THE FRIENDLY FIVE
BY MARY C. HUNGERFORD
NEW YORK: EATON & MAINS
CINCINNATI: CURTS & JENNINGS
Copyright, 1891, by
HUNT & EATON,
AS AN EVIDENCE OF MY WARM REGARD FOR HER,
THIS LITTLE STORY OF SCHOOL LIFE
TO MY YOUNG FRIEND,
MISS SALLY T. CLARK,
OF NEW HAVEN.
|I.||Mr. Bellamy’s Offer||7|
|III.||In Katie’s Room||25|
|IV.||Mrs. Abbott’s Explanation||31|
|V.||Mary Ann Stubbs||41|
|VI.||Mary Ann’s Charge||48|
|VII.||Elfie Tells a Story||55|
|VIII.||A Rainy Day||62|
|IX.||Some Leaves from a Diary||70|
|X.||A Mean Act||79|
|XI.||The S. C.’s||88|
|XIII.||The Committee Buy Ribbons and Make an Acquaintance||102|
|XIV.||The Adventure Discussed||110|
|XV.||The White Queen||117|
|6 XVI.||In Mrs. Abbott’s Room||126|
|XIX.||A Happy Day||148|
|XXI.||In Katie’s Home||162|
|XXII.||The Christmas-tree’s Second Crop||172|
|XXIII.||The Letter in Cipher||181|
|XXIV.||Catching a Train||190|
|XXVII.||On the Road||213|
|XXVIII.||A Traveling Acquaintance||221|
|XXIX.||Watching and Waiting||230|
|XXXI.||An Exciting Night||246|
|XXXII.||A Deep Sleep||252|
|XXXIII.||Marion is Happy||259|
|XXXIV.||The Prize Awarded||272|
THE FRIENDLY FIVE.
There were neither examinations nor graduation exercises at the Coventry Institute. The only ceremony peculiar to the last day of school, except the farewells, was a little sermon from Mrs. Abbott, the principal, preceded by reading the average of reports for the year.
The day had come. All the smaller recitation-rooms were empty and the girls were gathered into the large school-room occupying their own seats, but each whispering softly to her neighbor, for rules were not strictly enforced on either the opening or closing days of school.
Upon the platform at one end of the room stood a green-covered library-desk with the large arm-chair by it which was always reserved for Mrs. Abbott. As they waited a servant came in and removed the chair, bringing into view a8 small old-fashioned hair-cloth sofa large enough to hold two persons comfortably.
“That means company,” was the universal whisper that went around among the girls, and almost before there could be any speculation upon who the guest might be the visitor himself followed the principal into the room. He was a tall, stout, middle-aged man with a splendid head that reminded the girls at once of the pictures of Agassiz.
As Mrs. Abbott took her seat on one end of the little sofa, with her usual pleasant bow to the scholars, she simply said, “My friend, Mr. Bellamy, will say a few words to you;” and the gentleman, with the ease of a long-practiced speaker, stepped to the little table and looked down with kindly inquiring eyes upon the young faces upturned to his.
The girls were well accustomed to speeches from visitors, and could almost have told how he would begin. In fact, Lily Dart, who was quite the wit of the school, had once written out several sentences which she called “openings,” and professed to be holding in reserve for any embarrassed orator who might be disconcerted by the stare of thirty pairs of critical eyes. Now, quoting from number one of her openings, she9 rapidly scrawled on a bit of paper for her desk-mate’s benefit, “Young ladies, my heart beats with mingled emotions—”
Lily was quite astray in her supposition. Mr. Bellamy said nothing about hearts, emotions, or young ladies; instead, with a look that seemed to include them all, he remarked in an easy conversational manner:
“My visit to my old friend, Mrs. Abbott, is made with the hope of persuading her to take a little girl so much younger than the custom of her school allows that I regard her consent as the greatest favor that can be granted to me. My little motherless granddaughter”—there was a little sudden straightening of his shoulders and lifting of his head here that looked to the bright, observant eyes watching him like a determined effort to keep dry eyes and a steady voice—“will seem to you,” he continued, with almost an appeal in his voice, “so babyish, and perhaps spoiled by a grandfather’s fond affection, that I must ask your kindest indulgence for her. Business calls me to Europe, and it will be a year before I can hope to see my little girl again. I should like to feel, in that long year of absence, that Ethel, my Elfie, I call her, was loved by the young people who will be her companions. I do not10 ask you to be kind to her; that I am sure you will be, but I wish I could feel sure that you will all love her.”
Mrs. Abbott beckoned to Miss Blake, the third-room teacher, and said a few words which made the latter go quietly out of the room, to return shortly with a colored nurse leading a most attractive-looking little creature who seemed almost like a baby, but in reality was nearly five years old.
