"How could I? Leave my mama and sisters?"
"But don't you love me 'n my papa?"
"I love you a very great deal."
"'N not my papa?"
"I think he's a very nice gentleman, and that you ought to be a very good little girl, and love him lots and lots."
Pansy drew back, and slowly surveyed her idol, as though she had just discovered the first flaw. "I think you might love him, too," she said with a grieved air, and some resentment.
"If she loved him, she wouldn't love you so much," said Kat, slyly.
"Then I'm glad you don't," exclaimed Pansy, with sudden satisfaction, and returning to her seat with an enraptured smile.
There was no mistaking the child's devotion. She firmly believed that Kittie had saved her from being lost forever, and on the foundation of her great gratitude, she had built an overwhelming love, that expressed itself in various ways. She never let any one of the family come to town without bringing flowers, and she insisted on coming in at least three times a week, herself; and it may be remarked, that whatever Pansy set her mind on, she did.
Between aunts, uncles, and cousins, and a father, who was rapidly coming to the conclusion that she was the most wonderful child alive, she was in a fair way of being spoiled, and had finally come to where she ruled the household with the most imperious little will, which every one submitted to, and thought delightful.
Twice since the picnic, she had come with her papa, in the phaeton, and taken Kittie to ride, and three times, Mr. Murray had come in the long summer evenings, and brought her to spend an hour or two; and there Kittie's acquaintance with him ceased.
In the rides, he had talked to her but little, preferring to listen to the unbroken chatter which Pansy kept up with her. And then he saw, that to her, he appeared in a fatherly guise, which made her feel perfectly free and unrestrained, and he thought it best to leave it so for the present.
His calls in the evenings had been entirely devoted to Mrs. Dering. They would sit on the porch, in proper, elderly fashion, sometimes joined by Bea, while the twins and Pansy would roam about the yard, and play together like three children, and Mr. Murray would have nothing to say to the one he really came to see except "Good evening, Miss Kittie," when he came, and when he left.
No one, except his own sister, suspected in the least that anything took him there save a desire to accompany Pansy, whose absorbing devotion everyone in Canfield knew by this time.
Mr. Murray was quick to see that in the mother's eyes, Kittie and Kat were the merest children, and that a thought of any other kind in connection with them, would not be harbored for an instant; and he also saw, that never a girlish heart was freer from anything of loves or lovers, than Kittie's, and so long as it was so, he was quite content to let it remain, and watch it grow to maturity. There was no denying that he was strangely and powerfully interested in her, wonder and laugh at the idea, as he would, though he could not yet think that the feeling had assumed the name of love. It was only that respect and interest that comes to the heart of man when he meets a woman, lovely, fresh-hearted, and unselfishly sweet.
The approaching dignity of sixteen lay over the girls, and while Kat was still a most thoroughly romping tom-boy, Kittie was wonderfully womanly, with pretty, graceful, lady-like ways, the sweetest possible voice, and the loveliest eyes that ever looked, with girlish innocence, into the face of the man who felt that love her he could, and love her he would, in spite of himself.
There was something irresistibly attractive and sweet to Paul Murray, in watching the love between his little daughter and the young girl. Kittie's slightest word was law to Pansy; and there was something so womanly in the way she exercised her influence, and made the child's love a source of benefit unto her spoiled, wayward little self.
When fall drifted into the chilly reign of winter, Mr. Murray went back to the city. He had intended going long before, but had put it off, a week at a time, until winter had finally come; then he decided with a sudden determination, and, as if to test his firmness of purpose, had slipped away from Pansy, and galloped into town, trusting to the darkness to hide from Canfield's prying eyes, that he was coming to the Dering's alone. Not that he cared; oh, no, he would just as soon have heralded to every soul therein that it was so, but for Kittie's sake, it was best to give no one's tongue a chance to wag. Many a bud is rudely hastened into blossom by impatient fingers, and withers from the shock; it must not be so now.
He fastened his horse at the gate, and went slowly up the walk, wondering a little if they would be surprised. A bright light came from Ernestine's window, and out from down stairs, falling across the porch floor; and before ringing the bell, he paused a moment, and looked in. How bright and homelike everything looked, and there, before the grate, stood the very object of his visit, making the prettiest picture imaginable, with a big kitchen apron on, her sleeves rolled up, and reading a letter. He knew it was Kittie, in a moment, for in her hair was a knot of scarlet ribbon, and the foot resting on the fender wore a bow, of the same color, astride its slippered toe—little niceties that Kat, was seldom, if ever, guilty of.
Beatrice answered his ring, and tried to look as though she had not expected some one else, some one who would have given her a more cordial greeting, than "Good evening, Miss Dering."
"Good evening, Mr. Murray; walk in, please, and I will call mama," said Bea, ushering him into the sitting-room, with some little wonder, and going up stairs.
Kittie had vanished with her letter; but as Mr. Murray sat down, he saw the envelope on the table, and immediately experienced the most peculiar and unpleasant sensation, on observing the masculine scrawls thereon. What gentleman was writing to her? he wondered, with quick resentment; and the next moment Kittie came in, and found him studying that envelope closely. She had thrown off her apron, and let down her sleeves, and he thought she looked prettier the other way, though he found that either way she was suddenly invested with a stronger attraction than ever; for a little competition will always make us more eager, and the star of our desire much brighter. He explained, with a laugh, as they sat down, that he had just been admiring the free, easy chirography on the envelope; which same was a fib of first degree, but then—
"It is Cousin Ralph's; I think it beautiful," said Kittie, unconsciously obliging, but giving no relief, for Mr. Murray's mind went back to the day he met "Cousin Ralph," handsome, manly fellow, and he remembered that it was only second cousin, and that Ralph had been very attentive to Kittie at the picnic, and that—oh, what didn't he think, all in a few minutes; and how true it is that
"Trifles light as air, are to the jealous, Confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ."
The rebound from a feeling of perfect security to one of miserable doubt, at finding the field already taken, nearly drove Mr. Murray into a precipitancy that he might have regretted forever. As it was, he answered Kittie's inquiries for Pansy, in a pre-occupied way, that was surprising, and seemed too much pleased with that envelope to ever lay it down; and yet, with all his looking, he failed to discover that the name, in a maze of flourishes, was Miss Kathleen Dering, instead of Miss Katherine. Just so do we make up our minds to see things in a certain light, and see them so, in spite of fate.
How pleasant it was, sitting there in the warm firelight, with Kittie opposite, in the low rocking chair, and no one else near. It seemed so homelike and sweet to this man who had no fireside of his own, and only a memory of one short, happy year, when another girlish face and heart, not unlike Kittie's, had been all his own. He wished now, that no one else would come in to spoil this cozy chat; but they did, in just a moment—Mrs. Dering and Bea; and Kittie resigned the low rocker, for a corner over on the lounge, to his great regret.
They all heard with polite and honest expressions of regret, that he was going to leave for the city on the next day; but after hearing that he was going to leave Pansy behind, Kittie was quite satisfied.
"I have no home, you know," he said, looking at Mrs. Dering, with an expression that caused her kindly heart to pity him. "I shall board, and be hard at work 'till late every night, and poor little Pansy would have a dreary life with a hired nurse. Besides, the influences surrounding her would not be such as I would like. So Sister Julia has kindly promised to keep her until I can make some arrangements, and become a little settled."
He staid for some time; promised to call in and see Olive, who had gone to her studies at last; and then he rose to leave. If he held Kittie's hand a little longer than any of the others, no one noticed it; and if, in that good-bye, his eyes went to her face less guarded in their expression than usual, no one noticed that either, because no one dreamed of such a thing.
"May I have Pansy with me as often as I want her?" asked Kittie, just before he left.
"Certainly; I shall always be pleased to hear that you still love the child, and that she is sometimes with you," he answered, lingering, as if loth to go. But at that instant a step was heard on the porch, and a certain expression in Bea's face warned him that the sitting-room would now be in demand; whereupon he gave a hasty good-bye, and left; not without a little envy for Dr. Barnett, who entered at the same moment, and who came, in the full assurance of recognized right, such as was not yet Paul Murray's.
Of course, the family discreetly retired, after a few words of greeting to the young man, and while the cozy sitting-room took unto itself these
"Two souls with but a single thought,"
the others went up to Ernestine's room to finish the evening.
TO REAR, TO LOVE, AND THEN TO LOSE.
Spring came, and with it much that was of absorbing interest, of untold importance, and yet so sad. In May, Bea would leave the home of childhood and girlhood, and would be mistress of one of the prettiest little cottages in Canfield. She was blithely happy, and sang and sewed from morning until night, in a blissful content, that made mother and sisters smile and sigh at once; and wonder how home would seem with Bea gone. Such marvels of pretty things as had been made, and such a little gem of a bower, as the new home was, and how happy and gay everything was, to be sure. Every Saturday night, when Olive came home from the city, her first trip was to the little cottage, to see the latest improvements; for there were several, in the way of a verandah, a frail, spidery looking summer-house, with a sick looking vine started over one corner, a new front fence, and a hitching post. Each and every one was of greatest importance and everybody in Canfield was as interested, as though they were one great family, just marrying off their first daughter. Bea visited her future dominion every day, as did the twins; but Ernestine was not to go, until everything was ready for the new occupants, and then she was to pass her opinion on the whole, and suggest any changes that might strike her graceful fancy.
"It must have a name," said Bea, coming in one day, just a week before the wedding. "When Meg got married in 'Little Women,' she went to housekeeping in a little cottage, and they called it Dovecot. What shall I call mine?"
"Call it a house and let it go; better not begin with fancy names and all that, it won't last," advised Kat, rigidly practical.
"Yes, it will—always," asserted Bea, with the fond delusive belief, experienced by every women when in love, that life will be one endless courtship and honey-moon.
"I think a name is a pretty idea," said Kittie, recalling all the Roman titles she had ever heard of. "Call it—let's see, call it Fern-nook."
