ernestine was dying. But she was not, for with moistened lips and dampened brow, they brought a feeble flutter of life back, and with the first lifting of the eyelids, Olive bent down to lay her lips to those that tried to speak.
"Not another word for your life's sake, darling. I am here. I am going to take you home to mama, but you must not speak."
Words cannot describe the incredulous joy and perfect peace that touched the wan face at the words, nor the bewildering happiness that lighted the sunken eyes, as the feeble arms tried to clasp themselves about Olive's neck, but fell weakly down.
Roger found his eyes blinded by tears as he stepped back to get the wine. "Give her some," he said, handing the glass to Olive, and slipping his arm under Ernestine's pillow to raise her head slightly, and Ernestine sipped slowly at the wine held to her lips, never once moving her eyes from Olive's face, then lay back with that contented, peaceful look, like some who, from facing despair, desperation, and the bitterest heart-ache, suddenly find themselves cradled in perfect peace, with no trouble, no want, no sadness, and too weak to wonder, hold fast their wild joy and are content.
For a long time it seemed as though Ernestine cared to know nothing, save that Olive was beside her, held her hand, and bent to kiss her every few moments; but, after a long time her eyes went to Roger, as though she had just discovered his presence, and Olive answered the question in them.
"It is our Cousin Roger, dear, and Uncle Ridley, and Jean will be here in the morning; can't you go to sleep, so as to be stronger then?"
Ernestine's lips trembled with joy, but she shut her eyes instantly, as though to win sleep and hasten the morning; but no sleep came, and so till daylight touched the world, Olive sat and held the hands that trembled eagerly, as the moments went by. At last, she grew perfectly quiet, and Olive, knowing she had dropped asleep drew back from the long-held position that had made every muscle ache.
"Won't you lie down?" whispered Roger. "You look like a ghost. I am going to sit out in the hall so as to keep things quiet when the boarders begin to leave their rooms."
"How good you are!" said Olive, looking up at him with a sudden gratitude, and noting how pale and worn he looked from the long night of sleeplessness and anxiety. "I can never thank you."
"Do not try," he answered, pressing the hand she had held out to him, and looking at her with eyes she could not have failed to read had she not been in such a tumult of absorbing thoughts, and then he went carefully out, and Olive, bidding sleepy Bettine to lie down, took her seat again by the bed, and daylight came up brightly, while she watched Ernestine's sleeping face, with eyes that were continually blinded by thankful tears.
Soon after breakfast, the carriage from the Hall came dashing up to the Virginia, and in a few moments, Mr. Congreve was stamping hurriedly up stairs, while James followed, carrying Jean, who was trembling like a leaf with eager excitement.
"God bless my soul! I never did!" cried Mr. Congreve, as Roger, hearing them coming, met them at the top of the last flight. "Such thundering stairs! Why I sha'n't breathe straight again for a month, and I don't want to go in on the dear child puffing like a crazy porpoise. Let me sit right down here to blow my nose and get my breath. How is she, Roger?"
"Better this morning. She ate a little breakfast and drank some wine, but is very weak yet. Jeanie, that is the room. You may go in, but go quietly," said Roger, and Jean, being placed on the floor, almost forgot to use her cane, as she limped hurriedly along.
Ernestine was watching the door with eager, hungry eyes, and the moment Jean appeared, she held out her feeble hands, and the next moment, Jean's kisses were covering her face, and the little girl was saying in joyous eagerness:
"I knew God would bring you back. I've asked Him every night since you went away. Oh, my precious, darling, Ernestine, I'm so glad that I can't help crying," the delighted sobs bubbling up as she spoke; while Ernestine, forbidden to speak, fondled the curly hair and dear little face, and feebly smiled her happiness.
"Well, my child, God bless you, I'm glad we've got you again," was Mr. Congreve's greeting, as he came in, making every effort not to be noisy or speak too loud, in consequence of which, his voice was dropped to a sepulchral whisper, and he walked as if the floor was spread with eggs. But his kind, sharp eyes were full of tears, his voice shook, and he held her frail hand as though it was a precious wafer, that slight pressure might demolish.
"The doctor was here, just now," said Olive, "He says we may take her out home by to-morrow, if she continues to do well."
"Yes, yes, to be sure," answered Mr. Congreve, retreating to the corner and employing both hands and an immense handkerchief to wipe away the tears. "Has the child everything that she wants, Olive? I—God bless my soul! she looks half dead already, as though she had been starved and treated like a dog! Confound my eyes! but then I must cry; I'd like to take a good out and out bellow, I would, indeed; I haven't felt so stuffed with tears for fifty years. Have you sent word to your mother?"
"No; I wanted to ask you about it. Ernestine is out of danger, and yet, if mama knows she is found and so ill, it will make her sick with anxiety and waiting, so I thought we had better wait until she is able to be taken home, then write."
"Just so, exactly; you're right, no doubt. I hope the dear child can be moved to-morrow, for this place is like a musty chicken coop; I wouldn't put my worst enemy's dog in such a room, and I think I'll go down and blow off my feelings by telling the man who runs this shanty, just what I think of him;" and away went the excited old gentleman in a hurry, after telling Olive once more to spare no expense, if the dear child wanted anything.
The next day Ernestine was taken to Congreve Hall.
