He had never had much to do with young people; but, all at once, it seemed to him that it might prove worth his while to cultivate the closer acquaintance of these nieces of his. Pauline, in particular, struck him as likely to improve upon a nearer acquaintance. And that afternoon, as he rode up Broadway, he found himself wondering how she would enjoy the ride; and all the sights and wonders of the great city.
Later, over his solitary dinner, he suddenly decided to run up to Winton the next day. He would not wire them, he would rather like to take Phil by surprise.
So he had arrived at the parsonage, driving up in Jed's solitary hack, and much plied with information, general and personal, on the way, just as the minister and his wife reached home from the manor.
"And, oh, my! Doesn't father look tickled to death!" Patience declared, coming in to her sisters' room that night, ostensibly to have an obstinate knot untied, but inwardly determined to make a third at the usual bedtime talk for that once, at least. It wasn't often they all came up together.
"He looks mighty glad," Pauline said.
"And isn't it funny, bearing him called Phil?" Patience curled herself up in the cozy corner. "I never've thought of father as Phil."
Hilary paused in the braiding of her long hair. "I'm glad we've got to know him—Uncle Paul, I mean—through his letters, and all the lovely things he's done for us; else, I think I'd have been very much afraid of him."
"So am I," Pauline assented. "I see now what Mr. Oram meant—he doesn't look as if he believed much in fairy stories. But I like his looks—he's so nice and tall and straight."
"He used to have red hair, before it turned gray," Hilary said, "so that must be a family trait; your chin's like his, Paul, too,—so square and determined."
"Is mine?" Patience demanded.
"You cut to bed, youngster," Pauline commanded. "You're losing all your beauty sleep; and really, you know—"
Patience went to stand before the mirror. "Maybe I ain't—pretty—yet; but I'm going to be—some day. Mr. Dayre says he likes red hair, I asked him. He says for me not to worry; I'll have them all sitting up and taking notice yet."
At which Pauline bore promptly down upon her, escorting her in person to the door of her own room. "And you'd better get to bed pretty quickly, too, Hilary," she advised, coming back. "You've had enough excitement for one day."
Mr. Paul Shaw stayed a week; it was a busy week for the parsonage folk and for some other people besides. Before it was over, the story-book uncle had come to know his nieces and Winton fairly thoroughly; while they, on their side, had grown very well acquainted with the tall, rather silent man, who had a fashion of suggesting the most delightful things to do in the most matter-of-fact manner.
There were one or two trips decidedly outside that ten-mile limit, including an all day sail up the lake, stopping for the night at a hotel on the New York shore and returning by the next day's boat. There was a visit to Vergennes, which took in a round of the shops, a concert, and another night away from home.
"Was there ever such a week!" Hilary sighed blissfully one morning, as she and her uncle waited on the porch for Bedelia and the trap. Hilary was to drive him over to The Maples for dinner.
"Or such a summer altogether," Pauline added, from just inside the study window.
"Then Winton has possibilities?" Mr. Shaw asked.
"I should think it has; we ought to be eternally grateful to you for making us find them out," Pauline declared.
Mr. Shaw smiled, more as if to himself. "I daresay they're not all exhausted yet."
"Perhaps," Hilary said slowly, "some places are like some people, the longer and better you know them, the more you keep finding out in them to like."
"Father says," Pauline suggested, "that one finds, as a rule, what one is looking for."
"Here we are," her uncle exclaimed, as Patience appeared, driving Bedelia. "Do you know," he said, as he and Hilary turned out into the wide village street, "I haven't seen the schoolhouse yet?"
"We can go around that way. It isn't much of a building," Hilary answered.
"I suppose it serves its purpose."
"It is said to be a very good school for the size of the place." Hilary turned Bedelia up the little by-road, leading to the old weather-beaten schoolhouse, standing back from the road in an open space of bare ground.
"You and Pauline are through here?" her uncle asked.
"Paul is. I would've been this June, if I hadn't broken down last winter."
"You will be able to go on this fall?"
"Yes, indeed. Dr. Brice said so the other day. He says, if all his patients got on so well, by not following his advice, he'd have to shut up shop, but that, fortunately for him, they haven't all got a wise uncle down in New York, to offer counter-advice."
"Each in his turn," Mr. Shaw remarked, adding, "and Pauline considers herself through school?"
"I—I suppose so. I know she would like to go on—but we've no higher school here and—She read last winter, quite a little, with father. Pauline's ever so clever."
"Supposing you both had an opportunity—for it must be both, or neither, I judge—and the powers that be consented—how about going away to school this winter?"
Hilary dropped the reins. "Oh!" she cried, "you mean—"
"I have a trick of meaning what I say," her uncle said, smiling at her.
