UNCLE WILLIAM IS SURPRISED.
Dora's housekeeping seemed to thrive from the first. Her mother grew more cheerful and a little stronger, and she herself was rosy and happy. It was so pleasant to come home every day after school and find Fanny, their small maid, who came each morning and stayed till after lunch, setting their own little table. And then, what a pleasure to study at her beautiful desk!
"It is lovely, if it is over a confectionery, isn't it, Mamma?" she would say.
It was her great pleasure to keep this small domain in the daintiest order, and Saturday morning was sure to find her busy with her duster. On this particular morning, as she was shaking it out of the window, she saw Bess and Louise coming in.
"If you aren't busy, Dora, we want to talk to you about something." began the last-named person before she was fairly in the room.
"I am just through, and delighted to see you," she said hospitably.
"It is about the afghan," Bess explained. "We can finish it easily this afternoon, and the twentieth is Uncle William's birthday; don't you think it would be best to give it to him then?"
"We asked the boys about the party and they are in favor of it, and Aunt Zelie says we can have it. Now what kind of a party shall it be? We want suggestions," said Louise, folding her hands in her lap, and leaning back as if she had only to ask.
"Why not have a surprise party?—ask him to dinner as if it were nothing special, you know."
"The very thing!" they both exclaimed.
"Why didn't we think of surprising the dear old duck, who is always surprising us?" Louise added.
Bess shook her head at her sister. "That is not a becoming way in which to speak of your uncle. But that is a good idea, Dora; you are a very bright girl."
"Thank you, I am glad I am satisfactory. Do you need any more suggestions?"
"It must be a real party; we must trim the house and have Carl present the slumber robe; and do you think we could have a cake with candles? Forty-eight would be a good many."
"Four dozen," said Dora, as Louise paused for breath. "Why don't you leave the decorations to the boys? We have done our share in making the afghan."
"Another brilliant idea. We will," said Bess.
They discussed it again over their work that afternoon, and Constance and Elsie gave their entire approval to the plan.
A party at the Hazeltines' was always welcome, and the combination of circumstances made this particularly pleasant to anticipate.
Their fingers flew as they talked, and by five o'clock the last stitch was taken, and the work of nearly six months finished.
After surveying it fondly on all sides and trying its effect on Miss Brown's sofa, it was reluctantly wrapped in a sheet and put away till the all-important day.
It was hard to do justice to lessons the next week, with such interesting preparations to be made. Aunt Zelie had shaken her head over parties during the school term, but gave in to the plan that this was a very special occasion. They couldn't help the fact that Uncle William's birthday came in March.
Everything was ready in good time, Mr. Hazeltine was invited to dinner, and a hint was given to his wife.
At seven o'clock on Thursday evening most of the party had assembled, and the Hazeltine house was pervaded by an air of expectancy.
In the place of honor in the long drawing-room sat Miss Brown, who could not resist the united urging of Aunt Zelie and the girls.
"We arranged this corner just for you," said Bess, coming to greet her as soon as she was seated. "We knew you would look like a picture in it."
Miss Brown laughed and said that would be a new sensation, as she had never before been a picture.
"Oh, yes, you have been, but perhaps you didn't know it!" said Louise. "This time you are to know it, and every one is to admire you, for you are part of our decorations; I am glad you wore that lovely shawl."
She made a picture, truly, with her bright eyes and snowy hair against the crimson velvet of the chair, a delicate white lace shawl over her dark dress, and a copper lamp with a deep rose-colored shade throwing a soft radiance about her.
"And here is somebody to keep you company," said Bess, bringing Aunt Zelie to sit beside her.
Mrs. Howard's eyes followed lovingly her two pretty nieces as they danced away to join the group around the afghan.
"I wonder," said Miss Brown, watching them, "what difference it would have made in me if I had had such a home when I was a child."
"It is a beautiful and helpful thing to have a happy childhood to look back upon," answered their aunt. "When I meet discontented, cynical people I feel sure that no sweet true child-life lies behind them. I want my boys and girls to be able to say that their happiest times have been at home. Here comes our housekeeper."
There was certainly a housewifely air about Dora's plump little figure in her simple white dress as she came to speak to Miss Brown and get Aunt Zelie to pin on her flowers.
"Everybody is here but Ikey and Jim," announced Louise, whose blue ribbons were fluttering from one end of the house to the other.
"Here they are!" called Carl from the window, "and someone else; it must be Uncle William!"
Great excitement prevailed till the door opened and it proved to be Mr. Caruth.
"I had forgotten you were invited, but I am very glad to see you," Louise said, advancing to meet him.
"Then I should not have been missed if I had not come?" he said, shaking hands with Mrs. Howard.
"Oh, I had only forgotten for a minute, because I have so much on my mind!" she explained, laughing. "Why, Jim, what lovely flowers! Ikey, where is your buttonhole bouquet that I took so much trouble to make?"