How many times had the girls thought of Ernestine, with her beauty, her grace, and queenly little airs, as being in Congreve Hall. How they had imagined her ornamenting its stately rooms, sweeping through the great halls, and queening it to her happy heart's content, a fit inmate to its splendor.
Now, on a bed, that could be lifted from the carriage, by two careful servants, and slowly taken in at the great entrance, wan, wasted, and helpless, Ernestine was going into Congreve Hall at last.
"We haven't had a letter from Olive this week," said Bea, breaking a silence that had fallen upon them, as they sat sewing in the cheerful sitting-room. "How long she has been gone! Isn't it most time for her to be coming home, mama?"
"She was to stay as long as she was enjoying herself, and pleasing Uncle Ridley," answered Mrs. Dering. "I hardly thought she would stay so long on account of her studies, but from what she writes about the scenery and gallery of pictures at Congreve, I suppose she is having a little artistic revelry that is very pleasant."
"Well, she has forever lost place in my eyes," said Kat severely, "for not snubbing that chap. 'Cousin Roger,' she calls him! Stuff! He's no more our cousin than I'm your uncle; and he's to own the Hall, when it ought to be ours. I should think his conscience would wear a hole right through him, and if she brings that picture of his head home with her, I'll jab the carving-fork into it, sure's the world!"
"It would make you feel better, I've no doubt," remarked Kittie, who sat by the window stitching ruffles, with a lady-like air, while a great bouquet ornamented the sill, shedding its fragrance through the room; it having been brought that morning by the polite colored man from Raymond's, with a tiny, three-cornered card, fastened to a rose-bud, and reading:
"FOR MISS KITTIE, FROM PANSY,"
in crazy-looking capitals.
"Well, I don't see how she can," said Kat, "be so polite to a fellow who is paddling about in our canoe, while we flounder in the water, and get along the best we can. I think it's too mean."
"But it's not his fault," remonstrated Bea. "Uncle Ridley has a right to leave his money and house where he pleases; and I'm sure I can't see what right we have to fuss, especially after all he's done for us."
"We have too much to be thankful for to make complaints of any kind," said Mrs. Dering, looking out of the window, as the gate was heard to slam. "There comes a boy! You may go to the door, Kat, as you don't appear to be doing anything."
Kat lifted herself from the floor with a yawn, and strolled lazily out to the door, but came back in a moment, with quicker steps, and less color in her face.
"It's a despatch," she said, holding out the envelope that always bears alarm in its very face; and Mrs. Dering took it quickly, while the girls hung round her chair in anxiety. Was Olive or Jean sick? Neither. The paper unfolded, briefly read:
"I will be home on Wednesday with Ernestine. She is quite ill. Meet the train with an easy carriage and pillows, and with Dr. B.
For a moment not a sound broke the stillness, then Mrs. Dering dropped the paper, and hid her face in her hands, and the girls knew that her first thought was to return thanks for this answer to her long, yearning prayers. A moment after, it was as though a whirlwind had struck the peaceful room; no one seemed to know, in the excitement that possessed them, just what it was they wanted to say or do, and between the joy and anxiety that the news occasioned, they all laughed and cried alternately.
"To-morrow is Wednesday, and Ernestine will be here. Oh, don't it seem too happy to be true," cried Kittie, wiping away her tears with a strand of ruffling. "How do you suppose it ever happened? I can hardly wait; what shall we do to make time pass?"
There proved to be plenty to keep their hands in keeping with their thoughts, for a room must be prepared for the invalid, and thoroughly prepared, too. They went to work on it that afternoon, first building a bright fire in the great fire-place, and throwing open all the windows to let the sunshine pour in. How strange it seemed; how happy, and yet how sad! Ernestine coming home! Not dead nor lost, but coming home, feeble and helpless! Where had she been all these long, weary months? and had any of their heart-aches and longings reached her? Perhaps she had been sick and alone, had not known of their eager search, or been able to drag herself back to them.
The girls laughed and cried, while they swept, and dusted, and made up the bed like a snow-bank, ready turned down to admit the weary form. The whitest, most beautifully fluted curtains were hung before the windows, whose panes glistened like diamonds from hot soap-suds and crisp rubbings. All the pretty knick-knacks were brought in and put upon the walls with an eye to Ernestine's graceful little fancy likings. The easiest chairs, and prettiest rugs—in short, when finished, it was a little bower, and Kittie put the finishing touches in the way of flowers and vines, that, together, with the sunshine, made a sick-room of perfection to greet the coming invalid. Mrs. Dering went down to Mr. Phillips's to get Prince and the buggy, and found that the news had preceded her. The telegram had been repeated, and in an hour's time had pretty near made the circle of Canfield; so her appearance was greeted with joyful congratulations and sympathetic rejoicing; for Canfield had taken the matter to heart, and having grieved with the family, were now prepared to rejoice with it also. Miss Clara Raymond met Mrs Dering on her way to Mr. Phillips's, and offered their carriage, which was gratefully accepted, as it was large, low, and easy, and much more comfortable than the buggy for an invalid.
Little sleeping was done that night, and in the morning the girls cooked every dainty that Ernestine had ever loved. They cleaned the whole house till it shone, under the stress of excitement; and, as train time drew near, they fairly grew weak and sick with anxiety and suspense. Mrs. Dering did not say much, but when the carriage came, and she put on her hat, while the girls got the pillows, they saw that she was pale and trembling, and that her voice shook beyond control when she gave Dr. Barnett a smiling "good-morning."