"Yes, I would," laughed Kat "It's so appropriate. There's not a fern within a mile, and not the ghost of a nook anywhere."
"Well, I thought Bird's-nest a real pretty name," said Bea, swinging her hat by its ribbon, and looking thoughtful. "But, somehow, I want something else."
"What kind of flowers are you going to have?" asked Kittie, with a view to selecting something appropriate this time.
"Geraniums in the big bed in front, with a border of some kind, then I will have vines all over the porch, and a lily in the little urn, and a heart-shaped bed of pansies under that shady side-window. None of those do for a name, though."
Kittie confessed that they did not, but said in a moment:
"We'll go up and ask Ernestine, if she can't think of something no one else can." To which they all agreed, and hurried up stairs forthwith.
Ernestine was sitting up in the big rocker, in a lovely white wrapper, and a little fancy scarlet sacque. She looked very frail and weak, though very lovely, and much interested when the important question was put to her. The girls had perfect faith in her selection, and waited patiently, as her eyes went from the budding trees outside, to the gleams of sunshine playing across the carpet, then to the bunch of purple pansies in the vase on the table.
"Call it Hearts-ease," she said.
"I told you," cried Kittie. "That's just the name."
"Hearts-ease it is, to the end of the chapter;" exclaimed Kat with a flourish as of benediction.
"Yes, that is lovely—and there comes Walter, I'll go right down and tell him," said Bea, and flitted gayly away.
"A penny for your thoughts, Ernestine," said Kat, watching her eyes go out to the sunshine again with a dreamy smile.
"I was thinking how happy everything was," answered Ernestine slowly. "It's all so lovely. Olive is doing so splendidly in her painting. Bea is so happy. Jean is coming home, and—I am here. I can hardly believe it even now, and I so often wonder if I'm happy enough."
"This will be a gay old household," said Kat briskly, warmed into gayety by the sad tone of the invalid's voice. "Uncle Ridley will make Bea a handsome present I expect."
"How strange and delightful it will be to have Jeanie home, bless her precious little heart," cried Kittie with loving eagerness. "I can hardly wait, and mama seems almost too happy to live."
"Jean has not changed much," said Ernestine. "She is taller and sweeter looking, but just the same dear, quiet little thing. She walks with a cane now, and is perfectly straight. How glad I shall be to see her, I wish she was coming to-day!"
She came the next, as if in answer to their eagerness and longing, and this is the way it happened.
Mrs. Dering was in the hall, when she saw a carriage stop at the gate, and though Mr. Congreve and Jean were expected in two or three days, it never occurred to her, that they might come before; so while she took off her apron, and brushed a little flour—having been in the kitchen—from her dress, the arrivals had left the carriage, and were coming in at the gate. She got as far as the door, then paused, and caught her breath as if in a spasm of sudden joy.
Coming up the walk with swiftly flying feet, outstretched arms, and glowing face wildly eager, was a light girlish figure in a pretty travelling suit, and the mother, feeling her strength forsaking her knelt down on the porch and opened her arms, her lips dumb, her eyes blinded with great joyful tears.
Could it be? Oh, had God been so good? Was the flying figure, with strong perfect limbs and bright eager face, her crippled, crooked little Jean? It seemed a dream too blissful to be true but the next moment, their arms were clasped, and Jean's tears and kisses fell like rain, on her mother's face and hair.
"Oh mama; precious darling mama! are you glad? are you happy that I'm well? Speak to me, mama; what are you crying for?"
"I'm so happy, darling. Oh, my little Jean, I'm so glad and grateful," cried Mrs. Dering, with a great sob, as she folded the little girl closer, and kissed her again and again. "I knew you would come back to me better, I did not dream you would come well. Why did you not tell me, darling?"
"I wanted to surprise you," began Jean; but just then Kat came into the hall, beheld the astonishing spectacle, and with one shrill utterance of Jean's name, that summoned the whole family, she had rushed to the porch, and taken the little girl in a great hug.
Well, what a hub-bub there did follow! How everybody hugged and kissed everybody, in the abandonment of joy; how Uncle Ridley was deluged with caresses, and suddenly found himself holding Mrs. Dering in his arms, and patting her wildly on the back, while she cried on his shoulder. And didn't Ernestine creep slowly down stairs, and appear like a frail spirit in their midst, and wasn't she whisked on to the lounge in a hurry, and kissed heartily by every one in the excitement.
"God bless my soul! How happy we all are!" cried Mr. Congreve, with a final gasp of joy, and sitting down with an exhausted smile. "I never expected to be in such a good humor again as long as I lived—no I never did. I'm fairly swelled up with happiness, and I've bust a button right off my vest."
Everybody laughed heartily. Gay words and blithe laughs hung on every one's lips; everything was sunshine, and every one was happy. What a household idol was Jean in the days that followed! How mother and sisters clung to her, watched her walk—oh, joy of all joys—so straight and free; and how many, many times did Mrs. Dering go to Mr. Congreve, and put her arms about his neck, like a child, to thank him, again and again, as the agent whom God had sent to be the means of answering her most fervent prayers!
Well, to be sure, as Kat had said, it was a lively household now.
The day before the wedding, the girls all went over to the new house—to "Hearts-ease." Mr. Phillips sent the buggy over so that Ernestine could go, and she and Bea drove over, while the rest walked. It was a pretty little place, indeed, as they came in sight of it, nestled under a big tree, that was just budding into pale green in the spring sunshine. Everything was ready for the young bride to take possession on the next day, even to the mat laid before the front door on the new porch, and the bright tin cup hanging to the freshly painted pump in the little back yard.
Bea unlocked the door, with an air of proud importance, and they went in, all anxious to show Ernestine and Jean every corner, as it was their first visit. The little mite of a square hall, and the small sitting-room on one side, were covered with brown and white matting, with soft, woolly rugs of brown and white. Curtains of soft, shady brown were at the windows, and the walls were papered in clear creamy white, with a deep border of brown dashed in gold. The chairs were all willow, also a pretty, standing work-basket, already filled with some of Bea's light work; and there, on the table, lay some of the young doctor's books and papers. The tiny dining room next, with its round table and new chairs, its little closet, with the shelves covered with snowy paper, and well stocked with dishes, all plain and cheap, but of pretty shapes and serviceable strength. Then the kitchen, shining with new tin, and a brisk little stove, and the rack hung with neatly-hemmed dish-cloths; the brand new cake of soap on the table, and the orderly line of pots and kettles—oh, it was all a sight to tickle your eyes.
Up stairs, the ceilings were low, and a very tall person would have bumped his head unmercifully, but then, it all looked lovely. The pretty bedroom was all in blue, and nearly everything in it was the work of Bea's hands. She had made all the pretty mats on stands and bureaus, also the carpet ones on the floor. The daintily ruffled Swiss curtains, knotted with blue bows, she had made, washed, fluted and put up. All the fancy, pretty work about the bed was hers; and the bunches of forget-me-nots that adorned the chamber-set, looked as though they had sprung into real life on the snowy surface, instead of having been stuck and artistically plastered on. Oh, it was all lovely, and beyond improvement, every one said, and Bea laughed and looked so proud and happy.
"This is to be my spare room," she said, throwing open the door to the back room. "The view from this window is just as pretty as the front, because it looks off to the hills; and just as soon as we are able, we will furnish it, and I shall fix it just like my room, only in pale pink. Won't it be lovely?"
"Ecstatic!" cried Kat. "Who is it to be for?"
"All of you. I expect you and Kittie will have it first, when mama and Jean and Ernestine go to visit Uncle Ridley next year. There are lots of things we can't afford yet," Bea continued, as they went down stairs. "I haven't anything to put in the hall, and it looks a little bare, but I don't mind it much. Then the parlor hasn't a thing in it except the carpet and curtains; but I can wait easy enough. I don't want Walter to think I'm at all dissatisfied or want to be extravagant, because I think everything is just lovely, and I'm so happy."
"Uncle Ridley said when he started for the city this morning, that it was because he was in a hurry to see Olive, and to bring her home to-night; but I just know he's going to bring you something beautiful!" exclaimed Jean, who had flitted everywhere, like a butterfly, and looked radiant with happiness.
"Of course he'll get something," said Kittie, polishing the slim, shining bannister with her handkerchief. "Let's hurry home; the train has just come in since we left, and I know Ralph has sent something; he said he was going to send his representative."
"I don't see anything that can be changed," said Ernestine slowly, as they took a final peep into the sitting-room, "unless you put that bracket with the figure under the picture over the mantel, and leave that space between the windows for the head that Olive is going to paint for you."
"Yes, I'll do that. And now come; you look so tired, dear. Kittie, unhitch Prince for me, will you, while I lock up?"
"Oh, Bea, dear! I hope you will always be so happy," exclaimed Ernestine, with a wistful sadness in her voice, as they drove slowly home; and she laid her head on Bea's shoulder with a tired sigh. "It all seems so lovely, and I am so glad, though I shall miss you so after you are gone."
"But I'm not gone," said Bea, much touched, as she slipped her arm around the frail form with a loving pressure. "I'll be over home every day, and you will come and stay with me, and everything will be just as it is now, except that Walter will be your brother, and you know he loves you like one now."
"Yes, he is a dear fellow, and he will make you happy, I know. But I will not have you always, as I have since I came home—there, the girls have beaten us home, and Kat is waving her hat over the gate, so I suppose the box has come from Ralph."
Bea drove faster, in pleased anticipation, and as soon as they drew near, Kat cried excitedly:
"Hurry up! It's come! pretty near as big as the woodshed, and awful heavy! Kittie and Jean are getting the nails out. Don't stop to hitch. Prince is too glad to be here to go off of his own accord. Here, Ernestine, let me carry you," and, as she spoke, she caught the frail, light form in her strong young arms, and walked off to the house with perfect ease, while Bea tied Prince, and followed in a flutter. Sure enough, an immense box stood on the back porch, with the whole family around it, waiting for the owner to unpack, and Bea went down on her knees beside it, and began to throw out straw with an excited laugh.