Ikey stared blankly at his undecorated coat. "Oh! I forgot it. I put it in the refrigerator; I'll go and get it."
"In the refrigerator?" repeated the girls with one voice. "Just like a boy!"
"Well, why not? That is where you put things to keep;" and Ikey departed to find his posies, while Jim divided his roses between Louise and Aunt Zelie.
In three minutes Ikey came flying back quite breathless, announcing that Uncle William was at the gate.
The festive air which reigned inside found its way out through various cracks and crevices, causing Mr. Hazeltine to remark that the house looked unusually brilliant.
The truth did not dawn upon him till he stood in the parlor floor before a semicircle of bright faces, all very full of the fun of the occasion.
Across the top of the large mirror he saw "Welcome," in letters of evergreen, and a chorus of "Many happy returns!" greeted him.
"Bless me! what does this mean? Is it possible that it is my birthday?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, and it's a s'prise party; aren't you s'prised?" demanded Carie, unable to keep quiet any longer.
"Surprised? I should say so! I shall have to have forty-eight kisses from somebody."
Carie immediately volunteered her share, and altogether it is probable that he really received more than he was entitled to.
He made his way to Miss Brown's corner after a while, and when the excitement subsided a little Carl stepped forward and said in an extremely lawyer-like manner: "I have the honor to be chosen spokesman this evening, to welcome you and wish you many happy returns of the day in the name of the members of the Order of the Big Front Door, who in testimony of their affection for you tender you this reception. I am also requested to present to you, in behalf of the Merry Knitters, this slumber robe, the work of their own fair fingers, which they offer as a slight token of their appreciation of all your kindness to them. May your dreams be sweet!"
Aleck and Ikey advanced and threw the slumber robe over a chair before the astonished Uncle William.
For it moment it quite took his breath away. He was touched and gratified that the girls should have done so much work for him, and found it necessary to clear his throat vigorously before he replied to Carl's graceful effort.
"I am sure I can truthfully say that only once before in my life have I been so completely surprised. I thank you all most heartily for remembering an old fellow like me, and I particularly thank the M.Ks. for their beautiful gift. I shall prize it as one of my greatest treasures. I also thank Miss Brown for coming to my party; I consider it a great honor. As I had not the same opportunity as my nephew for preparing a speech I shall not say any more except to thank you all again."
He sat down amid great applause.
The slumber robe became for a while the centre of attraction. It was as great a surprise to Aunt Marcia as to her husband, and she admired it extremely, praising the young needlewomen warmly.
"Mr. Caruth and I feel envious, and want to know what you have done that so much work should be bestowed on you?" said Mr. Frank Hazeltine, joining the group around it.
"You see, Father, he is a sort of public benefactor; he gets up wonder balls and takes us to the circus, so he has to be publicly rewarded," Louise explained gayly.
"I am sure I was Santa Claus once," said Mr. Caruth.
Supper was announced presently, and what a birthday supper it was! Mandy and Sukey had done their best for Mr. William, and their best was not to be sniffed at. Aunt Zelie contributed menu cards, each with a flower and a quotation on it.
Dora thought hers the prettiest of all. On it were a thistle and a wild rose, and the lines were:
"Duty, like a strict preceptor, Sometimes frowns or seems to frown. Choose her thistle for thy sceptre, While youth's roses are thy crown."
"It was written by a poet for his own little daughter Dora," said Mrs. Howard.
"The heights by great men reached and kept Were not attained by sudden flight, But they while their companions slept Were toiling upward in the night."
"Cousin Zelie thinks I am lazy," he said, laughing.
"Mine is better than Dora's, and I know where it came from, and she has not an idea," said Carl. His lines were:
"My good blade carves the casques of men, My tough lance thrusteth sure, My strength is as the strength of ten Because my heart is pure."
"I don't care, for I can find out, and that is half the fun," Dora replied, comparing hers with Louise's, which had lilies of the valley on it, and these lines:
"I pray the prayer of Plato old— God make thee beautiful within, And may thine eyes the good behold In everything save sin."
Uncle William put his card away before anybody had seen it, and refused to show it, in spite of much coaxing.
"It is too complimentary; modesty forbids," Carl suggested.
"Why didn't you and Miss Helen favor us with something original, Mrs. Howard?" asked Mr. Caruth.
"He is making fun of the Harp Man's Benefit," said Miss Hazeltine.
"I am afraid we exhausted our genius on that occasion," her cousin answered, laughing.
"Uncle William, there is one thing you must tell us," said Bess, "and that is, when you were more surprised than to-night?"
"Oh, that was long ago!" he replied. "It was Aunt Marcia who surprised me." All eyes turned to Mrs. Hazeltine.
"Aunt Marcia, how did you do it?"
"I am sure I can't tell you. I think I am the one most apt to be surprised."
"You'll have to tell," said Carl, turning to his uncle.