"I wish I could say—what I want to—and can't find words for—" Hilary said.
"We haven't consulted the higher authorities yet, you know."
"And—Oh, I don't see how mother could get on without us, even if—"
"Mothers have a knack at getting along without a good many things—when it means helping their young folks on a bit," Mr. Shaw remarked. "I'll have a talk with her and your father to-night."
That evening, pacing up and down the front veranda with his brother, Mr. Shaw said, with his customary abruptness, "You seem to have fitted in here, Phil,—perhaps, you were in the right of it, after all. I take it you haven't had such a hard time, in some ways."
The minister did not answer immediately. Looking back nearly twenty years, he told himself, that he did not regret that early choice of his. He had fitted into the life here; he and his people had grown together. It had not always been smooth sailing and more than once, especially the past year or so, his narrow means had pressed him sorely, but on the whole, he had found his lines cast in a pleasant place, and was not disposed to rebel against his heritage.
"Yes," he said, at last, "I have fitted in; too easily, perhaps. I never was ambitious, you know."
"Except in the accumulating of books," his brother suggested.
The minister smiled. "I have not been able to give unlimited rein even to that mild ambition. Fortunately, the rarer the opportunity, the greater the pleasure it brings with it—and the old books never lose their charm."
Mr. Paul Shaw flicked the ashes from his cigar. "And the girls—you expect them to fit in, too?"
"It is their home." A note the elder brother knew of old sounded in the younger man's voice.
"Don't mount your high horse just yet, Phil," he said. "I'm not going to rub you up the wrong way—at least, I don't mean to; but you were always an uncommonly hard chap to handle—in some matters. I grant you, it is their home and not a had sort of home for a girl to grow up in." Mr. Shaw stood for a moment at the head of the steps, looking off down the peaceful, shadowy street. It had been a pleasant week; he had enjoyed it wonderfully. He meant to have many more such. But to live here always! Already the city was calling to him; he was homesick for its rush and bustle, the sense of life and movement.
"You and I stand as far apart to-day, in some matters, Phil, as we did twenty—thirty years ago," he said presently, "and that eldest daughter of yours—I'm a fair hand at reading character or I shouldn't be where I am to-day, if I were not—is more like me than you."
"So I have come to think—lately."
"That second girl takes after you; she would never have written that letter to me last May."
"No, Hilary would not have at the time—"
"Oh, I can guess how you felt about it at the time. But, look here, Phil, you've got over that—surely? After all, I like to think now that Pauline only hurried on the inevitable." Mr. Paul Shaw laid his hand on the minister's shoulder. "Nearly twenty years is a pretty big piece out of a lifetime. I see now how much I have been losing all these years."
"It has been a long time, Paul; and, perhaps, I have been to blame in not trying more persistently to heal the breach between us. I assure you that I have regretted it daily."
"You always did have a lot more pride in your make-up than a man of your profession has any right to allow himself, Phil. But if you like, I'm prepared to point out to you right now how you can make it up to me. Here comes Lady Shaw and we won't waste time getting to business."
That night, as Pauline and Hilary were in their own room, busily discussing, for by no means the first time that day, what Uncle Paul had said to Hilary that morning, and just how he had looked, when he said it, and was it at all possible that father would consent, and so on, ad libitum, their mother tapped at the door.
Pauline ran to open it. "Good news, or not?" she demanded. "Yes, or no, Mother Shaw?"
"That is how you take it," Mrs. Shaw answered. She was glad, very glad, that this unforeseen opportunity should be given her daughters; and yet—it meant the first break in the home circle, the first leaving home for them.
Mr. Paul Shaw left the next morning. "I'll try and run up for a day or two, before the girls go to school," he promised his sister-in-law. "Let me know, as soon as you have decided where to send them."
Patience was divided in her opinion, as to this new plan. It would be lonesome without Paul and Hilary; but then, for the time being, she would be, to all intents and purposes, "Miss Shaw." Also, Bedelia was not going to boarding-school—on the whole, the arrangement had its advantages. Of course, later, she would have her turn at school—Patience meant to devote a good deal of her winter's reading to boarding-school stories.
She told Sextoness Jane so, when that person appeared, just before supper time.
Jane looked impressed. "A lot of things keep happening to you folks right along," she observed. "Nothing's ever happened to me, 'cept mumps—and things of that sort; you wouldn't call them interesting. The girls to home?"
"They're 'round on the porch, looking at some photos Mr. Oram's brought over; and he's looking at Hilary's. Hilary's going in for some other kind of picture taking. I wish she'd leave her camera home, when she goes to school. Do you want to speak to them about anything particular?"