"Oh, my patience! dishes!" cried Kittie, as the first bundles began to appear, and immediately arose the most extravagant cries of delight and approval, as one by one, Bea took out, and unwrapped the daintiest morsels of china, exquisitely painted in grasses, butterflies and flowers. Oh, how lovely they were; the frail, tiny things, looking more like fairy waiters than anything intended for mortal use. Then came a dozen tea-spoons, table-spoons, knives and forks, all engraved; a lovely card basket, swung by a silver chain, from the finger of a winged Mercury; two beautiful napkin rings, marked "Walter" and "Beatrice;" a dozen of the finest damask napkins, with a gorgeous "B." in the corner; and lastly, a fancy dust-pan and brush, an indescribable sweeping cap, six of the most perfect kitchen aprons, a patent stove-hook, and an old shoe, with "Good Luck," painted in red letters on the sole.
"Oh, I declare, I never did!" cried Bea, sitting down on the floor, to laugh and cry at the same time. "Isn't it all too lovely!"
"What does the card say?" asked Jean, as the others began to carry in the china and things. "Just
"'BEATRICE, FROM AUNT TREMAYNE AND RALPH,'"
answered Bea, looking at the card, that had been tied with a white ribbon to the nose of the tea-pot. "How good they are! I'm too happy to live."
So it seemed, as she helped take in the things, laughing and crying, and touching them with careful, caressing fingers. They made a most imposing show when arranged on the table, and during the day more modest presents, that came in from well wishing friends, were added to the collection. There came a fancy clock from Mr. Dane, three dozen handsome towels and four beautiful table spreads from Mrs. Dane; and a variety of little things from the young people, with whom Bea was a favorite.
As soon as Mr. Congreve and Olive arrived, on the evening train, they were taken in to view "the show," but the old gentleman added nothing to it, to every one's surprise; though he seemed pleased with everything there, and said it was a plenty for one bride.
After supper, Olive disappeared and was gone some little time, but where, no one knew, and finally Mr. Congreve jumped up, with the remark, that he had heard her say something about Mrs. Dane's, and as he knew where it was, he guessed he'd walk over after her.
"Never mind, Uncle Ridley, if she is there, Mr. Dane will walk home with her, and you must be tired," said Mrs. Dering.
"God bless my soul, Elizabeth! I'm not an old man," exclaimed the crusty old gentleman of seventy odd years, as he threw open the door, and strode briskly out into the May moonlight. "I think a great deal of your Olive; she's a thorough Congreve, and I'd rather lose my best handkerchief than have anything happen to her—I had indeed. So go in, my dear, go in," and Mrs. Dering obediently went in, as he tramped briskly down the walk.
That last evening of Bea's in the old home came very near being a sad one, in spite of every one's attempt to the contrary. Ernestine stayed down stairs for the first evening since her illness, and the excitement brought a stain of color into her white cheeks that made her look more like her old self, as she lay on the lounge.
Bea sat on the stool at her mother's feet, and Mrs. Dering softly caressed the plump, white hand, that to-morrow she would give away, and now and then a pause would come, when the mother's eyes would fill with tears, and her lips tremble, and then some one would rush in, to break the silence, and thrust irrelevant nonsense into the groove cut for April tears.
Wherever Mr. Congreve and Olive came from, they had a serious talk on the way home. Something evidently disturbed the old gentleman's mind, and he fidgetted nervously, until he had relieved himself with the explosive remark:
"So you sent Roger home, did you?"
"No, sir, he went," answered Olive, with a smile but with some surprise.
"Humph! He did, and what did you say, to make him come home, looking like a criminal expecting to be hung?"
"I said I couldn't love him, and I can't and don't," answered Olive, feeling provoked to think that Roger couldn't keep his own counsel.
"Tut, tut! what did you say that, for?"
"Because it's the truth; I like him very much indeed, but I don't want any lovers, I'm too young, and something else to think about," exclaimed Olive with unmistakable aversion to the thought.
"Heighty-tighty! your mother was married at eighteen," cried the old gentleman briskly.
"I can't help it, sir. I never want, or expect to marry. My work is all I want."
"Yes, but your work will fail you some time, child; a one-sided love on a single altar soon burns itself out for want of fuel. There must be
"'The happiness thrown on from kindred flames to sustain A spark of devotion for a lifeless love.'
"The time will come when you may be alone in the world, and I'm much mistaken if your art alone will satisfy the cravings of your woman's heart."
Olive listened in some amaze to such a lengthy speech from the usually short spoken gentleman; and though she felt no less certain of lifelong satisfaction with her art, she asked meekly.
"What would you have me do, Uncle Ridley? I don't love him."
"But are you sure you don't, my child? I knew he loved you all along, and it made my old heart glad; but I never knew how very dear you were to him, until he came back from here, and told me what you had said. You think marriage would interfere with your work, but it will not; why, Roger is as proud and anxious for your success as ever you could be for yourself. He told me that if you would only let him share your work and efforts, that he would take you abroad, that you should see the finest paintings the world holds, and that you should study with the finest masters. You—" but here he paused, for Olive gave a gasp, and turned white as a ghost in the moonlight. Abroad, masters! The words struck her like a flash of lightning, and made her tremble with a great rush of delicious longing. She clung to the old gentleman's arm for a moment, and wondered if she was dreaming; but his next words brought her back; though she heard them but dimly.
"Here is a letter for you; he wanted me to bring it, and Olive, don't make up your mind too quickly. Both you and Roger are very dear to me, and I would like to see you both happy before I die—as I suppose I must before many years, and—and—confound it! where's my snuff?—I hope you will send a different word back to him."
Olive took the letter and put it in her pocket, still in that dazed wonder, and when they reached home, she longed to go off up stairs, and think it over alone, but it would be unkind on Bea's last evening; so she followed Mr. Congreve into the sitting-room, where a chorus of questions met them.
"God bless my soul, what curiosity!" cried the old gentleman, crustily. "She went down town and I went after her, let that do."
So no one asked another question, except Jean, who got on to his lap with the freedom of one who knew that nothing she did would receive reproof; and she whispered something in his ear, that made him smile good-naturedly, and immediately take an immense pinch of snuff.
That night, as on the one so long ago, when Mr. Congreve made his first visit to them, two persons found it hard to sleep, even after silence and slumber had long held the others.
To-night, as on that other, Mrs. Dering sat alone in her room, only now she sat by the window, instead of the dying fire. Now, as then, Jean slept soundly, only now her childish face wore the rosy flush of health instead of feebleness and pallor, and the little form was straight and perfect, instead of crooked and crippled.
Who, but a mother, can appreciate a mother's thoughts, when she stands on the threshold of the first separation; the first giving up of her own into another's love and keeping "for better, for worse, until death should them part." The pale young moon climbed slowly up above the tree-top, and just as its slanting rays reached the window-sill, and fell in across the floor, the door opened carefully, and Olive's voice spoke:
"Mama? You are up?"
"Yes, dear; are you sick? What is the matter?"
"Nothing. I only want to tell you something;" and Olive pushed the stool up as she spoke, and sat down.
"I meant to tell you before, but somehow I never did. Will you listen now?"
"Certainly, dear;" for well enough she knew that something weighed on Olive's mind to bring her there at that time. So Olive told her story, without a blush or hesitancy, from the beginning down to the receipt of the letter; and as Mrs. Dering watched her face in the pale light, so clearly expressing its dislike to any lover, and its rapt devotion to her art, she knew well enough what the decision would be.
"And I'm going to say no," finished Olive, at last. "Have I done right, mama?"
"Perfectly, Olive. I am surprised, and yet not wholly so, for something of the kind occurred to me when he was here. Never marry where you do not love, dear. No possible advantage, influence, or station, that can be gained by a loveless marriage, will ever be sufficient recompense for the galling misery of two hearts, grinding their life out, for want of sympathy and mutual love to oil the way. I admire and think a great deal of Roger Congreve, and you have won the love of a good man, dear, which if true, will bide its time patiently, and when you are older it may seem different to you."
Olive looked up in mute amazement. Even mother said that to her.
"No," she said obstinately, in a moment. "I don't think it will be so. I know it will not. I'm sorry that he loves me, because it will always keep us from being friends. Mama, surely you would not have me do such a thing as get married, and drop my work, as I would have to do, more or less, with so many new duties?"
"No, dear, no; I am only too glad that your heart is still free, for you are too young to think of marriage. I would not consent to it. Besides you are quite right; with the duties and responsibilities of a wife, you could not devote your whole time and love to your art, and I should feel very sorry to think that anything is going to interfere with perfecting the talent which God has given you. But sooner or later, Olive, there comes to every woman, who stands alone, a yearning for love and home; a desire to feel that there is some one whom she can claim as her own, and to whom she is dearer than aught else. Love your art, dear, work faithfully in it, and if it should always satisfy your heart, I will be quite content, for then you will always be my own. If the other feeling ever comes, God will take care of it. Now go, dear; don't let this keep you awake longer, for we want all fresh faces to-morrow. Good night."
The clock struck one, as they gave a kiss in the moonlight, then Olive went slowly away; not a whit less certain, that every one was wrong, and she was right; no number of years could make any difference to her.
Everything joined in making the next day the brightest, and loveliest that had ever dawned. Never did a May morning sun come up with a purer glitter of gold; never had the birds sang so sweetly; and never before, as any one remembered, had the rose-vines over the porch, blossomed before June, and yet this morning, there were three snowy half-blown buds peeping in at the window of Ernestine's room, and she picked them to put in the bride's brown hair.