"Well, if you must know, it was when she said 'Yes.'"
Everybody laughed, and his wife said majestically: "My dear, you are very absurd." But she did not appear seriously displeased.
"I don't understand," remarked Helen; "what did she say yes to?" and this of course brought down the house.
After supper was over they danced and played games till, all too soon, the evening was over.
"Good times never last quite long enough," Louise said, as her uncle was arranging for the farewell Virginia reel.
"I thought they lasted the year around," remarked Mr. Caruth, who stood beside her.
"I mean special ones," she answered gayly, as she went off with him to take her place, leaving Ikey rather crestfallen.
The others had quickly paired off: Carl and Dora, Aleck and Bess, Jim and Elsie, Will and Constance. Elsie called "Tucker" aggravatingly as she passed.
"Anyway, I didn't want to dance with her," he said to himself.
Miss Hazeltine was playing for them, and Aunt Marcia sat with Miss Brown looking on; Aunt Zelie stood in the doorway.
She smiled at Ikey when he looked in her direction, saying: "Do you want a partner?"
His gloom turned to rapture. "Oh! Mrs. Howard, will you?"
"I'll try," she answered, as they took their places, his heart beating quickly with pride and delight. And never was a dance performed with more reverent devotion.
"Why, Aunt Zelie, that is not fair!" called Carl, as he and Dora danced down the middle and back again.
"I didn't know you danced, Mrs. Howard," said Jim, upon whom Ikey cast a triumphant glance.
When it was over she was besieged with partners for another, but she refused, declaring it was too late.
So ended Uncle William's surprise party.
When the door had closed on the last guest and Bess at the piano was playing a snatch of a waltz, Carl pounced upon his aunt and carried her off before she knew it.
"Ikey shall not get ahead of me," he said, as after sailing twice around the room he dropped her breathless on the sofa.
For various reasons, after a flourishing existence of two winters, the G.N. Club was given up, or perhaps it should be said was merged in the Order of the Big Front Door, which still held monthly meetings, and whose members wore their silver keys and tried in different ways to carry out their motto.
There was hardly time in the press of school work for the weekly meetings, and, besides, out of the little club had grown what was known as the Boys' Civic League, an organization among schoolboys, in which, under the direction of one of their professors, they studied the history of their own town and pledged themselves to do all they could for its welfare. So, as Mrs. Howard wished it, the Good Neighbors gave up their club and joined the League.
They still considered themselves her boys, however, and a week seldom passed in which some of them did not spend an hour with her. They owed more than they knew to her companionship, for in varying degrees her love for what was pure and true had left its impress on their characters. Her interest in them had grown with their years, and she looked forward with regret to the next winter, when most of them would go away to school. She would miss their boyish devotion, and she dreaded the temptations which they must so surely meet. Each one must fight his own battle, she knew, and she had not much fear for quiet, painstaking Will, or even for Carl, with all his faults; Ikey was still a good deal of a child, conscientious and open-hearted; but Aleck, with his brightness and indolence, and Jim, with his handsome face, engaging ways, and money, gave her most concern.
Three years had brought about some changes. Little John's place was vacant. A sudden sharp illness, and the frail life went out, leaving a sweet and gentle memory, for John had helped in ways he did not dream of. Every one of those merry girls and boys was more thoughtful and tender for the association with him. Seeing the pleasure their companionship gave him, they learned the value of simple friendliness. Fred Ames had gone to Chicago to live, and this reduced the members of the Order to ten, not counting, of course, the "Honoraries," as Miss Brown and Aunt Zelie were called.
"I can't imagine what ails Jim," Carl remarked at the lunch table one day, a week or two after Uncle William's birthday; "he wasn't at school and when I stopped there on my way home the man said he believed he had a headache and could not see anyone. That is not in the least like Jim."
"I see nothing so strange in that. A headache can be a very serious thing while it lasts," said his father.
"But if you had seen the man. He looked as if he were making it up."
"Much study has affected your imagination, Carl," laughed Cousin Helen.
"And what is the matter with you, then, Cousin Helen? Who sent Aunt Zelie a postal card with nothing on it but the address?" inquired Louise.
This caused a laugh, for Miss Hazeltine was just now the target for all the teasing her young relatives could contrive.
Always somewhat famous for her absent mindedness, now that she was soon to be married they chose to lay anything of the kind to the fact of her being so deeply in love.
"Let me tell you the latest joke," cried Aleck. "Last Sunday, when Mr. Arthur was here, they went to service at St. John's. The usher wanted to take them up front, but Sister Helen, being very modest, stopped at a seat half-way and asked politely, 'Can't we occupew this py?'"
"Aleck, you are too bad! I only half said it," exclaimed the victim, while the others shouted.
Bess and Louise were in the seventh heaven of delight at the prospect of being bridesmaids, and took a rapturous interest in all the preparations, their only regret being that Mr. Caruth was not to be the groom. Everybody was so occupied with other things that afternoon that Carl's remark about Jim was forgotten till he came in at dinner-time, looking very much excited.