This was Elfie, as the girls knew even before she sprang into her grandfather’s arms, and if any thing more than the words they had just heard had been needed to enlist their interest, the child’s appearance would have completed their conquest, and a very audible murmur of interest and admiration brought a suspicious glistening to Mr. Bellamy’s eyes, as he stood Elfie on the table with her arms still clinging to his neck. At a whisper from him the child lifted her lovely face from his breast and looked shyly for one moment at the girls, giving them a glimpse of pink cheeks, sweet, frank eyes, and a shy, smiling mouth, before the lovely face was buried again on her grandfather’s shoulder, and only a light, tossy handful of curls was visible for their admiration.
11 Candace, who stood in statuesque black dignity as befitted her vast person and royal name, was studying anxiously the faces before her with the keen observation common among untutored people, and now let her solemn countenance break into a broad smile of satisfaction as she saw the impression her little charge had made. She came forward then at a sign from her master, and carried Elfie from the room, the girls’ eyes following them till the white dress and broad black sash disappeared through the door.
But Mr. Bellamy’s speech was not over, although only one more sentence related to the child he had just introduced to them.
“Let my Elfie be your little sister,” he said, with again that look of almost imploring appeal in his eyes which seemed so much like a question that nearly every girl involuntarily raised her right hand as if she felt that some expression of assent was needed.
An audience of boys would have given three cheers for the little sister and six more for the senator, for boys would have known in a moment that the speaker was the distinguished orator whose eloquence and uprightness had made him celebrated all over the country. But girls don’t hurrah, and, unfortunately, do not read the papers12 and keep informed in political matters. But the speaker was satisfied; his wonderfully expressive eyes told that as he gravely bowed and passed on to speech number two, as Kate Ashley called it in her diary.
Nothing so interesting as consigning a lovely baby girl to their care could be expected from speech number two; but the girls put on an expression of polite attention which gradually changed to enthusiastic interest as its very novel and delightful subject was unfolded to them.
Even very able speeches by noted speakers are rather tiresome to read, so it will be better to simply give the most important part of this one without going fully into detail.
Mrs. Bellamy Gray, Ethel’s mother, had been a pupil of Mrs. Abbott, and it was one of the wishes expressed during her last sickness that her little daughter should be educated at the same school. Of course, it had not been her wish to send her there till she was of a suitable age, but now that circumstances had arisen which obliged Mr. Bellamy to go to Europe he felt anxious to leave her with the friend who had been so dear to her mother.
If there had been time, he told his audience, he should have liked to tell them of the various13 plans for helping and comforting others that his daughter had left for him to carry out. There was a bed in St. John’s Hospital, a small fund for giving six poor children a yearly outing, a memorial window in the little mission chapel where she had a Sunday-school class; and all these things were named for his dear and only daughter, and he loved to think that in these pleasant ways her works would seem to live after her. There were still some other schemes to carry out, and among them a Bellamy prize for Coventry Institute.
“I do not intimate,” said the speaker, having arrived at this very interesting part of his discourse, “that any one of Mrs. Abbott’s scholars has need of tangible help; neither do I propose to offer a prize because I think a spur to correct action is necessary; but because my daughter loved the school I wish to associate her memory with it in a pleasant way. The best way of doing this will have to be a matter of experiment and as a sort of trial trip. I will make it this year a prize of three hundred dollars in gold. Your teacher, warned by some sad experience in the past, is opposed to any thing which subjects her young people to a prolonged mental strain, so it will not do to make it a scholastic prize, and14 through some prejudices of my own, not liking to make it a reward for elegant deportment, I shall be obliged to say the prize is for the most deserving. It shall be given upon the anniversary of this day, and the recipient shall be selected by the vote of the school.”
Truly this was an extraordinary prize, and the girls discussed it with animation all the afternoon and during the evening, which on the last day of school was more like a social gathering, for the day-scholars were always invited in and the sadness of farewell was cheered by games, music, and dancing.
They would all have been delighted to have little Elfie with them in these last hours, but the fond grandfather could not spare her, and one of the girls, who had a message to deliver to Mrs. Abbott in the parlor, reported that the child lay fast asleep in Mr. Bellamy’s arms, while he was trying, at great inconvenience to himself, to write letters at a table, and black Candace sat patiently in the hall waiting for the long-delayed summons to put her little missy to bed.
It was late when the day scholars went home, and the others went up-stairs to their rooms very quietly. They all had to pass the large corner15 room which was always given to visitors, and, although the light was turned very low, they could see through the half-closed door that Candace was trying to undress the little girl without waking her, and the senator, whose broad back was toward the door, was bending down to unbutton the little shoes, one of which he lifted and pressed to his lips just as the last pair of girls went by.
“Did you see that?” whispered Katie, with the tears starting to her eyes.
“Yes, isn’t he lovely, and doesn’t he love the little one?” answered Lily, with a nod.
“And isn’t she a dainty darling, and wont we love her and pet her when we come back next term!”
The number of boarding scholars at Coventry school was limited to twenty, and it was necessary to make an application a year or two in advance, and girls had been known to wait three years for a vacancy, for the school was so popular among those who knew of it that people were willing to wait.