Pansy Murray came over early in the morning, and brought a beautiful bouquet to each of the sisters, excepting Bea, to whom she said with mysterious smiles: "I couldn't bring your bouquet, but our green-house man's going to come with it;" and then finding that Kittie was too busy to pay much attention to her, she devoted herself to Jean, whom she had seen once before, and fallen quite in love with.
Bea had had some little longings for a stylish wedding, but it had been impossible, besides, she had found that Walter preferred a quiet home one; so this morning, when the girls helped to dress her, and she put on her pretty brown suit, with the white rose-buds in her brown hair, she was perfectly content, and would not have had it otherwise.
"You look lovely," cried Kittie, with a rapturous sigh, when the last thing had been done, and they all drew back to inspect.
"That dress is a beauty, and you look like a daisy."
"What do you think?" cried Kat, rushing in just then. "Raymond's gardener has brought your bouquet, and what do you think it is?"
"What?" cried the girls eagerly.
"A beautiful wedding-bell, all of white flowers; and he's hanging it in the folding doors;" upon which announcement, every one ran down stairs, to view the new beauty, and the bride jerked the flowery clapper by its white ribbon; then departed in haste, and with a sudden shyness, as Dr. Barnett and the minister, were seen coming slowly up the walk.
No one cried when the supreme moment came, though Kittie was heard to sniff suspiciously, and Kat stared straight at a certain spot in the ceiling, until she was pretty near sightless; while Ernestine's eyes rested on the young wife's face, with a loving wistful sadness, that was pathetic, and made Mr. Congreve whisk his handkerchief briskly about his eyes. Mrs. Dering stood with her arm about Jean, Olive was next with her arm in Mr. Congreve's, and so they listened, and watched the little ceremony that gave Bea to another, and left the first vacancy in the home nest. As soon as it was over, and the rush of congratulations and kisses were given, Dr. Barnett took Bea's hand and with a lowly bow, said to them all:
"Mother and sisters, relatives and friends, my wife and I will be pleased to have you come with us to our new home, and help eat our wedding breakfast."
Everybody buzzed with surprise, and looked for explanation to every one else; but no one seemed to know more than another, even Bea, blushing like a rose, as she put on her new hat, looked as surprised as anybody. So there was nothing to be done but wait for some revelation.
The walk from the old home to the new, was very short, and as the gay party took it in the warm sunshine, every one on the way called, or smiled their congratulations to the pretty bride who walked with Uncle Ridley, while the young husband followed with his new-made mother. When they came in sight of the little cottage, there was smoke coming gayly from the kitchen chimney, and the front door stood widely open.
"What is it?" whispered Kittie, in a spasm of curiosity.
"A breakfast already for them," answered Olive. "Dr. Barnett has got Huldah, and Bea doesn't know it."
Well, dear me, what a jolly confusion did follow. Bea was too much overcome to welcome any one to her new home, and nearly gave way to tears when Huldah was seen bowing ecstatically in the back-ground, and saying over and over: "Welcome home, Mrs. Barnett, how-dy-do?"
"This is where Uncle Ridley and Olive were last night," cried Jean excitedly, throwing open the parlor door, and pushing Mrs. Barnett in. "Just look!"
Bea tried to speak, but couldn't, and threw her arms about Mr. Congreve's neck, while everybody else "oh'd" and "ah'd" about the parlor door. For wasn't it furnished with three of the most beautiful easy chairs, a tiny lounge, two spidery-legged tables, with gilded chains—and—oh!—a piano! A shiny, beautiful upright piano, with a blue velvet stool.
"I didn't do it all, Olive did half," cried Mr. Congreve the first chance he had of making himself heard above the babel of admiration and gratitude; whereupon Olive put in a hasty denial. She hadn't done a thing but come over and arrange. Everything was from Uncle Ridley except the silver vase and bracket, between the windows.
"Well, you've seen it now, that'll do. I was invited here to breakfast, and I'd like to have it," cried the old gentleman, in a testy voice, which the good-natured gleam in his sharp eyes denied. So everybody pranced into the dining-room, and Bea was placed behind the coffee-urn, and couldn't do a thing but blush, and look too happy and overcome to attend to her duties.
Perfect silence fell, as the young husband lifted his hand, and in a voice that trembled slightly, asked the minister to request a blessing on this, the first meal in the new home. But when that was done, everybody broke into a babel of fun again, and a merrier meal was never witnessed anywhere.
"I shall come over and call on you this afternoon, Mrs. Barnett," was Kat's good-bye, when good-bye moment came.
"Everything is lovely; may you live long, and always be thus gay," said Kittie, who began to feel a queer sensation in her throat, and wanted to get off in a hurry.
"I don't know what to say, except that I want you to be so happy, Bea dear," Ernestine said, giving a good-bye kiss lingeringly.
"Well, I think weddings are splendid, though I wish you wasn't going to have a new home, Bea," remarked Jean with regret, as she tied on her hat, and shook hands with her new brother.
"I shall miss you dreadfully, and our room will seem so lonely," was Olive's next remark. "But you must not let us be apart much."
"I will not," said Bea with full heart and eyes. "I will never love you any less, and we will all be just the same, except that you'll have a brother, and you know you've always wanted one."
"I hope you'll be happy, dear child, I do indeed," said Mr. Congreve, with an exhaustive hand shake. "But married life is full of swampy places, and you must both be careful. I've only one piece of advice, and that is, whatever you do, don't let your confidence and trust in each other get a shake, for it is the tree of married life, and one shake will knock off more apples of love and happiness than can ever be replaced."
"God bless you both," said Mrs. Dering, with one hand in that of her daughter, the other in that of her new son. "I give her to you freely, Walter, with perfect faith in your love and loyalty, and a dear daughter is the most precious gift a mother ever yielded up. Be worthy of each other's perfect love and trust, and once more, God bless you. Good-bye."
To hear, to heed, to wed, Fair lot that maidens choose; Thy mother's tenderest words are said, Thy face no more she views. Thy mother's lot, my dear, She doth in nought accuse; Her lot to bear, to nurse, to rear, To love—and then to lose.
WHEN GOD DREW NEAR AMONG HIS OWN TO CHOOSE.
"And is that the word you are going to send back, Olive?"
"And Roger must go abroad, alone?"
"I suppose so, if he goes at all."
Mr. Congreve sighed, and Olive began to tap her foot impatiently on the grass.
"Uncle Ridley, I couldn't; I should hate him; I should hate myself and my art, too, if I felt that I owed all its success to some one else. He would be miserably unhappy, and so would I. Even if I loved him as he wants me to, I couldn't accept everything from him."
"Too proud, Olive, too proud; but then I suppose you are right; indeed, I shouldn't wonder if you were," muttered the old gentleman, walking slowly back and forth with his eyes down. "But I hate to take this word back to the boy, I do indeed."
"Well, I'm sure, he's a man, and I really think by this time, that he is quite reconciled to it. At any rate, he'll get over it before long," said Olive complacently.
"God bless my soul!" cried Mr. Congreve, pausing before her, with a puzzled wonder in his shrewd eyes. "Do you honestly so little realize what Roger's nature is, or how much the boy loves you, and how he is waiting to hear what word I bring!"
"He ought to know by this time that it is the same I gave to him. I told you, no, the day after you gave me the letter; surely, you told him so when you wrote."
"But I didn't, though. I thought, like as not, with the prospect of travel, you might change your mind after you'd thought about it more, and I told him that I was giving you time."
"You must think I am very weak and uncertain," said Olive with some impatience. "If he really is anxious for an answer, it is unkind to keep him waiting."
"Well, well, that's so, I know, but I must confess that I thought the masters and travel would bring you 'round," and Mr. Congreve shook his head, as if in dire perplexity.
"I had rather work day and night, and win my own success, be it ever so little, than to owe the widest fame to another. Besides, I don't want to be married, I wouldn't be for anything; I want to belong to myself, and do as I please!" cried Olive, vehemently; then slipped her arm through his, with a little coaxing gesture, such as she sometime used with the crusty old man, and said:
"There, Uncle Ridley, it is all settled, so let's not speak of it any more. There come Walter and Bea; we'll walk down to the gate and meet them."
This was all a month after the wedding, and it was the loveliest June Sunday, imaginable. Mr. Congreve had dreaded so to go back to Virginia without Jean, that he had yielded to their entreaties, and spent that length of time with them; but now he was going on the next day; and the old gentleman's feelings were so deeply stirred with the thought that he was obliged to resort to his crusty manners to hide them. He had most fervently hoped that Olive would change her mind, though possessed with an inward conviction that she would not; yet even while he so deeply regretted her decision, he could not but admire the independence, that refused to sit with idle hands, and receive every advantage and advancement from another. Surely, if Olive ever did marry, she would bring something to her husband besides her dependent self, and he might know, above all doubts, that indeed, he was truly loved in her heart of hearts.
Every member of the family had grown to dearly love the crusty, abrupt, peculiar old man, who wore the goodness of his heart like a mantle about him, yet so modest with it. They never knew, until after he had left them, how much good he had quietly done in his morning walks about Canfield. How he had bought poor little lame Katie Gregg a great wax doll, that could speak and cry; filled the pantry of the hard-working widow mother with packages unnumbered, pretending to be so innocent of the deed, when she found who was the giver, and tried to thank him. There came to them, for many days after he had gone, reports, here and there, of the little deeds of kindness and acts of thoughtful generosity, the need of which, he had discovered at odd times and said nothing about, with the modesty which is characteristic of the true giver.
The parting was a truly sad one, yet not without its funny side, for the old gentleman was so torn up in mind that his actions were irresistibly funny. He whisked his red handkerchief about with such energy that its edges were pretty near in strips; and he blew his poor old nose in such repeated and violent fashions, that it clearly resembled a highly colored tomato.