There was nothing left to do, so after the carriage drove away the three girls sat on the steps, with their hands clasped, and waited. Kittie made one or two flying trips up stairs to see if everything was really beyond further improvement, while Kat vibrated nervously between the porch and the gate, and Bea sat still, looking at her ring, and wondering if Ernestine would like the giver, and what she would say.
"There!" cried Kat at last, with a nervous jump. "The train is in, now in just a little bit—"
It is possible that there was not a heart in Canfield but gave an expectant throb when the rumble and roar of the train shook the little place to its centre, and was heard to stop, a thing it did not often do; and there were but few who did not imagine, and earnestly sympathize with the joy it was bringing to one home in their midst.
"There they come! Oh, girls I feel perfectly faint," cried Kittie, making a grasp at the gate post, to sustain her trembling excited self. "How slow and careful,—she must be so sick."
No one answered, but six eager eyes watched, and three throbbing hearts waited, as the horses came with slow steps, and the carriage rolled carefully along. The top had been raised, and curious gazers along the way could see nothing; neither could the girls, when at last the gate was reached, but though they went out, something restrained their eager joyous welcome, and they said nothing.
Olive got out first, then Mrs. Dering, and Dr. Barnett, and then came a strange gentleman, bearing a perfectly helpless and evidently unconscious figure, with its face covered; and the girls shrank back to let them pass, then surrounded Olive with eager, trembling questions.
"She has fainted," Olive said. "She kept growing more excited after we left New York, and I thought she would faint when we came in sight of Canfield, but she didn't until the train stopped; and then the moment she saw mama, she tried to speak, and fainted right away."
There was no time to ask, or answer further questions, as they hurried into the house and up stairs, where Ernestine had been carried, and laid upon the soft, snowy bed; but after one glance at her unconscious face, they drew back and burst into tears. Olive was talking to the strange gentleman, for whose name no one had thought to inquire, and Dr. Barnett and Mrs. Dering hung over the bed, winning life back to the fragile figure thereon. They all saw the first opening of her eyes, that went straight to one dear face, saw the feeble arms lifted with a strength, born of joy, and heard the sobbing cry:
"Mama, mama! darling mama!" and everybody cried.
After awhile the girls went in and kissed her quietly, then the room was ordered to be cleared, and under the influence of an opiate, Ernestine sank to sleep, with her hands clasping those of the dear woman who was, and would be always, "mama."
When they went down stairs, Olive presented them to Cousin Roger, and told in few words of all his kindness; and Kat, the vivacious, who hated and longed to see him removed from the face of the earth, was seen to drop two big tears on his hand that she was shaking heartily. To Beatrice came the same vague, uncertain feeling that Olive had experienced when first seeing him, and he caught the same bewildered look in her eyes.
Had she ever seen him before? If not, what was it in his face that reminded her of—something?
Mrs. Dering did not leave Ernestine's side again that day. Olive came up with her, and they held a long conversation in low voices; and a look of perfect content was seen to drift into the mother's pale, anxious face, as she listened how Jean was growing well, and then looked down at the quiet sleeper—the one who had been snatched from the burning, and given back into her arms.
"Just think, if I had not gone to Virginia?" Olive said that evening, while they were all in the kitchen, doing up the supper work. "It really makes me tremble to think how I did not want to go, and hesitated about it."
"If I had been you, I should have screamed right out when she came on the stage," said Kat, unable to imagine herself in such a position and remaining quiet. "How did you feel, Olive?"
"So weak that I could not move, I never came so near losing my senses in my life, and it is such a dreadful feeling that you can't scream. It was dreadful to sit there and watch her, and when the hemorrhage came, I just jumped and ran."
"Dear me, how you must have felt," said Kittie with a shiver, as she polished a tumbler brightly, and put it back in the water to every one's amusement.
"I don't know what I would have done without Cousin Roger," said Olive. "He was so kind and thoughtful."
"Who does he make me think of?" asked Bea, which caused Olive to look up in surprise.
"How strange; he reminds me of some one, too, and it worried me so for a while, but I thought it was nonsense, and never spoke about it," she said.
"Well, I s'pose it is a notion," answered Bea, and then talk went back to Ernestine and Jean, of whom, it seemed, enough could never be told.
The next day, a little discovery was made to the girls.
Mr. Congreve was seen walking about in the fresh autumn sunshine, before breakfast, and the girls saw him gathering a small cluster of flowers, selecting from the dewy bunches with much care; and after a while Olive, who had slept late with fatigue, came down in her grey wrapper with its blue facings, and part of the flowers were in her wavy hair, and part at her throat, with a little knot of ribbon.
"Good gracious!" cried Kat, rushing into the kitchen with a tragic expression, and setting a pile of dishes on the table with some force. "Do you see that? What's this family coming to?"
"Dust," responded Kittie calmly. "What's the matter, Kat?"
"Do you mean to tell me you didn't see Olive wearing the flowers he gathered before breakfast, and that you didn't see how he looked at her at the table?" cried Kat impatiently.
"That's the way they all do; it's the first symptoms I guess, for it's the way that Bea and Dr. Barnett began."
"Oh, the idea," laughed Kittie, "of Olive being in love."
"I don't care, perhaps she isn't, but he is," asserted Kat, with an appeal to Bea, who had just come in.