"You won't think I am crazy now. The Carters have gone to smash, and it is reported that Mr. Carter tried to kill himself."
"Carl! How dreadful! Are you sure?" Aunt Zelie dropped her book in her astonishment.
"I am not altogether surprised," said Mr. Hazeltine, coming in. "He was known as one of the most reckless speculators in the country. His wealth was gained in that way, and now it has gone as it came."
"Think of poor Jim," said Carl.
"Poor boy! And yet it may not be the worst thing for him," added Mrs. Howard.
"What shall I do?" asked Carl. "I am awfully sorry for him, but I am afraid he won't want to see me, and I shouldn't know what to say, anyway. I wonder if he will have to give up college and everything. Poor Jim!"
Poor Jim, indeed! There could not have been found a more wretchedly miserable boy than he. The loss of their money he hardly thought of,—did not realize,—but the horrid notoriety of it all made him sick.
With burning face he read the sensational newspaper reports, and thought how the boys at school were talking about him—perhaps pitying him. He did not want their pity; he would rather have them indifferent. He wished he might never see any of them again.
Toward his father he felt a certain resentment. It was not true that Mr. Carter had tried to kill himself, but mind and body had given way under the long strain, and he was ill with brain fever.
Mrs. Carter was altogether unnerved by the suddenness of the calamity, so that she was not allowed in her husband's room. If it had not been for her Jim would have run away, but he was very fond of his mother. He was the chief object of her interest and affection since his sisters had married and left home. She laughingly declared that Jim could make her do anything, and certainly he brought about many improvements. She received good-naturedly his hints that Mrs. Howard did this, or that at the Hazeltines' things were done so. He could not desert her now that she had no one else to depend on.
Two dreadful days passed slowly, a number of his friends called to inquire, and left kind messages, for he would not see them. He spent his time strolling aimlessly through the handsome house, occasionally going in to see his mother. He was very gentle to her, though he found her lamentations hard to bear.
Late in the afternoon of the second day he sat in his room, trying to read. He was quite worn out with anxiety and loss of sleep, and was half-dozing, when his attention was attracted by a gleam of sunshine reflected in something on the table beside him. It was the little silver key. The words of the motto stared him in the face: "They Helped." How much it recalled to him—such pleasant companionships, and some real effort to be kind and useful! Was he going to fail now? Perhaps this was his great opportunity. If he did not help, who would?
He stood up before the mirror, stretching himself to his full height,—a tall, broad-shouldered young fellow.
"Many a boy younger than I takes care of himself, and so can I, and of my mother too," and wide awake now he sat down to think.
On the table lay a note from Mrs. Howard, which he had only half read. He took it up now, and the warm affection it expressed, and the confidence that he would bear his trouble bravely, stirred his manliness—he would not disappoint her. "I have been a coward," he said, and with the same prompt decision which had surprised his companions on that Halloween so long ago he turned his back on his pride and useless regrets and became a man. When his father's brother arrived that night Jim met him, saw to his comfort, explained all he knew about the trouble, and asked such intelligent questions, with such an evident determination to help himself, that his uncle was greatly pleased.
There were weeks of anxious nursing while Mr. Carter hung between life and death, and his son, strong and gentle, made himself most useful in the sick-room. When at last the once sturdy, ambitious man struggled back to life he was only the wreck of what he had been.
Jim returned to school when his father was out of danger, as his uncle thought he ought to finish the term. He was very much subdued, but his companions appreciated his manliness, and gave him a warm welcome.
"He has lots of pluck," said Carl warmly; "he was as anxious to go to college as any of us, but he doesn't say a word about it now—says he is going to work this summer."
"I wish you would tell him how pleased I am with him," said Aunt Zelie. "I see so little of him lately, he seems almost shy."
The big house was sold, and when Mr. Carter could be moved he was taken to their new home, a little place that belonged to his wife. When everything was settled it was found that they would have a small income, enough to support two people in some degree of comfort. Then Jim's uncle, to everybody's surprise, offered to send him to college.
"I don't believe in it very much, but you are such a likely boy you may make something out of it, so if you want to go I'll foot the bills."
Jim brought the news one Friday night to a meeting of the O.B.F.D. It was early, and only Carl and his aunt were in the room.
"I shall work very hard, for I mean to pay Uncle James back some day," he said.
"That is right; I am sure you will, and I am glad for you and proud of you, for you deserve it," Aunt Zelie said earnestly.
"Are you really?" he asked humbly, but looking in his pleasure quite like his old self.
"Why, of course we are all proud of you, boy," said Carl.
And Jim thought he had never been so happy before. He had discovered that there are some things better even than money.