"There won't be any little girl any where," he said, mournfully. "It will be so lonesome in the morning, and in the evening, and all in the day, and I will wonder if Jeanie is never coming down stairs to sit in my lap in the old library. I shall get cross, and ugly as a bear, for want of two little hands to smooth the wrinkles out of my old forehead, and a dear little girl to keep my heart in good working order. It will all be dreadful! dreadful!"
There was something pathetic in the picture they made, sitting there. The old man, with his white head and tear dimmed eyes, holding Jean in his lap, with her arms about his neck, and his wrinkled cheek rested on her curly hair.
"I haven't very much longer to live," he went on, in that pathetic way, "and I shall have to crawl through the last little while all by myself. I suppose the dear good Lord knows best, but I don't see why He gave me two little girls to love, and then took them both away. Even Olive won't go back with me, and Roger will go off, and it will be dreadful! dreadful!"
So far down had the poor man's spirits gone, that he seemed perfectly lost in pathetic resignation. Even the apparently unquenchable handkerchief hung limp and inactive from a coat-tail pocket, where it had been jammed in a moment of unresigned despair; and the big tears dropped one by one on Jeanie's hair, as he talked now in that quiet, grieved way.
"Will you come back to us?" asked Mrs. Dering, much touched, and laying her hands on his shoulder. "We should so love to have you, Uncle Ridley, all of us. Go home and send Roger off if he wants to go; leave the Hall with such old servants as you can trust, and then come back to us, and call this home. Will you?"
"Will I?" Mr. Congreve jumped up, and the handkerchief came out in all its color and activity. "Are you really in earnest, Elizabeth? Would you have such a crusty old humbug as I am, around?"
"In the truest and warmest earnest, Uncle Ridley."
"Oh, please do," cried Jean eagerly; and the other girls echoed it.
"If I ever! God bless my soul! I never did!" exclaimed Mr. Congreve, falling back into his chair, perfectly overcome. "You will let me come and stay till next summer, then you and Jean and Ernestine go home with me, as you promised?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Dering.
"Well, well, I might have known that the good Lord would fix it some way. That's just the thing. I'll do it, Elizabeth; I will. Where's my snuff-box and satchel! It's pretty near train time."
Jean ran to get them, while Mr. Congreve went up stairs to say good-bye to Ernestine; and when he went off at last, it was in the gayest possible spirits, with promises to be back as soon as Roger started abroad; and so all the sadness was taken from the parting.
They thought he would be back in, at least, a month, but the time lengthened itself into three and four, and yet he did not come. Roger was sick, to begin with, and did not gain strength very rapidly, and nothing could have made the old man leave him.
"But I can stand it very well," he wrote. "I know that it's not going to last, so I can keep up plenty of spirits, with thinking of the time when I will come. The boy is getting better fast, and as soon as he settles up a little business, he is off, and then I will shut up and be off likewise, in a hurry."
But they at home, found hands and hearts busy with new work that was sadly brief and bitter. As the warm weather came, Ernestine began to fail rapidly. She suffered no new pain, and uttered no complaint, but as the days went by, and the intense heat of summer burned all purity and life from the air, she just seemed to droop, and bow her head feebly beneath the oppressive heat; and the frail stem of life snapped, with the weight of its own slight self. They had hoped against hope, that the sad end could be fought off, and with the first coming of warm days, Mrs. Dering had proposed going to the sea-side with her; but Dr. Barnett, who had fought eagerly and desperately with the dread disease, told them that it would do no good. The excitement might only hasten the end, and better to leave her quiet, and so contentedly happy as she seemed, than to bring new faces and new scenes to worry and distract the last feeble remnant of her strength. So they submitted themselves to his word, as one of authority, and took upon themselves the sad duty of watching a loved life drift peacefully out, and trying to say, as the end drew near: "Thy will be done."
The big rocking-chair, the pretty wrappers, and gayly colored sacques were all laid aside now. The feeblest strength could no longer lift the frail form, and all the patient sufferer said when lifted or moved was, "I'm so tired; that will do; it is quite easy." Then the short breath would give out, and she could only thank them with her eyes, that daily grew more eloquently beautiful, as though the spirit, refined through suffering, were taking its last, long farewell look at mother and sisters, and uttering wordless thanks, which the heart loving then framed, but the lips weakly refused to utter.
"The end is not far off," Dr. Barnett said, one sultry August night, after he had left the sick-room. "I shall go down and telegraph for Olive to come on the first train."
Mrs. Dering laid her clasped hands on his arms with a little gasp, as of one long expecting a bitter draught, and finding the cup held to her lips at last. But she was very quiet.
"You think it will come to-night?"
"Hardly. She may live through to-morrow, but no longer, mother."
There was something so helpful in his presence, the warm, loving utterance of that dear name, and the strong, tender clasp of his hands, and she clung to him for a moment, as in recognition of the comfort and help he was, and had been in these sad days.
"They have telegraphed for Olive," Kittie whispered to Kat and Jean, as they three sat sleeplessly on the bedside, with their arms about each other, and a pale, hushed awe in their faces.
"That means that she is going to die," cried Kat, trembling. "Oh, how dreadful it is! I don't think it's right, no I don't."
"Hush," said Kittie, solemnly; but she couldn't say any more. Her own heart was sadly rebellious, and could not think it was right.
"It must be," said Jean slowly, in her sweet, quiet way. "God never does what isn't right; He can't, girls, though we can't always understand why some things are."
No one was disposed to speak further on the subject, the like of which has vexed many great minds, the world over, but they sat there hushed and quiet, and with awe-stricken hearts, as though they heard or felt the noiseless approach of the coming king, who passed them by, and went into the room where the pale mother watched and prayed beside the quiet sleeper.
Dr. Barnett came back soon, and brought Bea with him; but after looking in to speak a few hurried words that tried to be of comfort, she went into the other room, to take her place by the bedside, while the worn mother snatched a little rest, if not sleep, on the lounge near by. So the night crept slowly by, while anxious hearts and sleepless eyes kept sad vigil. In the first grey dawn of morning, Olive came; but when daylight fairly blushed into rosy sunshine, Ernestine awoke from a long sleep, clear-eyed, feverless, and rational, and recognized them all with a quiet, peaceful smile.
"You home in the middle of the week?" she said to Olive, with a little wondering surprise.
Dr. Barnett sent one swift, wordless glance of warning, and Olive caught it.
"Yes, I was not very busy this week and thought I would come home last night," she said, warmly pressing the almost transparent fingers lying on the coverlid, adding brightly: "How well you look this morning!"
"I feel better," answered Ernestine, slowly. "So strangely better; all rested and in no pain. Where is mama?"
"I—I feel so much better, mama," lifting the feeble hand, with a look of pleasure in her wan face. "It seems as if I was lying on the softest feathers, and all well again. Everything is so very easy, and I haven't any pain."
"You are much better, dear, and we are very glad;" but Mrs. Dering bent her head as she spoke, that no one might see the tremble of her lips, for well she knew, without any word or glance at her son-in-law's face, that the sufferer was passing into the sunlight of God's rest and love, and that the passing away of pain was because His hand had already touched her.
But to the girls it seemed different. To them, the clear, bright eyes, the quiet, easy breathing, and restful feeling, meant better for life, and they had a joyful jubilant time over it down stairs. They gathered the loveliest flowers in bloom, and took them up stairs, and Ernestine smiled brightly and even held them for a few moments in her weak hands, keeping a pure, pale, creamy bud, when they put the rest in water.
During the day Dr. Barnett brought some mail from the office, among which was a letter from Ralph for Kat, and a strange one from New York for Kittie, which proved to be from Mr. Murray.
"How funny!" she said, with a pleased smile.
"What is he writing to you for?" inquired Kat, sharing the general interest and curiosity to such an extent that she forgot her own letter. "Is Pansy sick?"
"No; he only says how she is, and how she wishes for me every day, and wants me to write a letter, all to herself," answered Kittie, too busy running her eyes over the few lines, with the signature
"Yours, most sincerely, "PAUL MURRAY."
in bold, handsome hand, to notice the different expressions in the eyes that were watching her pleased, smiling face. Perhaps no one detected therein just what Mrs. Dering did, for it takes a marvelously small thing, to open a mother's eyes. But then Kittie's pleasure was as innocent as a child's; she read that letter over and over, and admired the beautiful writing, but thought that all her pleasure grew from the fact of hearing from Pansy, who had been gone a month, and said, as she put it in her pocket, "It was very kind in Mr. Murray to write, I'm sure for I did want to hear from Pansy."
But every one forgot the letters after awhile.
At supper-time Ernestine asked for something to eat. She even raised herself from the pillow by her own strength, and said how very hungry she was, and as the girls left the room to get what she asked for, a strange cold thrill struck their hearts. Eagerly, as though famishing, Ernestine ate the cream toast that they brought, drank the chocolate, and asked for more.
"Give her all she wants," said Dr. Barnett, in answer to an appealing look from Mrs. Dering; and so they brought more, with the strange pain still in their hearts; and she ate it eagerly, with that unearthly brightness in her eyes, and such a fluttering stain of scarlet in her wasted cheeks. The sad truth came first to Beatrice, as she looked from husband to mother, and read it in their pale, quiet faces; then it came to Olive, for she drew near, and put her arm around Bea, with a touch that both gave and asked for help; and then Kittie and Kat, seeing the hopeless sadness in their faces, suddenly realized that they stood in the dread presence at last, and with one accord turned to each other for help; while Jean crept to her mother's side, and hid her face in the folds of her dress. So death found them, as he drew near, and claimed a place before mother, sisters, or brother; but he did not come repulsively, or like the grinning head that portrays him to our mind's eye; instead, it seemed as though a white angel, with kindly eyes had drawn near, and breathed upon the sufferer before he kissed the life from her lips; for after a short stupor Ernestine awoke, and looked upon them with peaceful, shining eyes.