"I don't know," said Bea. "I saw him give her the flowers, and fasten those in her hair, but I don't think it's anything."
"Well, you watch—there they go now!" exclaimed Kat, whereupon they all rushed to the window, to see Olive and Roger strolling out among the flowers.
"Would you ever think that was Olive?" said Kittie, as they looked. "Think how quiet and snappy she used to be, and how ugly she always looked, and just see how pretty she is now, and how she laughs and talks. But she's not in love, dear no; she looks as cool and dignified as a cucumber, not a bit blushy, or anything of the kind."
"Well, I should hope not," said Kat severely. "One engaged sister is enough; two would ruin the family."
"If such a thing was to happen," remarked Bea, with a little mercenary expectation, "Congreve Hall would be Olive's; just think of it, girls, how grand! and Cousin Roger is immensely wealthy, and there would be no end of splendid things;" and Bea sighed a little, as she spoke, for she was not going to win any wealth or grand home by her wedding, and there came, just now, a little moment of regret, that such would never be hers. Then she looked at her ring, and felt wicked and ungrateful. Would she exchange with Olive, or any other girl who might win wealth? No, no, never!
"Well, dear suz, what a funny place the world is," said Kat. "Here I've just hated that Roger Congreve, and now I could bless him forever, for being so good and kind, and after all, perhaps he'll be my brother, and Congreve Hall come back to us. I don't like it though," she added, with energy, "we're all getting broken up some way; it don't seem like old times, and I don't want any of us to get married! It's horrid, and I never will. Now Ernestine is home, I'd rather be poor all the days of my life, and have us all stay together, and never get old, or big."
"Very good, but 'buds will be roses, and kittens, cats,' as Jo says," answered Bea, going off with a laugh.
Ernestine was still too weak to see or say much this day. She had been much better on leaving Virginia, and as the trip home was taken in the most luxurious way afforded to travellers, she might have stood it very well, had it not been for the nervous excitement that completely prostrated her before home was reached. So Dr. Barnett prescribed the most perfect quiet, which was given, the girls only going in on tiptoe, now and then, to carry some little dainty, or smile their loving welcome, while Mrs. Dering spent all of her time at the bed side. Ernestine seemed perfectly content, for she lay for hours, with dreamy eyes fixed on Mrs. Dering's face, and never spoke or moved, as though she had been beaten and bruised by her brief struggle with the world, and only wanted to lie at peace, with one dear face in constant sight; and to let her tired life drift in or out. The change was heart-breaking, and drove the girls from her room at every visit, to hide their tears, and think, as in a dream, of the time when Ernestine, gay, frivolous, careless-hearted girl, was the sunshine of the house, the one being who seemed to never feel or know the touch of care or sadness.
Roger was to go back the second day, and on the evening before, he said:
"The scenery about this little place is perfectly beautiful. Does Canfield afford a livery stable, Olive? If so, I will get a buggy in the morning, and you shall pilot me around the country."
Kat sent an expressive wink and nod of her head to Kittie and Bea, while Olive answered:
"There is a small one, I believe, where you might find something."
"Perhaps they'd loan you their wheel-barrow," added Kat, who found herself in a fair way of liking this distant relative, in spite of his usurping what she termed the family position.
So next morning Roger went down town, and came back in a rather dilapidated buggy, with a lamb-like looking horse, and said with a laugh, as he helped Olive in:
"The very best your city affords; I hope it will not break with us, for my life is not insured."
"My mind's eye rests lovingly on Congreve Hall, as presided over by my artistic sister," cried Kat, with a dramatic gesture, as they drove off; and the next moment she was looking after them with a touch of regretful sadness in her face.
"I don't like it," she said. "Bea gone, Olive going, Jean way off, Ernestine so changed;—oh, Kittie! when anything happens to you, I will be ruined for sure. You don't think you are going to fall in love, or be sick, or go away, or anything; do you?"
"Nonsense," said Kittie, but gave an expressive hug that was soothing and satisfactory, and set Kat's heart at rest.
The ride in that clear morning air, brought a warm stain of color into Olive's clear cheeks, and a sparkle to her eyes, that was very becoming; and she laughed and talked, in a careless, happy way, that left no doubt in her companion's mind as to her perfect ignorance of his love, and made him more determined not to return to Virginia, leaving her in ignorance.
It was difficult to approach the subject, while her mind was so far away from it, and his perfect assurance as to her answer made it still harder for him. But Olive unconsciously led the way at last, for she was talking of their trip home, and dwelling gratefully on his care and kindness, her eyes bright with feeling, as she turned them to him suddenly:
"You have helped me through it all," she said. "I wish I could thank you for all your thoughtful kindness."
They were rolling lazily around a hill, with autumn colors on every side, and autumn's soft winds fanning the air into life, and Olive thought the answer she received was some deceptive flutter of their wings.
"Do not try," he was saying. "Every care or anxiety you have felt have been to me as my own. I have tried to show you what you were to me, and I have failed, but you cannot help but understand me, when I say that I love you, Olive."
She did not take her eyes from a distant hill-top, where their glance had rested, neither did she blush or look pleased when he finished, but was as silent for a moment as though studying on what he had said; then looked at him slowly:
"You surely do not mean it?"