"I'll wait a bit," Jane sat down on the garden-bench beside Patience.
"There, he's gone!" the latter said, as the front gate clicked a few moments later. "O Paul!" she called, "You're wanted, Paul!"
"You and Hilary going to be busy tonight?" Jane asked, as Pauline came across the lawn.
"Not that I know of."
"I ain't," Patience remarked.
"Well," Jane said, "it ain't prayer-meeting night, and it ain't young peoples' night and it ain't choir practice night, so I thought maybe you'd like me to take my turn at showing you something. Not all the club—like's not they wouldn't care for it, but if you think they would, why, you can show it to them sometime."
"Just we three then?" Pauline asked. "Hilary and I can go."
"So can I—if you tell mother you want me to," Patience put in.
"Is it far?" her sister questioned Jane.
"A good two miles—we'd best walk—we can rest after we get there. Maybe, if you like, you'd better ask Tom and Josie. Your ma'll be better satisfied if he goes along, I reckon. I'll come for you at about half-past seven."
"All right, thank you ever so much," Pauline said, and went to tell Hilary, closely pursued by Patience. However, Mrs. Shaw vetoed Pauline's proposition that Patience should make one of the party.
"Not every time, my dear," she explained.
Promptly at half-past seven Jane appeared. "All ready?" she said, as the four young people came to meet her. "You don't want to go expecting anything out of the common. Like's not, you've all seen it a heap of times, but maybe not to take particular notice of it."
She led the way through the garden to the lane running past her cottage, where Tobias sat in solitary dignity on the doorstep, down the lane to where it merged in to what was nothing more than a field path.
"Are we going to the lake?" Hilary asked.
"But not out on the water," Josie said. "You're taking us too far below the pier for that."
Jane smiled quietly. "It'll be on the water—what you're going to see," she was getting a good deal of pleasure out of her small mystery, and when they reached the low shore, fringed with the tall sea-grass, she took her party a few steps along it to where an old log lay a little back from the water. "I reckon we'll have to wait a bit," she said, "but it'll be 'long directly."
They sat down in a row, the young people rather mystified. Apparently the broad expanse of almost motionless water was quite deserted. There was a light breeze blowing and the soft swishing of the tiny waves against the bank was the only sound to break the stillness; the sky above the long irregular range of mountains on the New York side, still wore its sunset colors, the lake below sending hack a faint reflection of them.
But presently these faded until only the afterglow was left, to merge in turn into the soft summer twilight, through which the stars began to glimpse, one by one.
The little group had been mostly silent, each busy with his or her thoughts; so far as the young people were concerned, happy thoughts enough; for if the closing of each day brought their summer nearer to its ending, the fall would bring with it new experiences, an entering of new scenes.
"There!" Sextoness Jane broke the silence, pointing up the lake, to where a tiny point of red showed like a low-hung star through the gathering darkness. Moment by moment, other lights came into view, silently, steadily, until it seemed like some long, gliding sea-serpent, creeping down towards them through the night.
"A tow!" Josie cried under her breath.
They had all seen it, times without number, before. The long line of canal boats being towed down the lake to the canal below; the red lanterns at either end of each boat showing as they came. But to-night, infected perhaps, by the pride, the evident delight, in Jane's voice, the old familiar sight held them with the new interest the past months had brought to bear upon so many old, familiar things.
"It is—wonderful," Pauline said at last. "It might be a scene from—fairyland, almost."
"Me—I love to see them come stealing long like that through the dark," Jane said slowly and a little hesitatingly. It was odd to be telling confidences to anyone except Tobias. "I don't know where they come from, nor where they're a-going to. Many's the night I walk over here just on the chance of seeing one. Mostly, this time of year, you're pretty likely to catch one. When I was younger, I used to sit and fancy myself going aboard on one of them and setting off for strange parts. I wasn't looking to settle down here in Winton all my days; but I reckon, maybe, it's just's well—anyhow, when I got the freedom to travel, I'd got out of the notion of it—and perhaps, there's no telling, I might have been terribly disappointed. And there ain't any hindrance 'gainst my setting off—in my own mind—every time I sits here and watches a tow go down the lake. I've seen a heap of big churches in my travels—it's mostly easier 'magining about them—churches are pretty much alike I reckon, though I ain't seen many, I'll admit."