Dora thought one of the pleasantest things about housekeeping was being able to give a tea-party now and then. They were of necessity very small affairs, if for no other reason than because Mrs. Warner could not stand much excitement.
Mrs. Smith was delighted to do anything for Miss Dora, and finding out in some way when her birthday came, herself proposed a celebration.
Mrs. Warner entered into the idea with unusual interest, so Dora consented to invite Bess, Louise, Carl, Aleck, and Ikey.
If it had been an order for a grand reception, Mrs. Smith could not have filled it with more pleasure. She sent up a delicious little supper, and as the crowning glory, and a present from herself, an immense birthday cake in pink icing, with fifteen candles on it.
It is needless to say they had a merry time. The hostess did the honors with a great deal of grace, looking very pretty in a charming gown brought to her from New York by Aunt Marcia. Mrs. Hazeltine was in the habit of bringing home pretty things to her nieces, and as she said she considered Dora one of them it was not possible to refuse her gifts.
"Suppose we tell what we mean to be when we are grown up," suggested Bess, when the feast was over and they had drawn their chairs together in a cosey group.
"Dear me! I don't know," said Dora.
"Well, what you would like to be, then?"
"I think perhaps I shall be some kind of a teacher, but—I know you will laugh—I believe I'd like to keep a store and live back of it, as Mrs. Smith does."
"A confectionery, Dora?" asked Louise, as they all laughed at this lofty ambition. "I'll promise you my custom."
"Ikey, you are next; what are you going to do?" inquired Bess.
"Well, after Carl and I go to college I am going to study medicine. By that time Father will have left the navy, I hope, and we will all live here together, and I'll practise."
"Perhaps there will be an office for you back of Dora's store," said Carl.
"I'd like to write books," said Bess. "Beautiful stories that everybody will want to read. Then I'll make lots of money and build hospitals and do ever so much good."
"The hospitals will be for Ikey to practise in, I suppose, my great and good cousin," remarked Aleck, with a profound bow.
"I mean to be a judge," announced Carl, who was next. "Now, Aleck."
"I am going to try for West Point next year. Father has given his consent, and—well, I'll be a general."
"I don't see how you can unless there is a war," said Ikey.
"Perhaps there'll be one then, and if I am wounded I can go to Bess's hospital and have you practise on me."
"Louise, you are the last; what noble ambition have you?"
"I think I'll illustrate Bess's books and help Dora keep store," she said, laughing.
A knock at the door interrupted just then, and Uncle William's cheery face appeared. "It is so late I must not stop," he said; "but I ran away from a political meeting to wish my little girl many happy returns."
* * * * *
"There is to be another wedding in the family," said Mrs. Howard, entering the library one day with some hyacinths in her hand.
"Do you mean it really? I did not know there was anybody to get married but Cousin Helen," Bess exclaimed.
Carl looked up from a weighty volume he was consulting. "That is easy to guess; it is Joanna, of course."
"Is it Jo, Auntie?"
"Yes, she confided it to me a few minutes ago. It will be in June, and Patrick Loughlin is the happy man."
"I should think she would rather live with us, but there is no accounting for taste," said Bess, as she went to find Louise and tell the news.
"I can't imagine what ails Ikey; he is as cross as a bear," remarked Carl, closing his book with a bang.
"Perhaps he is worrying over examinations," Aunt Zelie suggested.
Her nephew laughed. "That would not be like Ikey; and then he has done finely this term, so that there will not be a bit of trouble about his passing."
"I sincerely hope that there is not another of my boys in trouble," she said anxiously.
"Oh! it can't be any thing really, only I never knew him to be snappish. I thought I'd mention it, for you might get it out of him if you happen to see him."
About the middle of the afternoon Mrs. Howard closed the front door behind her and came out into the pleasant spring air. As she reached the gate she caught sight of a light-brown head in one of the third-story windows across the street, and acting on a sudden impulse she made a signal.
The window went up promptly, and going over she called: "Can't you come with me out to Neffler's? I'd like some company. Never mind, of course, if you are busy."
"Thank you, I am not busy; I'll come," and in two minutes Ikey was beside her.
It was easy to see he was not quite himself. Usually he would have been bubbling over with gayety at the honor of being chosen a companion for a long walk to the florist's, but now the conversation was all on one side.
Mrs. Howard did her best to be entertaining, and took no notice of his evident preoccupation until she had given her orders and they turned toward home; then she said: "I have been waiting in the hope that you would tell me what is troubling you, but now I shall have to ask; Carl and I are both wondering what has happened."
Ikey looked very much surprised, being under the delusion that he was concealing his feelings perfectly.
"I am not in any trouble," he began, "though I am bothered about something, and I oughtn't to be; that is what makes it so bad."
His companion looked sympathetic and waited for further revelations.