"I surely do mean it, and have tried to make you see and know it, for weeks past, but your answer now is only what I had expected, for though I at first thought your indifference feigned, I soon came to see that neither I, nor any other man had ever received a thought from you, and to fear that I never would. You seemed wedded to your love of art, but now, when you know that I love you, cannot you find a little feeling somewhere in your heart for me, Olive?"
"No, I cannot," answered Olive, after a moment, and with the air of one who had been literally hunting for something, and failed to find it. "I could not help but think a great deal of you, when you made my visit so pleasant, and then was so kind when trouble came; but I never dreamed that you loved me; I really think you must be mistaken, it seems so strange. Why do you?"
There was no misunderstanding the honest wonder in her eyes, as she asked the question, and no possibility of construing it into a desire for flattery.
"I have loved you," he said, "ever since that first sad night, so long ago, when you showed a womanly strength—"
"What night?" she asked eagerly, the old vague remembrance coming back to her; and, at the interruption, he looked at her in amaze.
"Is it possible you do not remember?" he asked.
"No, I do not; but the moment I saw you, there seemed a remembrance that has worried me ever since. What is it?"
For a moment he hesitated to tell her.
"It was I, who brought your father home," he said, at last; and with a swift, painful recollection, she dropped her face into her hands, and said nothing.
"When you came to the Hall," he went on presently, "and was introduced to me, there was such an air of surprise, together with a look of pain in your face, that I immediately supposed you remembered me, and that the memory was painful, so I never spoke of it. I was travelling here in New York, and was on the train just a few seats behind your father. I saw him when he received the blow on the temple, and went to him as soon as possible, and was the one asked to see him brought safely to his home. I did not know, until my return home, two weeks later, that it was Uncle Ridley's nephew."
After he finished speaking, they rode in silence for a long way, and the peaceful old horse, finding himself unguided, turned his head homeward, and jogged off more lively. Olive did not look up again. She was evidently lost in sad memories, that his words awakened, and he had not the heart to bring her back to a subject so foreign to her thoughts as his love. So in silence, they reached home, and, as he helped her from the buggy, Olive said with trembling lips:
"I'm glad it was you. I loved papa better than any one in the world, and I can never forget that you saw him last and tried to help him." Then, after telling her mother and the girls their additional cause for gratitude to him, she went off to her room, and was not seen again for some time; for when affected so that tears were her only relief, she always took them alone.
Roger went that night. He spent the afternoon sitting in Ernestine's room with them all, and telling over and over the last moments of Mr. Dering, what he had overheard him saying to another passenger just a few moments before the accident; just how the blow came, so quick and painless, and how his last words had been of home, and how they would be surprised at his sudden departure.
Olive was not present, and fearing that Roger might consider it rude, Mrs. Dering explained the little habit of taking all her grief alone, and how the reminding of that sad night had doubtless overcome her. But Olive came down just before supper, and her face showed plainer than ever before, its traces of heavy tears, though she said nothing about it, and seemed to think her absence explained itself to the only one to whom an explanation was due.
While the girls were busy in the kitchen, and mother was with Ernestine, they were alone in the sitting-room, and Roger said to her, as they stood by the window, watching the shadows creep through the yard, and lift themselves in a misty cloud:
"Olive, have you no other answer for me, before I go?"
"No," said Olive, slowly. "You seem so different to me. In one way, I love you; I could not help it; and, in another way, you are nothing to me. I wish you would forget that you ever thought you loved me, and let me feel as though you were my brother."
"I cannot," he answered. "I do not think that I love you, but I know that I do, and that I always will; and some time, when you are older, and come to feel that home-love and art cannot satisfy you, I will come back and try to win a place in the new yearning."
"You needn't," said Olive, with discouraging honesty. "I shall never love any one that way. I don't want to. All I want is mama and the girls, and to study until I am satisfied with myself, or as near it as I can be. But you mustn't let that keep you away; you will forget this, indeed, you will, and must come and see us often, and then everything will be delightful."
"No; I shall never come until I feel that I do not come in vain. Do not doubt my love, Olive, because your own heart is so free from it. It is a girlish heart, and when it reaches womanhood, I may not be the one to satisfy it, but I will come and try."
A SAD STORY.
Ernestine was getting better, and how could she help it, with everything heart could wish, perfect peace and quiet, and six devoted hearts and pairs of hands, ready to obey her slightest command. She did not issue many, for one of the changes that had come to her, was asking for little, complaining of nothing, even her own suffering, but lying still, patient, contented, unselfish and quiet. She seemed grateful and pleased at the least little act of kindness, a thing she would have accepted before as a matter-of-course, and complained at not receiving; and after she grew stronger, and the girls resumed their gayeties, she never seemed to regret for a moment, that she was removed from all such, and must lie still, day after day; when before, it was intolerable to pass a single day without something to pass away her gleeful spirits with Canfield, with its promising circle of girls, budding into young ladyhood, was beginning to put on quite a number of social airs, in the way of little dances, nutting parties, one or two literary clubs, and a card club; which acted upon the little place, like a fresh spring breeze, blowing in upon a pile of peaceful autumn leaves. The Dering girls were popular, and partook largely in all these innocent festivities, bringing gay accounts of them to Ernestine, to which she listened, with a quiet smile, but with never a wish to be in them. Nothing seemed to interest her so much, as the new experience and dignity that had fallen upon Beatrice; and for hours they would chat together of the new plans, and tender little fancies, which Bea had not the courage to confess to others, and Ernestine, bolstered up with pillows, would listen, and now and then, do a little of the pretty work that was going on to the bridal garments.