No one answered for a moment, but Jane, used to Tobias for a listener, did not mind. Then in the darkness, Hilary laid a hand softly over the work-worn ones clasped on Jane's lap. It was hard to imagine Jane young and full of youthful fancies and longings; yet years ago there had been a Jane—not Sextoness Jane then—who had found Winton dull and dreary and had longed to get away. But for her, there had been no one to wave the magic wand, that should transform the little Vermont village into a place filled with new and unexplored charms. Never in all Jane's many summers, had she known one like this summer of theirs; and for them—the wonder was by no means over—the years ahead were bright with untold possibilities. Hilary sighed for very happiness, wondering if she were the same girl who had rocked listlessly in the hammock that June morning, protesting that she didn't care for "half-way" things.
"Tired?" Pauline asked.
"I was thinking," her sister answered.
"Well, the tow's gone." Jane got up to go.
"I'm ever so glad we came, thank you so much, Jane," Pauline said heartily.
"I wonder what'll have happened by the time we all see our next tow go down," Josie said, as they started towards home.
"We may see a good many more than one before the general exodus," her brother answered.
"But we won't have time to come watch for them. Oh, Paul, just think, only a little while now—"
Tom slipped into step with Hilary, a little behind the others. "I never supposed the old soul had it in her," he said, glancing to where Jane trudged heavily on ahead. "Still, I suppose she was young—once; though I've never thought of her being so before."
"Yes," Hilary said. "I wonder,—maybe, she's been better off, after all, right, here at home. She wouldn't have got to be Sextoness Jane anywhere else, probably."
Tom glanced at her quickly. "Is there a hidden meaning—subject to be carefully avoided?"
Hilary laughed. "As you like."
"So you and Paul are off on your travels, too?"
"Yes, though I can hardly believe it yet."
"And just as glad to go as any of us."
"Oh, but we're coming back—after we've been taught all manner of necessary things."
"Edna'll be the only one of you girls left behind; it's rough on her."
"It certainly is; we'll all have to write her heaps of letters."
"Much time there'll be for letter-writing, outside of the home ones," Tom said.
"Speaking of time," Josie turned towards them, "we're going to be busier than any bee ever dreamed of being, before or since Dr. Watts."
They certainly were busy days that followed. So many of the young folks were going off that fall that a good many of the meetings of "The S. W. F. Club" resolved themselves into sewing-bees, for the girl members only.
"If we'd known how jolly they were, we'd have tried them before," Bell declared one morning, dropping down on the rug Pauline had spread under the trees at one end of the parsonage lawn.
Patience, pulling bastings with a business-like air, nodded her curly head wisely. "Miranda says, folks mostly get 'round to enjoying their blessings 'bout the time they come to lose them."
"Has the all-important question been settled yet, Paul?" Edna asked, looking up from her work. She might not be going away to school, but even so, that did not debar one from new fall clothes at home.
"They're coming to Vergennes with me," Bell said. "Then we can all come home together Friday nights."
"They're coming to Boston with me," Josie corrected, "then we'll be back together for Thanksgiving."
Shirley, meekly taking her first sewing lessons under Pauline's instructions, and frankly declaring that she didn't at all like them, dropped the hem she was turning. "They're coming to New York with me; and in the between-times we'll have such fun that they'll never want to come home."
Pauline laughed. "It looks as though Hilary and I would have a busy winter between you all. It is a comfort to know where we are going."
"Remember!" she warned, when later the party broke up. "Four o'clock Friday afternoon! Sharp!"
"Are we going out in a blaze of glory?" Bell questioned.
"You might tell us where we are going, now, Paul," Josie urged.
Pauline shook her head. "You wait until Friday, like good little girls. Mind, you all bring wraps; it'll be chilly coming home."
Pauline's turn was to be the final wind-up of the club's regular outings. No one outside the home folks, excepting Tom, had been taken into her confidence—it had been necessary to press him into service. And when, on Friday afternoon, the young people gathered at the parsonage, all but those named were still in the dark.
Besides the regular members, Mrs. Shaw, Mr. Dayre, Mr. Allen, Harry Oram and Patience were there; the minister and Dr. Brice had promised to join the party later if possible.
As a rule, the club picnics were cooperative affairs; but to-day the members, by special request, arrived empty-handed. Mr. Paul Shaw, learning that Pauline's turn was yet to come, had insisted on having a share in it.
"I am greatly interested in this club," he had explained. "I like results, and I think," he glanced at Hilary's bright happy face, "that the 'S. W. F. Club' has achieved at least one very good result."
And on the morning before the eventful Friday, a hamper had arrived from New York, the watching of the unpacking of which had again transformed Patience, for the time, from an interrogation to an exclamation point.
"It's a beautiful hamper," she explained to Towser. "It truly is—because father says, it's the inner, not the outer, self that makes for real beauty, or ugliness; and it certainly was the inside of that hamper that counted. I wish you were going, Towser. See here, suppose you follow on kind of quietly to-morrow afternoon—don't show up too soon, and I guess I can manage it."