"Don't cry," she said, softly. "I am only going before, as papa did. I think I saw him while I slept, and I am not afraid. It is not a dark river, mama, but beautiful and bright, and nothing can happen, for God stands there and smiles. Please don't cry, or shut the windows; let the sunshine come in, and be glad that I will never suffer any more. Lift me up, mama."
Mrs. Dering did so, and with her head pillowed on that dear breast, Ernestine sank to sleep like a child, breathing softly; while the shadows fell, and no one stirred. But the early moon rose slowly, and lighted the room, and as she drew her last breath, with a fluttering little sigh, it fell across her face, pure and sweet, and touched the withered rose-bud, lying on the pillow.
Joy and sorrow, laughter and tears come and go and mingle as one in memory of the past. Between now and then, time weaves a veil, misty with tears of our sorrow, and diamond dusted with the bright laughter of our joy, and as we look through it, on the path that weaves our footsteps, the sunshine and shadows, that have fallen thereon, mingle and soften each other, so that neither the brilliant light of one nor the saddening shade of the other can pain our eyes, that look back, in wistful, happy memory.
In the fresh, pure air, that follows rain on a summer day, Kat was leaning from the window, and watching the sun go slowly down behind the hills; while slender spires of light shot up into the hazy atmosphere, and pierced the flitting clouds. She was gazing idly, with eyes in which many thoughts lay dreamily, and the slight smile that touched her lips came, perhaps, from something in the letter that lay open in her lap, or maybe from the distant view of a basket buggy, drawn by a white pony, coming slowly down the road, as though the riders were in no haste.
At any rate, she smiled; and it crept from the corners of her roguish mouth up to her eyes, and made her face very attractive, especially as she leaned it against the vines that crept in at the window, and looked thoughtfully down at the open letter. It was one such as she received very often now-a-days, as a very large pack, all of that year's date, much worn, and tied with a blue ribbon, would testify. Most of them were dashed boldly off on large office paper, with "Kathie dear," flourished into one corner, and news of all kinds, inquiries and odds and ends, filling several sheets, and "Yours, Ralph," in business scrawls at the bottom. But this was different. It was on small note paper to begin with, much more carefully written than usual, and contained no address whatever, simply starting off with what the writer had to say, and only filling three pages.
There was one particular place where Kat's eyes lingered, and where she smiled, very slowly, as though it was something not to be enjoyed fully, all at once; and we will look right over her shoulder and read it as she does again and again:—
"The time is up now, and I am coming, if you say for me to. Will you? All my work has been done with the hope that you would let me come and share my success, whatever it might be, with you. It has been my one thought, and greatest incentive since I learned to know, and love you, as I did in the old days, when we skirmished and were gay, together. To-day, when I saw my name added as junior partner, to the finest law firm in our city, I thought of you, and felt more willing and proud to offer you that name. If you bid me come, I will do so; the walk out to Raymond's is short, and shall I meet you on the road!
Should he meet her on the road? I've no way of telling you, I'm sure, for her answer is written and gone, and I, like you, will have to wait and see.
The white pony and basket buggy draws nearer, it comes through the gate and up the drive, and as Kat watches it, some one comes to her side and looks out also.
"They've been a dreadful long ride," says the new-comer, with an impatient relief, as she leans against the window.
"Yes," answered Kat, with a little start, just realizing the fact.
"I think it's very funny," Pansy continued, with a truly puzzled air. "When we was here before, papa always said to me, 'come, Pansy, let's go take Miss Kittie to ride,' and now he never does; he goes off all alone by hisself, and takes her."
"Is it possible!" said Kat with an air of interest.
"Yes, 'tis; an' he does a lot of funny things. Once when we was to New York, I wanted a penny, and he said to get it in his pocket, an' there wasn't one penny there, but all the pretty letters Miss Kittie had writed to me for my own. I thought 'twas so funny, but he said they were safer there, than in my box, an' I better leave 'm, so I did."
"Very strange," said Kat, with a solemn shake of her head.
"I'll guess I'll go down and ask him what for he didn't take me," said Pansy, going away, and leaving Kat to put her letter up and try to look quite composed before Kittie came.
You must know that this was two years later, and that the twins were spending a few weeks with the Raymond's, where there were several other young people. Olive was working hard and rising steadily, and had never once been heard or suspected of wishing that Roger Congreve would come home from the continent, where he still roamed and threatened to settle. She was completely devoted to her art, and was now paying her way by teaching, while she was being taught. Mrs. Dering and Jean were in Virginia, and when Olive or the twins came home, it was to Bea's home, where everything was cosy and happy, with the rising young physician and his pretty little wife.
Two years had made some changes in the twins, more perceptibly so in Kat than Kittie; for time and love work wonders, and while she would never quite reach the perfection of lady-like grace and dignity, that made Kittie so charmingly attractive, she certainly had quieted much, was more careful of her language and dress, and bade fair to be a most delightful little woman after all, and one that Ralph might well love and be proud of having won.
When Kittie came up stairs, she was very quiet, and in answer to inquiries, said that her head ached. Kat was relieved to think she would not have to be on close guard, for she did not feel like telling her secret just then, and had rather dreaded Kittie's eyes. But Kittie was wholly absorbed in something else; she put away her things, and sat down by the window without saying much.
"It's pretty near tea-time," remarked Kat presently. "Are you all ready?"
"I—don't believe I'll go down," said Kittie. "I'm not hungry."
"Humph!" thought Kat, with a sudden and intense curiosity. "I guess I'm not the only one that has a secret."
"Did you have a pleasant ride?" she asked, after some silence.
"Yes—very;" answered Kittie absently.
"You were gone long enough."
"I had a letter from Ralph;" guardedly.
"Yes; I expect he'll come before long."
"I'd like to see him;" with more interest. "Wouldn't you?"
"Yes—rather," answered Kat, with a smile at herself in the glass, where she was comparing the effect of pink, or blue bow in her hair. "I'm going down now; what shall I say for you?"
"That I've a headache, and not hungry," said Kittie, and Kat whisked gayly off, laughing to herself, to think how she had intended to be the mystifier, and instead, was the mystified.
When Kittie was alone, she went to the glass, and leaning her chin in her hands, looked herself steadily in the face, as though absorbed in a new and astounding discovery. It was hard to tell just exactly how it affected her, for she looked a good deal astonished, rather sober, but very much pleased and a little bit shy.
"I'm sure," she said, nodding to herself with all earnestness, "I never dreamed of such a thing before, but—but—I do believe it's so;" and then she colored up all of a sudden, and the reflection disappeared from view.
Kat came upstairs very soon after supper, and found her sitting in just the same place by the window, and just as little inclined to talk as before, which made matters seem uncomfortable.
"I declare!" muttered Kat, slamming about in the clothes-press, with no particular object in view, except to make a little noise. "This is abominable! I think she might tell me, but I'm not going to ask. I'm sure, I'd tell her quick enough, but she don't care, and I sha'n't 'till she asks me;" and then becoming aware of the inconsistency of her reflections Kat shut the door with some force, and sat down in silence.
There was no telling how long this pleasing quietude might have lasted, if it had not been for an immense bug that sailed in at the window, close to Kittie's nose, and began to bump gayly around the room, while both girls flew up, in feminine nervousness, and opened fire upon him, with any objects they might lay hands on.
"Good gracious!" cried Kat, after a breathless battle, during which three chairs had been laid low, various objects upset, and the lamp blown out. "Let the old thing go; it won't stay in the dark. What geese we are anyhow, afraid of a bug."
"I wasn't afraid," said Kittie, dropping into her chair with an exhausted sigh. "But they always make me fidgetty; and, beside, it came in right across my nose. Well, anyhow, it's cooler in the dark."
"What in the world are you so quiet for!" exclaimed Kat, in despair, after a few moments, during which silence settled again.
"I? Nothing," said Kittie, with a little start.
"Well, it's the truth; I didn't know that I was so quiet," said Kittie, who in truth had nothing to tell. "I'll talk gay enough if you'll start me on something."
"You never had to be started before," grumbled Kat, who would have teased and tormented unmercifully, had it not been for the weight of her own secret, which was wonderfully subduing.
"We had a delightful ride," continued Kittie, but with very apparent exertion. "Mr. Murray drove out by Hanging Rock, and that's five miles, you know, and then we came home by Craig's creek, and—it was very long. What did Ralph say? Where's the letter?"
"Oh!" said Kat, with a little gasp—for Kittie had covered the whole ground so quickly that it quite took her breath—"you can't read it in the dark, and if we light the lamp that bug will come back. It was only a small one. He has been admitted to the firm, and is coming pretty soon to see us."
Something in the voice, for Kat couldn't hide anything successfully, drew Kittie's thoughts from herself, and made her turn to look closely at the face just visible in the dark. It had been a settled fact in the family, for the past year, that Ralph was growing very fond of "Kathy dear," and that very likely she had been the great object in his thoughts when he went away, and promised to come back, and then—
"Kat," said Kittie, with great solemnity, when her thoughts reached that point, and she was conscious of feeling hurt. "I never thought you'd keep such a thing from me, and wait for me to ask."
"Neither did I think you would, but you are."
"Me? Why I've nothing to tell."
"Not a thing. And have you, really?"
"Nothing, except that he asked me if he should come, and I sent a letter right off, and told him yes," confessed Kat, relieved to share her secret, and feeling very glad and happy as she laid her head in Kittie's lap, as though to hide her face from the darkness.
Kittie entirely forgot herself in that moment. There came a little choking feeling in her throat, to think that she now came second in this dearest sister's heart, and she put her arms around her, with a little resentful, defiant clasp, and said nothing.
"Haven't you anything to confess?" asked Kat, in a moment.
"Come, dear; be honest."