After a while, when she grew strong enough to talk more, and cough less, she told them of her life, while they had been separated, and the girls never forgot the day on which they listened to it. She was partly sitting up in bed, as colorless as the snowy ruffled linen about her, with her beautiful golden hair in the old-time waves, and curly ends; her lovely eyes, with their liquid brown lights and heavy lashes, and the dainty ruffles to her snowy night-dress, fastened at the throat with a fragile bit of coral, that seemed to throw a shade of its exquisite coloring into her stainless face.
It was a lovely home-scene, for the girls were sewing in their low rocking-chairs, Olive was sketching at the window, Mrs. Dering sat at the bedside holding Ernestine's hand, and over them all the autumn sunshine fell, warm and sweet, as with a touch of loving benediction; and the trill of Jeanie's canary down stairs, was the only sound, save Ernestine's low voice, sad and sweet, in its feebleness.
"I went on the midnight train, you know," she was saying. "It seemed terrible, and with all the people around, I felt as if I was the only person out in the night. Oh, it is too horrible to feel so alone and as though no one knew, or cared where you were going, or what terrible trouble you might be in. Nearly everybody in the car was asleep, and there was only one lady; so I sat down behind her, and for a long time I was so miserable myself that I didn't notice her; then her baby woke up, and began to cry, so did her little girl, and I saw that she was sick or something; so in a little bit, I spoke to her, and asked if I could do anything. She said no, at first, but afterwards said if I would take the baby a moment, as she felt so sick and faint; so I did, and he seemed so astonished that he stopped crying, and then the little girl wanted to come over in my seat, and I helped her over, and told the lady to lie down, as she looked very pale. I knew she was astonished at my being alone, and thought that she might ask my name, and after thinking about it a while, I decided to take my very own name, my—mother's," with a little choke over the name. "She did ask me in a little while, said I looked so young, and why was I travelling alone; and I told her that I was an orphan, that my name was Florence Clare, and that I was on my way to New York; and then she looked so kind and interested that I burst right out crying. I couldn't help it. She didn't ask me any more then, but when we got to New York, no one met her, and she was terribly worried. She asked me where I was going, and I was afraid she would think something was wrong if I told her I didn't know where; so I just gave any street and number, but I said that if she wanted me to go and help her, I could just as well as not, as no one was expecting me anywhere. She seemed very glad, so I carried the children out, and after a policeman had called a hack for her, we went to the St. Nicholas; she was very sick after we got there, and after I put the children to sleep, I sat up with her nearly all night. She was a widow, she said, and had written to a friend in New York to meet her on that train, but that, probably, he had not received the letter; and that she wanted to go right on to Boston, next morning, if she was able. I asked her then if she did not want me to go with her, to take care of the children, that I was all alone in the world, and obliged to work some way and somewhere, and after asking me a great many questions, she said she would think about it. She seemed like a very good, kind lady, and I was afraid she would think there was something strange about me, so I made my story sound just as good as possible. I said I was coming to the city because I thought I could find work better than in a small place, and that I had no near relatives in the world, and would like to go with her, because she looked kind, and I would just as soon take care of children as anything else. She looked at my clothes, but they were my very plainest; and then she asked me what baggage I had, and I showed her my satchel, with nothing but some clothes in it, and then she said that I looked truthful, and too young and pretty to be alone in the city, and that I should go on with her in the morning. I don't know what I would have done if it hadn't been for her, for when I was on the train, I had no idea where I would go or what I would do. Before I left home, I tried to feel right, to forget who I was, but I couldn't; my head kept aching, and I thought every day that it ached harder, and that pretty soon I would be crazy; and then I thought of going away where I could never be found, and die somewhere, and something made me go. It seemed as if I was being pulled away, and every time I heard any of the girls say 'mama,' it came to me that you wasn't my mama, that the girls were not my sisters, then my head ached harder than ever and I couldn't cry. I thought God must surely feel sorry for me, and that he sent the lady on purpose—" and as Ernestine paused to cough and get breath, several tears were smuggled out of sight by her listeners, and Mrs. Dering's voice trembled, as she kissed the speaker, and said:
"He did, dear; believe it, I asked Him to care for and watch over you, wherever you might be, and I knew that He would."