"You see," Ikey went on, "I wrote to Papa about going to school with Carl next winter and to Yale the year after, and he was willing and so was Grandfather; it seemed all settled. I knew they would be back in June, certainly Mamma and Alice, so we could spend the summer together. Then I thought, of course, they would be settled somewhere where I could go for my holidays, but now all my plans are spoiled: Papa has to go to the Pacific coast."
If his father had been sent to Siberia, Ikey's tone could not have been more tragic. Mrs. Howard could hardly help smiling.
"I don't quite understand yet," she said. "Does that mean that you will still be separated from your father and mother? or—"
"That is what makes me feel so mean," he burst out. "Of course I want to be with them, and yet I can't bear to go to California, and that is what I must do. Give up going with Carl, and go to some horrid old university out there. They seem to think I shall like it. Mamma is pleased because she used to live in San Francisco, and Grandfather thinks he will go out too. There is no help for it."
"Then you will have to make the best of it, will you not? It is perfectly natural to feel as you do, after setting your heart on the other plan, and I am sure it does not mean any lack of affection for your father and mother."
"I am glad you think it doesn't," he said, in a relieved tone, for he had been torturing himself with the thought that he was a most unnatural son.
"I hate to think of going so far away and never seeing any of you again, when you have been so good to me." His voice faltered.
"I should feel very badly if you could leave us without caring, after all our good times together. Carl will be dreadfully disappointed, but as for not meeting again, California is not so far away as that, and it is not likely your father will be there for the rest of his life." She spoke with great cheerfulness, not daring to be too sympathetic.
"I'll try not to hate it so," Ikey said, bracing up a little.
Mrs. Howard insisted on taking him home to dinner, and when Carl came in he found him holding a skein of wool for Bess while Louise read aloud, and if not quite his usual gay self he was at least more cheerful than he had been for days.
The storm which arose when his friends heard of the change in his plans was most comforting. Carl declared he didn't half care about going to college himself if Ikey couldn't go, and Bess remarked sorrowfully that everything would be different next winter, with Cousin Helen married and the boys all away.
"Why, Ikey and Cousin Helen are going to the same place!" exclaimed Louise, "and we are going to see her, so we'll see him too." Here was a gleam of brightness, and Carl added, "And of course when you get to be a doctor you will come back to practise in Bess's hospital."
When letters came from his mother and father, telling more fully their plans, and overflowing with the pleasure of being all together again, Ikey would not have been his warm-hearted self if he had not been glad. Dear as were the friendships which he had made in the three years spent at his grandfather's, family ties were stronger.
Old Mr. Ford said he did not know what he should do without his grandson, and talked seriously of accepting his son's invitation to try a winter in California.
It was finally arranged that Ikey should meet his parents in New York sometime about the middle of July, and as that was more than two months distant, and the present full of interesting events, as Louise expressed it, he put aside his disappointment and was as merry as ever.
The interesting events were, first, the school commencements, and, the week after, Cousin Helen's wedding.
This last, which was a grand affair, took place at her country home. The ceremony was performed on the lawn, under the big forest trees, and Bess and Louise made two charming and happy bridesmaids, quite worthy of such a lovely bride.
The ten were all invited, for Miss Hazeltine took a deep interest in the Order of the Big Front Door, and said she meant to start something of the kind in her new home. There never was such a beautiful wedding, these young people thought, and they were not alone in their opinion.
The sweet summer day, the blue sky, the trees and grass, and the gay company, all made a lasting impression on the guests.
The bride would have no formality, but moved about among her friends as if it were simply a garden party.
"Do you know what this reminds me of?" Bess asked Louise, as they sat on the grass with the other girls, waiting for the boys to bring them some ices.
"Why, Lucie Carleton's wedding, to be sure; you haven't forgotten that?" They both laughed at the recollection.
"Of course I haven't. What fun it was, and how long it is since we have played 'the Carletons'!"
"What is the joke?" inquired Jim, coming back with his hands full.
"Oh, just something this wedding reminds us of," Bess replied.
"I'm reminded that there is not much more fun for me," said Ikey, in a momentary fit of despondency.
"What a long face!" laughed Dora. "Remember this is a cheerful occasion. The next thing you will be married yourself to some California girl."
"He is coming back to see us before then, aren't you, Ikey?" said Louise.
"In six years he is coming back to stay," added Carl.
"I wonder where we shall all be six years from now," said Constance, placidly eating her ice.
"Dear me, I shall be twenty; think of it!" From Bess's tone one might have inferred that this meant extreme old age.
"I expect to be married before that," remarked Elsie confidently.
"Is it possible? I wonder to whom," Aleck exclaimed with an air of great surprise.
"I am sure I don't know, for I have never seen anybody I'd marry if he begged me forever," she retorted scornfully.
"Be quiet, you two geese, and don't spoil this lovely day by quarrelling," admonished Dora.
"To change the subject, isn't Aunt Zelie a daisy?" said Carl, pointing across the lawn where she stood, looking wonderfully fair and sweet in her soft white dress, with a touch of sunlight on her hair.