"Not much," said Kittie, slowly. "You know, I always thought Mr. Murray was ever so much older than he is, and I never dreamed of his liking me, or any such thing, and it all seems so odd. But since he came this time, and we have been together so often, why—it all seemed different, you know, though I can't tell just how. To-day, while we were riding, I dropped some flowers out of my hair, and he picked them up, and asked if he might keep them, and—and—that's all," finished Kittie, quite shamefacedly.
"How romantic!" sighed Kat. "He'll say something pretty soon, and I'm very glad. It would be dreadful for one of us to go, and not the other. But it all seems odd, doesn't it, dear?"
So they sat together for a long time, dreaming the dream that comes rosily and sweet to all, and the silent clasp of their arms, and the pressure of their cheeks, laid together in the twilight, expressed the warm love that mutual joy brightened; and into this new experience, as in all that had come to them, they went hand in hand.
After awhile, Kat went down to the parlors, where the young people were, and a very funny thing happened. It was too warm to dance, play games, or, in fact, remain in the house; so they strolled out in the yard, and over the veranda, and once, as Kat sat alone in a big rustic chair, she saw Mr. Murray coming towards her. The light fell through the window, and out on to her face and head, showing a silver butterfly that Pansy had given to Kittie, fastened in her hair; and guided by this, Mr. Murray drew near, and paused at her side, never doubting that she was the one he had been in search of. A few words were sufficient to reveal his mistake to Kat, but some mischievous impulse kept her quiet as to her identity, so they talked on and on, and presently he began to tell of the home he had prepared in the city, and Kat's heart sank with a sudden thump, but what could she say? He went on without giving her chance to utter a word, and just as she was growing cold with apprehension, and hardly hearing what he was telling, he laid his hand on hers that were clasped in her lap, and said very tenderly:
"Will you share it with me, darling? I have hoped and dreamed that you would, and have made it beautiful for your sake. It has been many, many months since the sweet possibility"—but there Kat jumped up, scarlet and ashamed.
"Oh, Mr. Murray! I'm not Kittie; I'm so sorry; but I thought—I meant—I don't know just what. I'll tell her to come down and I think she will," Kat cried incoherently, and vanished with a complicated and wonderful gesture of her hands, that might have passed for a supplication for forgiveness, a benediction, or total despair, or most anything.
"Go down stairs," were her first words, as she rushed into the room where Kittie sat, and cast herself on to the bed with a hysterical laugh. "I've been, and gone, and done, and had a proposal from Mr. Murray, and you better go down quick. Oh, it's too funny, and he's dreadfully in earnest; there's something about a sweet possibility, and you'd better go down and listen to it."
"What do you mean?" cried Kittie, starting up, and dropping her book, with a vague idea that Kat had lost her senses.
"He thought I was you. Oh, it's too funny! and he is out there by the geranium-bed waiting for you," cried Kat, convulsed with laughter; and Kittie dropped into her chair, all trembling.
"Oh, Kat! how could you?"
"Bless you, I didn't do anything except promise to send you down, and you better go. There, you look like a peach. Put this little posy in your hair and go on."
"Oh, I can't," cried Kittie, all blushes and shyness.
"Yes, you can, you must; it will never do in the world!" exclaimed Kat with decision; so with many pauses, much hesitation and trembling, Kittie went, and appeared shyly before her lover with down-cast eyes, and all the sweet color fled from cheek and lips.
Of course, no one said anything, but somehow the secret crept into the gay company, and Kittie found her ordeal so trying that she threatened to go home.
"Of course we'll go as soon as Ralph comes," said Kat, who had her own reasons for wanting to get away then; so Kittie promised to wait those few days. It was very evident that Kat was going to meet him on the road, for one lovely afternoon, a few days later, she was seen to stroll away, dressed with particular care in a pale blue lawn, with bunches of forget-me-nots in her hair and belt, and a very big hat that conveniently and becomingly shaded her eyes, and flapped in the breeze as she walked.
The train was in; it had whizzed around the corner of Raymond's farm over an hour ago, and Ralph had had time to nearly make the distance between the depot and a certain tall sycamore tree, where she had decided to stop and wait; so she strolled slowly, with her eyes down, and thought of him. He would look just as he used to, she thought, not realizing the time that had elapsed, nor how much she had changed herself. There would be the merry dark eyes, and faint mustache, the eager, almost boyish face and figure, and he would kiss her, as he used to, and how funny it would seem, to think they were nearly engaged.
She smiled to herself, unconscious that he was drawing near, and eagerly watching the pretty, slight, blue-robed figure, strolling in the sunshine; but she looked up in a moment and saw him.
Was that Ralph? She felt her heart jump clear into her throat; as she paused, and stared at the tall gentleman rapidly approaching, and she had no strength to take another step. She had arranged a little speech to deliver at the proper moment, but,
"By the sycamore passed he, and through the white clover;"
then all the sweet speech she had fashioned took flight. He came nearer with eager brightness in his handsome eyes; he took her two resistless hands and looked under her hat-brim.
"Kathleen, is it you?"
At the sound of the voice, which was still the same, Kat was covered with a swift, shy confusion. She had expected a boy; there had come to her a man, who had come at her bidding, and who loved her. She longed to run away or hide her head, or something, but how could she when he held her hands, and persisted in looking under her hat.
"I expected to find you racing along the road or sitting on a fence, and waiting for me," he said, with a laugh. "I looked for my dear romp, and instead of that, I meet a graceful lovely young woman with the sweetest face in the world, and I don't believe she's glad to see me."
"What made you go and change so?" stammered Kat, still unable to reconcile the vision before her with the boyish Ralph Tremayne. "I'd never known you, anywhere."
"Nor I, you, hardly. What made you go and change so?" retorted he.
"Neither have I."
Whereupon they felt better acquainted, and laughed socially; then he kissed her, and slipped her hand through his arm.
"You're not sorry you told me to come, are you?"
"Not a bit. Are you sorry you came?"
"Not a bit. You're altogether lovely and charming, my dear, and may I tell you how much I love you?"
"I guess you'd better not. I'll have to get a little better acquainted with you first, you've gone and grown so big and handsome, and all that," answered Kat, feeling more comfortable, and looking up at him with some of the old saucy twinkle in her eyes.
"Bless those eyes," he exclaimed, with every symptom of telling the forbidden fact. "I must tell you, dear, that you have grown lovely."
"You told me that once."
"Don't you like to hear it?"
"I shouldn't wonder if I did. But I must tell you something important before we go any farther," said Kat solemnly.
"Do so at once; I'm listening."
"Well, Ralph, I've—I've had another proposal since I wrote to you," confessed the wretched little hypocrite, with lowered hat-brim.
"You have? By jingo! Who from?" Ralph dropped her hand, and the ruddy color went from his face suddenly.
"From a New York gentleman at Mrs. Raymond's, and—and—"
"Go on," said Ralph shortly, his voice cold and hard.
"He said he had built—no, bought—no, had a beautiful home, and asked me to share it, and I didn't know what on earth to say, so—I told him—that I wasn't Kittie, and then he changed his mind."
"Kathy!" What a blessing it was that no one was anywhere near, for right there in the sunshine, Ralph threw his arm around her and drew her close, to kiss the saucy lips and eyes. "How could you? I'm stunned out of a year's growth! Was it Murray?"
"Well, I don't think you'll miss it," laughed Kat. "Yes, it was Mr. Murray, and Kittie's going to share that home."
"You don't say so. We'll go off doubly and very soon, too, for of course the little mother will be willing."
"Yes, of course," said Kat.
So they strolled on in the sunshine, and the sweetest story in the world, gray with age, yet fresh as spring-time in their hearts, made the sunshine brighter than ever before to their happy eyes.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT. FIVE YEARS LATER.
The house was lighted from attic to basement, and though it was Christmas Eve, the air was like spring, for nature sometimes turns freakish, and smiles on us when we are expecting the cold shoulder. Here and there, a window was open, for the Derings always did love plenty of air; and so a merry sound of laughter and gay voices was wafted out into the night air, and the old trees rustled joyfully, as though the sound were a familiar and happy one to them, and it did their old bones—or bark, good to hear it. Even the vines, that clambered about as gayly now as ever—only closer and thicker, tapped on the windows and nodded their leafless heads, as though in welcome, and fairly rustled with joy clear down to their aged roots, to see all the dear children at home once more.
The front door stood hospitably open, as it had always had a trick of doing, and in the wide old hall were two children, one of whom sat on the stairs, with a sober, thoughtful face, while the other, in diminutive petticoats, was trying to stand on his head against the stout bannister-post. One failure followed another, in discouraging succession, but the little fellow kept determinedly at it, in spite of bumps and thumps, and finally succeeded in hoisting his fat legs up for the briefest second imaginable, which was perfectly satisfactory, and after which he righted himself, with serenely glowing face.
"Did," he said, triumphantly; to which the judge, sitting gravely on the stairs, assented with much solemnity, and seemed to be casting about in his mind for some other feat to propose.
"Hurts," said the young tumbler, rubbing his top-knot with a mite of a hand, and glancing severely at the judge.
"Stand on this," said the judge, coming down and offering his square inch of pocket-handkerchief, which was accordingly laid down by the post. "That makes it thoft; won't hurt now. Do't over."
With a readiness and faith that was sublime, he of the petticoats went at it, and had just succeeded in turning a side somersault, such as was never seen before, when further effort was nipped in the bud by some one coming into the hall.
"Good gracious!" cried a merry voice, as the tumbler was caught up, shaken, and set down with some force. "What are you up to now, Thomas, my lively son?"
"He wath standin' on hith head, auntie," explained the judge, with great politeness, as the tumbler appeared too much confused by all the circumstances to make any answer.
"Wath he, indeed?" laughed Thomas's mama. "Mashing his little head all to jelly; poor Tommy!"
"No," said Tom, whose remarks were more noticeable for brevity than anything else. "No shelly."