"I went on to Boston with her," continued Ernestine, after a moment's rest. "I knew you would never find me there, and I didn't want to know that you ever looked for me; I knew you would, but I didn't want to hear about it. For awhile the lady watched me very closely, and I knew she was a little distrustful, but the children liked me, and though the work nearly killed me, I kept up. I was with the children constantly, slept, ate, and went out with them, washed, dressed and took care of them from morning 'till night; and sometimes I wished I could die, I was so tired and unhappy. I did not intend to stay with her, but meant to go on the stage just as soon as possible, though I never saw the papers, and had no chance of finding the names of companies. Once I asked to see the papers, but she didn't like it; she was never unkind really, but she always seemed a little suspicious, and when I asked for the paper, she asked what I wanted it for? I had a good place, and no need of the papers. I didn't want to tell her, for fear she would turn me off, so I just waited. One day I was singing the baby to sleep; it was the first time I had ever sung in her house, and she happened to hear me, and came in and complimented my voice, said how beautiful it was, and why didn't I use it, instead of wearing my life out nursing babies. I said right away that I wanted to, and meant to go on the stage as soon as I could; then she was angry, and threatened to find another girl if I did not at once give up such a notion. I promised I would, but I didn't and a few days later, I was out with the children, and saw an advertisement for fifty girls wanted at a play, and as soon as I got back, I told her I was going to leave. She was very angry, and kept that week's wages, but I went, and the next day I answered the advertisement. It was for girls to dance, and I said I could not, and would not, and was just going to leave, when the manager came in, and stopped me. He began by making foolish speeches about how beautiful I was, but when I started away, he begged pardon, and said I was just what they wanted for a queen, who was to come out of a flower, and did not have to dance, which would suit me, since I was so over-particular. At first I thought I never could, and it made me so ashamed, to think of being in such a crowd, that I felt like hiding my face forever. But there I was, with no home and no money, and what could I do? So I signed the contract for ten nights, at fifty cents a night, and felt that I could never look you in the face again, or any of the girls. It was not as bad as I expected, but oh, so different from what I had always thought the stage was. We all had to dress in a little room that was as cold as ice, and most of the girls were so loud and coarse, and talked slang, and they all took a dislike to me because I was queen. They called me "old prudy," and had all kinds of coarse jokes that made me feel as though I would die of shame; I took cold the first night, the stage was so windy, and our dresses as thin as wisps, and then I was so mortified and miserable. I nearly starved while I was there, the pay was so small, and I couldn't afford to have any fire in my room at the small hotel, and took such a heavy cold that I thought I would die coughing. Oh, how wretched I was! I wanted to die, for I thought I had fallen so low that you would never care for me again, and I never felt that I needed God as I did then. I don't think I ever prayed honestly before, but it seemed as if that terrible feeling of being alone, would kill me, so I began to go to God, as I would to you, and it became such a comfort. I wanted to be good and honest, whatever I did, so that I could feel that I still had a right to love and think of you all. I stayed with that company the rest of the winter, at a salary of two dollars a week, and did all manner of odds and ends. Sometimes go on as a substitute, sometimes as a servant or some inferior character, and often to dress the leading ladies, when they found that I could do it nicely. The manager was a gruff, coarse man, but he had a kind heart, and after a while, he seemed to take a sort of interest in me, especially when my cough grew so bad. He brought me medicine twice, and one night asked me if I had been used to such a life. I told him, no, but would not answer any other questions. When the company broke up in the spring, he found me a place as nurse-girl in a family that he knew, and said, that in the fall, a friend of his was going to organize an opera-troupe, and that he would try and get me in, for by that time, I had sung for him, and said that opera was what I had rather be in.
"I found my second trial as nurse-girl, a great deal harder than the first; for there were three children, all sick and cross, and when hot weather came, I had a little room up under the roof to sleep in, and the heat was frightful. I had to be up nearly every night with the children, for two of them were very sick during the hottest weather, and I was called upon for nearly every thing. Between the heat and working so hard, I gave out, and fainted one night, while sitting up with the little girl, and the doctor told my mistress that if I did not have a rest, I would be sick, and probably die on her hands. So in a few days, she sent me and her oldest girl out to her mother's, who lived in the country. I was so glad and grateful for the rest, that I never can forget her. The grandmother was a plain, good-hearted old lady, who seemed very sorry for me, and she used to tell me every day, that I would never live to see another year, especially after she found that my mother had died of consumption. I didn't care how soon I died, and told her so, and then she thought I was wicked, and began to preach long sermons to me, and give me all kinds of queer drinks and medicines, which did me much more good than the sermons, for after staying there three weeks, I was much better, as was Nettie; so we went back to the city, and I stayed with Mrs. Feathers until late in August.
"One day, Mr. Fox, the old manager, came and brought Mr. Hurst, the friend who was going to organize the troupe, and I sang for him. He liked my voice, but said he would not engage me until I had rehearsed once or twice with the company, so that he could see what I amounted to, and Mrs. Feathers said I might keep my place with her, until he had decided. After one or two rehearsals, he engaged me, at four dollars a week, and so I left Mrs. Feathers. She was so kind, gave me a new dress and two dollars, and said if I broke down in health, that her mother had taken a fancy to me, and would like to have me come out again and stay awhile with her. I felt so grateful that I threw my arms around her neck and cried, and she kissed me; I never shall forget how good it seemed to really be kissed again by some one who was a mother, and whom I knew, felt sorry for me.
"I had a very rough time in the new troupe. The manager was cross and rude, and I had to study hard to catch up with the old members; we rehearsed stiff and steadily, and started out in September, visiting only small places first, and not making much money, so that our pay was often behind. In a while I was promoted from chorus singing to character, and I had no money to buy a wardrobe, so the manager paid me fifteen dollars that he owed me, and advanced ten—"
Here Olive gave an indignant breath, but said nothing, on second thought; and Ernestine went on, without noticing the interruption.