"There is nobody in the world like her," said Dora.
"I should think not!" echoed Jim.
"She is the dearest, loveliest, most beautiful, and everything-else-you-can-think-of person that ever lived," Louise declared with emphasis.
"You haven't left much for the rest of us to say," remarked Will, "but I am sure we all agree."
There must have been some attraction about the ten pairs of eyes, for just then she turned, and seeing them smiled and threw a kiss in their direction.
The sad thing about this wedding was the parting which followed. Mr. Arthur found himself very unpopular when at last it dawned upon her young relatives what it meant to tell Cousin Helen good-by with the certainty that, though she promised to come back often to visit, she would never live among them, their merry playfellow, again.
Aleck discovered that he was extremely fond of this sister, and felt what he considered an unmanly tightness about his throat when she kissed him. The bridesmaids were decidedly tearful, and only the thought of the other wedding in prospect restored their cheerfulness. This last-mentioned affair took place two days later at the Cathedral. The whole family attended, and Joanna, in blue with a white veil and wreath, with Nannie for bridesmaid, in a dress the counterpart of her own, made a blooming and happy bride. After a wedding breakfast at the Hazeltines' the couple departed, with many good wishes for their happiness, to have their pictures taken.
Aunt Zelie sat alone in the wide hall that afternoon. The door was open, and outside the sunshine sifted through the vines as the wind kept them swinging softly to and fro; it was very still, and the ticking of the tall clock had a mournful sound.
No doubt it was the reaction after the excitement of the last few weeks that made her feel so weary and sad. Unhappy thoughts seemed determined to take possession of her mind—regrets for the past and fears for the future; she could not throw off the depression.
She thought of Carl's going, and how she would miss him. Would he become weaned from the old happy home life? Had she done all she might have done to help him to good, true manhood?
She asked herself these questions sadly; in her present mood it seemed to her she had failed of what she most wished to accomplish.
These dreary thoughts so engrossed her that Jim's voice, asking, "May I come in?" caused her to start.
"Certainly," she answered, "I am glad to see you, though I warn you I am not in a very good humor."
He did not appear alarmed. "I met Carl and he said I'd probably find you here. I want to tell you something."
"I am ready to listen," she said encouragingly, but Jim seemed to find it hard to begin, and looked at the floor in a hesitating way quite unusual.
Aunt Zelie watched him, thinking that something had come into that handsome young face of late which spoke hopefully for the future.
She was very much surprised at his words.
"Mrs. Howard, I have decided not to go to college." They were resolute eyes that looked up at her.
"But I thought your uncle wished you to go—that it was all settled. Are you sure you are doing wisely?"
His face flushed.
"I beg your pardon, dear," she said before he could reply. "I know you have a good reason. I am surprised, that is all."
"It is on Mother's account, chiefly; she needs me now that Father is so feeble. Then you know she is used to having things, and though she thinks she could get along, I should feel mean to have her scrimp and pinch at home when I am having a good time at college. I went to see Mr. Barrows to-day, and he thinks he can give me a situation. They say it is a good place for a fellow to get a start in, so I am going to be a business man."
He spoke earnestly and cheerfully, but she guessed the struggle it had cost. He was used to "having things" himself.
She laid her hand on his. "You are learning to be brave and unselfish, to help in the truest sense, and these are far more valuable lessons than any you could learn out of books. I honor you for your decision." Aunt Zelie spoke with shining eyes.
"If I have learned anything it is you who have taught me," Jim said gently.
"If I have really been a help to you I am very glad and thankful, but I am sure most of the credit belongs to the boy who was so ready to be helped."
When he left, after half an hour's talk, her sympathy and interest had already made his sacrifice seem a little easier, but he did not guess how he had on his part cheered and comforted this kind friend.
Jim had been gone only a few minutes when Aunt Zelie's corner was again invaded. This time it was Ikey who looked in, and seeing her alone came and took possession of a stool at her feet.
"I am going a week from next Thursday," he announced.
"I don't enjoy all these changes in the least," she said, patting the curly head; "I can't think what I shall do without my boys."
"You have been so awfully good to me, only I never could say so like Jim. I don't want to go away and have you think I don't care, for I do, and I hope you won't forget me." Ikey got through this speech with difficulty.
Aunt Zelie couldn't help laughing at him. "You are a dear boy, and there is not the slightest danger that we will ever forget you," she said, and then she told him about the talk she had just had with Jim.
"He is splendid, isn't he? and I used to wonder why Carl liked him."
"Yes, he has changed a good deal since we first knew him, but I am proud of all my boys, and believe I can trust them wherever they go."
It was almost dark in the hall when she found herself taken possession of by two strong arms, and Carl's voice inquired what she was doing all alone.
"Feeling ashamed of myself."
"Very unnecessary, I am sure."
"No, I was worrying a little over you boys for one thing; then I had a visit from Jim."