"Yes, indeed, little soft-head; come, ask papa," and with that Mrs. Tremayne—for who should it be but lively Kat—shouldered her small, but ambitious son, and carried him away. The judge looked forlorn after that. He folded his small handkerchief and put it carefully away in its tiny pocket, then he sat down on the lowest step and looked thoughtfully out of the front door, as though he expected further developments to arrive from that direction. Nor was he disappointed. There arose a sound of labored and energetic breathing from without, as of some one toiling up the steps, and then something in white fluttered across the porch, and in at the door, and the judge fairly beamed with delight and satisfaction.
"Hullo!" he said politely.
"'Llo," returned the new-comer.
"Where'd you come from?"
"Off," said the stranger, with a flourish of both small arms, intended to indicate some great distance. "Runned off."
"Did you? From Pansy?"
"Yeth." And the bunch of ruffles and brown ribbon shook its head with distinctive force, while the bits of slippered feet began to dance wildly up and down the hall.
"Mama'll come," said the judge, warningly, and, sure enough, out came a lady, with the loveliest face, and a white lace cap on her grey hair.
"Come, dears," she said, in a voice we know well and both flew to her, for who was dearer to their loving hearts than "Dramma?" "Time for little birdies to be eating supper, and getting little peepers shut up tight, before Santa Claus comes," she said, going towards the dining room, with a little hopper clinging to each hand, and playing peep around her. Tom was already at the table, pounding with his spoon, and smiling serenely through the milk that spattered his face from forehead to chin, and there were two other bowls and spoons and high chairs, ready and waiting.
"Naughty Louise," said Mrs. Kittie, as she lifted the white-robed morsel to her chair, and tied on her bib. "Run away from poor sister Pansy, and make her feel bad."
"All baddy, mama?" inquired Louise, looking over her bowl with repentant eyes.
"She comed in the front door," said Philip, otherwise the judge, who was the eldest hopeful of the Barnett household, and was, at present, under the care of aunt Kathy, as mama Bea had the baby in the sitting-room. "I thaw her," he went on to explain with care; but was evidently disgusted, that every one laughed and talked, instead of listening to him; so paused right there, and ate his bread and milk in silence and with dignity, not even unbending when Tom and Louise had a skirmish, and testified their cousinly regard, by throwing their spoons at each other, and upsetting what milk had been left in their bowls.
"Dear me, what children!" cried Kittie, running for a towel, with a laugh that sounded as though "such children" were very delightful.
"Thomas, Thomas!" said Mrs. Kat, with an air of grave reproof, such as she sometimes wasted on her lively son; and Thomas looked up at her, with roguish eyes, brimful of mischief, and fairly crowed with glee, a method of expression that he resorted to in gay moments, as it was still an exertion for him to talk.
When the young people were finally carried off to bed, every one went along, for the gentlemen were all down town, and what better could the mothers and aunties do than follow the procession headed by "Dramma," and watch the roguish imps get into their snowy little nests? There was much skirmishing and crowing, but it all ended in a doleful wail, for Tom fell out of bed and bumped his precious head, and refused to be comforted, in any way, shape, or form, until Philip was heard to remark with admiration:
"You stood on your head, Tom, and wath straight up," and that was Balm-of-Gilead to the infantile soul of that Young America, for he immediately ceased to weep, and looked content.
They all lingered there some time after the children had grown quiet, but finally went down stairs, and left Grandma rocking and watching, till the last little peeper should be closed, for she insisted on staying, as all the little folks were not with her always, and dearly she enjoyed each moment spent with them.
Down stairs, the sisters clustered about the fire, with all the old girlish love and glee, and looking at them, in that familiar group, very few changes were noticeable, for time brings few foot-prints if the heart is happy. Bea wore a matronly little cap of bits of lace and blue bows, and held in her arms a gleeful baby, with roguish eyes and sunny little rings of hair, who was named after dear grandma, and who obstinately refused to go "by-low," as any well regulated baby ought to do, by seven o'clock in the evening. Kittie and Kat, on the lounge with clasped arms as of old, looked scarcely a whit changed, though they were both indelibly stamped with the grace and elegance of city ladies, and had fulfilled the promise in girlhood, by becoming truly refined and lovely women. The little stool by the fire was not vacant, for there sat Jean as of old, with the same sweet face and lovely eyes, only now she was taller than mama, and the still childish face wore a perfect happiness, for on the hand that supported her chin, the firelight showed a ring, and in the smiling eyes any one could read the story of it. Olive was there too. Olive, of whom they were all so proud, and who was still Olive Dering; and time had made her very fair to look upon; for energy and purpose had stamped her face indelibly, and the clear eyes were beautiful in their light of strength and happy content. She was no longer a struggling girl, battling with all circumstances, and fighting her way into work, but a woman, restful, yet not resting, in perfect success; for every nerve was still alert to further progress, and every wish and ambition had been sacrificed to one great desire, which would next year be satisfied; she was going to Europe. Masters and travel awaited her eager heart, and her own hand had carved the way. Her studio in New York was filled with works; many homes, far and wide, owed their pleasure, in the portrayed face of some dear one, to her pencil or brushes; and a large class, constantly increasing in size, trod the first pathways of art under her careful guidance. And so with hard work and economy, the money had come in, and been laid away; and now at last, there was enough. Mother and Olive were going to Europe.
I know it is all very nice and easy to carry a girl through ambitious battles in a book, and after a lapse of years, which are left to the imagination, to bring her out, glowing with success, and with her heart's desire realized. It is done in a book this time; but Olive Dering's love and longing for art, her struggles, determination, and final success, are taken from the life of one who still lives, and who is now enjoying the perfect happiness earned by hard labor, in the galleries of the old masters. There had been toil and troubles and trials; discouraging tears and times of despair, in the years through which we have slipped without a pause; but it would do no good to tell them all; it is enough to know that patience, perseverance and will had overcome them, as there is rarely a case where they will not.
"Next year this time we'll not be here together," said Kittie, breaking a long pause, such as will often come, when hearts are content with worldless communion.
"Why not?" asked Jean. "Mama and Olive being in Italy, is no reason why you should not come and spend Christmas with me."
"Bless the baby, to think she will be married then," exclaimed Bea, caressing the brown head with loving hand. "Every one gone from the old home but Jeanie, and she presiding over it, a married lady; to think of it, girls?"
"So wags the world," said Kat with a brisk nod. "I think it would be sad to come here and spend Christmas, with Olive and mama gone; but you must all come to Boston, and if my house isn't big enough, I'll have an addition put on."
"No, my home is best," put in Kittie with decision. "It's between you all, and is plenty big enough. That is the place."
"Yes, indeed," chimed in Pansy, who was now a tall pretty girl of ten, and perfectly devoted to mama. "We want you to come to New York, and spoke about it before we left home; didn't we mama?"
"Yes, and we'll wage a brisk war with any one who puts in a claim, so you had better subside at once my dear," answered Kittie with a smile at her twin, which looked like most anything except a war-like preparation.
"There's the gate, the boys are coming," was the answer of Mrs. Kat, and sure enough, there arose a clatter of feet on the porch, a smell of cigar smoke in the air, and in came "the boys," with the usual amount of noise, which boys, big or little, invariably make; and then grandma came flitting down stairs, with a smile and a warning "hush;" and there they were all together.
Supper was a gloriously gay meal, where every one's health was drank in fragrant coffee, from Grandma Dering, down to Prince, who had been returned to the home of his youth, and was passing his last days in peaceful content, with just enough exercise to keep his old bones from rusting out too fast. And then they talked of those who were gone from the circle: Father Dering, Ernestine, and lastly, dear old Uncle Ridley, who had died that year, and for whom every one had such a warm loving memory.
After supper the boys went off to the library to smoke, and mother and daughters clustered together in the dear old sitting-room, to chat lovingly as in other days; for now, as then, the sweet motherly face, to which they still looked for love, comfort, and praise, was the dearest in the world to them, and the loveliest, they all thought, with its serene happy smile and contented loving eyes.
"Has anybody any disappointments to tell to-night," she asked, looking around at the bright happy faces, and remembering another night long ago, when they all sat so, and told such.
"Yes, I've got one," announced Kat, just as briskly as she had done on that other night. "I can't, to save my life, arrive at the point where I will always look stately and unruffled, and ready to receive callers, in spite of babies and household work, as Mrs. McGregor does, who lives opposite me. And then, I do believe that Thomas is going to be short and fat, instead of tall and slim, and from present indications I think he will prefer being a clown to anything else in the world. That's my disappointment, and it's just about as sensible as my other, but it's the best I've got. What's yours, Kittie?"
"I don't know, I'm sure," answered Kittie, looking down into Pansy's upturned face, and laying her hand lovingly on the curly head. "I have the dearest husband, and two of the most precious little daughters in the world, and what more could I ask? I always did want curly hair and black eyes, but Pansy has one, and Louise the other, so I'm content. The only disappointment I have, is that mama and Olive will not be with us next Christmas."
"Well, I've a very small one," said Bea, as she rocked and trotted, with a vain attempt to get small Bessie's eyes shut. "Walter isn't quite as well as I should like to have him; he works too hard, poor fellow, and I want him to go off to the mountains next summer, and get rested, but we can't all afford to go, and he says he will not go and leave me at home in the hot weather with the house and babies. So I can't help worrying and wishing that I could help him some way."
"You do help him, dear," interposed Mrs. Dering promptly. "You keep home bright and happy, and anticipate all his wants and wishes. In times of weariness or trouble, he has you and the dear babies for comfort. You love, sympathize and help him in a thousand ways, the want of which he could not do without."
"And sew on his buttons," added Kat. "Don't leave that out, for if he's anything like Ralph, it's a mighty big item."
"And here's my little girl," continued Mrs. Dering in a moment, and looking down at Jean, whose head lay in her lap. "Has she any?"
"None, mama," answered Jean, looking up with happy eyes. "Except that you are going away, and that Uncle Ridley is not here."