"I bought some stage clothes with part of it, and used the other to redeem my ring, that you gave me, mama, that I had been obliged to pawn for my board; but while I was working out the ten for him, I had to pawn it again, and one of my dresses, as I hadn't a cent. We travelled south, and were in Virginia a few nights before going to Staunton, and when I heard that we were to go there, I felt as though I never could! I didn't know whether Jean was there yet, and I didn't expect she would come to an opera if she was; but to go there, and perhaps be so near her, when I would have been glad to have died, just for the sake of seeing, or hearing from one of you, in some way—oh, it was so hard! The manager grew very much provoked and impatient because I coughed so much and was so weak, and threatened to discharge me, as I was getting useless; so I used to nearly strangle trying not to cough, and never dared say I was tired again. The very evening we got to Staunton, Miss Downs, one of the leading ladies, was taken quite sick, and the manager told me I would have to take her part next evening, in 'The Bohemian Girl,' so I sat up nearly all night to study, and sang all next day, until I was ready to drop. When the time came to go to the theatre, I was so faint I could not stand up and dress; I begged them not to tell the manager, for I knew he would discharge me right there; but Madame T—— heard of it, and sent her maid up with a hot whiskey-toddy, and to help me dress, and that is the way I started out for the evening.
"You know the rest. From the time that I felt my voice leaving me, and everything began growing dark, I did not know anything, until I opened my eyes, and saw Olive! Oh, I thought I was in Heaven, surely; it seemed too sweet to be true. I wonder I did not die, instead of faint, with pure joy. Even after I had looked at her long, had heard her speak, and felt her kisses, I could not believe it. I almost expected to wake up and find that I had been dreaming between acts, on the cold, windy stage, or that the manager was scolding me for falling to sleep, and daring to dream of happiness and you. I don't think I would have lived much longer, and perhaps when I found that I was really going to die, I could not have left you without a little word of some kind, for my heart used to nearly break with longing to know if you loved me yet, or would ever want to see me again. I did not feel as though I ever had a right to go back, but when I found that I was coming, that you wanted and loved me, oh, mama! I thought then my heart would surely break, I was so happy!"
At this point every one was crying. Mrs. Dering had laid her face down in the pillows; the girls had, one by one, retired behind their work, and Kat, with her head wrapped in the towel she had been hemming was crying, while she vowed vengeance alike on saint and sinner.
"I would like to see my lady."
It was an imperious demand, that every one in the Dering household had become used to, likewise, to the speaker, a mite of humanity, with wicked big blue eyes, a pug nose, and a frowzled head of brown curls.
She was dressed to day, in a long white fur cloak, a cap of the same, and a mite of a muff, with scarlet silk tassels, and hung to her neck with a broad scarlet ribbon; and she had rung the bell with her own wee hand, and presented her message, in that imperative way, that indicated a spoiled, but precious specimen of babydom.
"I do hope you will forgive us," said the smiling faced young lady, who accompanied her. "We don't intend to come every day, but mother made some delicious chocolate cake yesterday, and I thought possibly Miss Ernestine might relish a taste of it, with some of my wine jelly; and when I spoke of bringing it, Pansy heard me, and insisted on coming too; so here we are."
"How very kind you are," said Bea, taking the dainty wicker basket, knotted with scarlet ribbons, and peeping in at its fancy glass of moulded jelly, the delicious cake, and a bunch of hot-house flowers. "We should be glad to see you every day; how could we help it, when you always come laden like a good angel!"
"I would like—to—see—my—lady!" repeated Pansy, with impressive dignity, and some severity of manner; for what did she care about jelly, and good angels, and all that. "I haven't seen her since the other day before yesterday morning."
"You shall see her right away," laughed Bea, setting down the basket. "Excuse me a moment, Miss Clara, Kittie is busy in the kitchen. I'll take Pansy out there, before we go up stairs."
Kittie was pealing apples, and meditating on how she would trim her hat, since it had to be trimmed over, and nothing new to do it with; but she put all such thoughts aside when she saw her visitor, and made a seat for her on the bench.
"I 'spect I'm most gladder to see you than I ever was before," said Pansy, with a devoted smile, as she took her seat near Kittie.
"Why, what are you sitting there for? Here I am," said Kat, who sat opposite slicing apples. "I thought you always knew me."
Pansy looked from one to the other, for a moment, then nestled close to Kittie, as she remarked with decision:
"You're not my lady; you're the other one."
"How do you know?"
"Well, I 'spect I couldn't jes tell, but then you are."
"I shouldn't wonder if you were right, but I want to tell you that you mustn't love Kittie so much; she's mine, and I'm jealous," said Kat, with a foreboding shake of her head.
"But she keeped the bear from eating me up," cried Pansy, with unshaken belief that she would have been forever lost except for Kittie's timely arrival. "I jes never'd seen my papa once any more, 'f she hadn't finded me in the woods; and he said I ought to love her jes as much more as ever I could, and I do," accompanying the assertion with a loving clasp of Kittie's arm, the suddenness of which sent her apple spinning across the floor.
"There, see; I'll get it," she cried, running after it, with a triumphant glance at Kat. "'F I'd knocked your apple, you'd a scolded me."
"Oh, no; I'm an angel," laughed Kat. "Kittie's the one that scolds."
"Do you?" asked Pansy, leaning against Kittie, with a devotion that nearly knocked the whole pan of apples over.
"I never scolded you, did I?" asked Kittie.
"No, but Auntie Raymond says I mind you the bestest of anybody. I think I do. I 'spect it's because I love you best, right up next to my papa; do you love me?"
"Ever so much."
"Well, I don't know what I'll do," said Pansy, with a long sigh, after she expressed a little rapture over the assurance. "My papa said the other day, what I'd do when we went back to the city 'thout you, and I said I was going to take you along; 'll you go?"