"He is tiptop, but I don't know what I am going to do without old Ikey."
"Then tell him so, for he is afraid we will forget him."
"Ikey is a great goose; but indeed, Aunt Zelie, you need not be afraid for us! I don't mean to be self-confident,—I know I shall often do wrong,—but it means a lot to a fellow when he has somebody like you to care for him."
"Why, how dark it is! Who is here? I can't see," exclaimed Bess, coming in, followed by her father and Louise.
"Carl making love to Aunt Zelie," said the latter, dropping down on the other side of her aunt, and taking possession of all that was left.
Bess surveyed them discontentedly. "There is not a scrap of a place for me."
"You will have to put up with your old father," said Mr. Hazeltine.
"You are better than nobody," she said saucily.
"I forgot to tell you," began Louise suddenly, "that Mr. Caruth is going to Japan."
"Is that so?" her father said in surprise, while Carl and Bess both exclaimed. "Did you know anything of it, Zelie?"
"It is rather a sudden decision, I fancy. Some friends have been urging him to go. He was here this afternoon and said good-by," she replied.
"I met him just as he was leaving," said Louise, "and he asked me to say good-by to everybody for him."
"If everybody goes, what are we to do?" asked Bess disconsolately.
"Suppose we go, too! What do you say, Zelie, to sending Carie and Helen to comfort Aunt Annie in her loneliness while the rest of us go off for a holiday? We can see Ikey on his way and drop Carl at school later on."
"You are an angel to think of such a thing!" cried Louise, and Mr. Hazeltine was so nearly suffocated by his ecstatic daughters that he almost regretted his proposal.
Aunt Zelie wouldn't have dared to object if she had wished to, so she and her brother made their plans while the girls and Carl ran over to tell Ikey the good news.
THE BIG FRONT DOOR IS LEFT ALONE.
"If Dora could only go!" Bess said, as she and Louise flew around in a delightful bustle of preparation.
As this was quite out of the question, Dora was content to stay at home. She promised Helen that she would go over and pet Mr. Smith, the cat, occasionally, that he might not feel her absence too deeply, and Aunt Zelie told her to help herself to all the flowers she wanted. Uncle William sent her half a dozen new books, and the girls and Carl promised to write often.
The boys felt themselves to be most important members of society as the time for leaving drew near, for they were petted and feasted and made much of generally.
Aunt Marcia gave them an elegant dinner; Elsie had a fete in their honor; but best of all was the farewell tea-party at Miss Brown's the evening before they left, to which only the ten were invited.
It would be impossible to tell of all the fun they had, and how Mary actually came so near laughing at some of the nonsense that she had to beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen to save her dignity.
They drank the health of the departing members in lemonade, and then Ikey proposed "the Lady of the Brown House, who has been altogether jolly, though we did begin by breaking her window."
This was received with great applause, and Aleck said, "You must make a speech, Miss Brown."
"I am afraid I shall not be equal to the occasion," she answered; "but I must say that I have always been glad of that broken window. I owe to it some of my happiest hours, and I thank you all for you kindness to your invalid neighbor."
"Three cheers for Miss Brown!" cried Aleck.
"I think she will be just as much complimented if we make less noise," suggested Bess. "I am sure she knows that we all love her, and if we have given her any happiness it is only a piece of the pleasure she has given us come back to her."
"Hurrah for Bess!" cried the irrepressible one.
Next Will proposed the Big Front Door.
Great enthusiasm prevailed as Carl rose to respond. They all expected one of his spread-eagle efforts, but instead he said: "I thank you all in the name of the Big Front Door and the people who live behind it. We have had good times there and hope to have more in the future, but besides this it has helped us to do right sometimes, and though our Order may seem rather childish now, let us not forget our motto, and keep our silver keys to remind us to be helpers wherever we go."
He sat down with a flushed face, rather abashed at his own earnestness.
"Good for you!" said Jim cordially, and the others responded, "We will! We will!"
In the midst of the festivities Louise was discovered in tears. "I did not mean to," she said, "but it seems as if everything was coming to an end."
"It is only the end of a chapter, and we will begin another presently," Dora suggested brightly.
In two minutes Louise was laughing through her tears, and the party came to an end as cheerfully as it had begun.
Dora waved a good-by to the travellers as they passed early the next morning. In the afternoon she went over to the deserted house, where only Sukey was left in charge, petted Mr. Smith, and cut some roses; then she went out and sat on the carriage block and recalled the day three years before when she had stopped there to rest, and had wondered who lived in that pleasant house.
There was the same big, hospitable door, but it would not open to-day to let out two merry little maidens.
From her window Miss Brown nodded and beckoned, so she ran across and paid her a visit.
"Come often and cheer me up, for I shall miss my neighbors dreadfully," that lady said as she was leaving.
"I will," answered Dora, adding merrily, "but you still have the Big Front Door."
* * * * *