Which piece of advice Towser must have understood. At any rate, he acted upon it to the best of his ability, following the party at a discreet distance through the garden and down the road towards the lake; and only when the halt at the pier came, did he venture near, the most insinuating of dogs.
And so successfully did Patience manage it, that when the last boat-load pushed off from shore, Towser sat erect on the narrow bow seat, blandly surveying his fellow voyagers. "He does so love picnics," Patience explained to Mr. Dayre, "and this is the last particular one for the season. I kind of thought he'd go along and I slipped in a little paper of bones."
From the boat ahead came the chorus. "We're out on the wide ocean sailing."
"Not much!" Bob declared. "I wish we were—the water's quiet as a mill-pond this afternoon."
For the great lake, appreciating perhaps the importance of the occasion, had of its many moods chosen to wear this afternoon its sweetest, most beguiling one, and lay, a broad stretch of sparkling, rippling water, between its curving shores.
Beyond, the range of mountains rose dark and somber against the cloud-flecked sky, their tops softened by the light haze that told of coming autumn.
And presently, from boat to boat, went the call, "We're going to Port Edward! Why didn't we guess?"
"But that's not in Winton," Edna protested.
"Of it, if not in it," Jack Ward assured them.
"Do you reckon you can show us anything new about that old fort, Paul Shaw?" Tracy demanded. "Why, I could go all over it blindfolded."
"Not to show the new—to unfold the old," Pauline told him.
"That sounds like a quotation."
"It is—in substance," Pauline looked across her shoulder to where Mr. Allen sat, imparting information to Harry Oram.
"So that's why you asked the old fellow," Tracy said. "Was that kind?"
They were rounding the slender point on which the tall, white lighthouse stood, and entering the little cove where visitors to the fort usually beached their boats.
A few rods farther inland, rose the tall, grass-covered, circular embankment, surrounding the crumbling, gray walls, the outer shells of the old barracks.
At the entrance to the enclosure, Tom suddenly stepped ahead, barring the way. "No passing within this fort without the counter-sign," he declared. "Martial law, this afternoon."
It was Bell who discovered it. "'It's a habit to be happy,'" she suggested, and Tom drew back for her to enter. But one by one, he exacted the password from each.
Inside, within the shade of those old, gray walls, a camp-fire had been built and camp-kettle swung, hammocks had been hung under the trees and when cushions were scattered here and there the one-time fort bore anything but a martial air.
But something of the spirit of the past must have been in the air that afternoon, or perhaps, the spirit of the coming changes; for this picnic—though by no means lacking in charm—was not as gay and filled with light-hearted chaff as usual. There was more talking in quiet groups, or really serious searching for some trace of those long-ago days of storm and stress.
With the coming of evening, the fire was lighted and the cloth laid within range of its flickering shadows. The night breeze had sprung up and from outside the sloping embankment they caught the sound of the waves breaking on the beach. True to their promise, the minister and Dr. Brice appeared at the time appointed and were eagerly welcomed by the young people.
Supper was a long, delightful affair that night, with much talk of the days when the fort had been devoted to far other purposes than the present; and the young people, listening to the tales Mr. Allen told in his quiet yet strangely vivid way, seemed to hear the slow creeping on of the boats outside and to be listening in the pauses of the wind for the approach of the enemy.
"I'll take it back, Paul," Tracy told her, as they were repacking the baskets. "Even the old fort has developed new interests."
"And next summer the 'S. W. F. Club' will continue its good work," Jack said.
Going back, Pauline found herself sitting in the stern of one of the boats, beside her father. The club members were singing the club song. But Pauline's thoughts had suddenly gone back to that wet May afternoon.
She could see the dreary, rain-swept garden, hear the beating of the drops on the window-panes. How long ago and remote it all seemed; how far from the hopeless discontent, the vague longings, the real anxiety of that time, she and Hilary had traveled. She looked up impulsively. "There's one thing," she said, "we've had one summer that I shall always feel would be worth reliving. And we're going to have more of them."
"I am glad to hear that," Mr. Shaw said.
Pauline looked about her—the lanterns at the ends of the boats threw dancing lights out across the water, no longer quiet; overhead, the sky was bright with stars. "Everything is so beautiful," the girl said slowly. "One seems to feel it more—every day."
"'The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them,'" her father quoted gravely.
Pauline drew a quick breath. "The hearing ear and the seeing eye"—it was a good thought to take with them—out into the new life, among the new scenes. One would need them everywhere—out in the world, as well as in Winton. And then, from the boat just ahead, sounded Patience's clear treble,—"'There's a Good Time Coming.'"