The list of applicants was kept in a book in the library, and, being allowed to look in it, the girls became familiar with the names of expected pupils long before they saw them, and when a girl arrived she hardly seemed like a stranger.
Five new scholars were entered at the end of the long summer vacation, and, strange to say, only four of the names were registered in the applicants’ book.
“It seems like putting a fifth wheel to a coach,” said Lily Dart, as she and half a dozen other boarders held a “pow-wow” before unpacking their trunks.
“Yes,” said Delia Howland, “there were only17 four vacancies, and where is this fifth wheel to sit in the dining-room, and where is she to sleep at night, and who’s to do the ‘mothering?’”
“Mothering” was a localism which needs some explanation. It was the custom when a new girl entered school to hand her over to a boarding scholar in her last year, who was expected to introduce the novice into the ways of the establishment and befriend her in every possible way. It was a plan that had always worked admirably, and Mrs. Abbott had seen many strong and lasting friendships begin in this way. To be strictly impartial the girls selected the new scholars they would “protect” when their names were announced at the close of school, so when it opened again and the new scholars came each girl knew which one she was to “mother” without ever having seen her.
“There’s a great deal in a name,” said Delia Howland, contentedly. “I feel sure my girl will be nice; no one called Sylvia Montgomery could be any thing but charming. It has such a high-born sound.”
“I don’t take much stock in names,” said Lily. “The most aristocratic-looking person I ever saw was named Boggs, and we had a colored butler once called Montgomery de Vere.”
18 “I wonder what the fifth wheel’s name is?” said Kate.
“I know,” said Louie Fields—“Mary Ann Stubbs!”
“Not really?” This was said by three girls at once with great emphasis.
“Yes, truly. Mrs. Abbott said so.”
“Then I know she is common as dirt,” said Delia, solemnly.
“Ah, girls, I am a-weary, a-weary, I would that I were wed; for I saw my fate in Mrs. Abbott’s eyes. As sure as you’re alive I shall be made to ‘mother’ Miss Stubbs!
The girls always laughed at Lily’s ready versification whether it was funny or not, so the approval she had learned to expect came now.
“Don’t cross a bridge till you come to it,” said Delia.
“O, you dear, original creature, I have come to it, I know it by the pricking of my thumbs.19 and I feel it in my bones, and existence isn’t going to be worth having!”
“Here’s my bottle of toothache-drops, with a caution on the label not to swallow any, because it’s poison. I guess I can spare one fatal dose for you and have enough left to last till term ends.”
“Thanks, Katie, but I prefer to end my days by opening a vein; besides, your toothache-drops smell of cloves, and I hate cloves. I’m very fastidious, and prefer to ‘die of a rose in aromatic pain.’ I don’t quite know what that means, but it sounds better than cloves.”
“Well, go on living till you see Miss Stubbs; she may be such a queen of love and beauty that even that name can’t spoil her.”
The door opened then, admitting Mrs. Abbott and little Ethel, who shrank away as the girls made a dash at her.
“Her shyness will not last when she has had time to make acquaintance with you all,” said Mrs. Abbott, sitting down in the rocking-chair Lily placed for her and taking Ethel upon her lap.
“Will she be in school?” asked Kate.
“Only a little while each day. She is too young for lessons, but I want her to be among20 you as much as possible, for she has always lived with grown people, and the contact with young life will be very healthful and delightful for her.”
“I wish we might have her all the time!” exclaimed Lily. “O, do, Mrs. Abbott, let us take turns taking care of the darling! Say, baby, wont you be Lily’s little sister for a week, and be with her all the time and sleep in her bed?”
“I am every body’s little sister, grandpa says,” said Ethel, holding up her chin with a sort of baby dignity that made her very bewitching; “but I’d rather sleep with Mammy Candace.”
“And I am afraid that playing nurse would interfere seriously with lessons and rules,” said Mrs. Abbott. “But I am glad to have you fond of Ethel. She has grown very dear to me through this long vacation, while we have been off in the Catskills and at the sea-side seeking for health and strength for us both.”
“Ethel looks better for the change,” said Delia.
“She is much better,” said Mrs. Abbott; “I saw the color come to her cheeks before we had been in the hills a week. I wish Mr.21 Bellamy could see how plump and rosy she has grown.”
Candace, who was never far from her charge, put her head in at the door with Ethel’s broad hat in her hand, and the child sprang to her and started for a walk. Lily would have proposed going too, but Mrs. Abbott detained her.
“I came in to speak particularly to you,” she said. “Since I mentioned at school closing that four new scholars were expected this term I have arranged to take a fifth. She has just arrived and is in my room now. According to the usual custom I have selected one of the oldest scholars to be her friend and initiate her kindly into the ways of the school and help her over some of the difficulties, which you will all remember, from your own experiences, seem rather formidable to a stranger. I expect you, Lily, to be the friend in need in this instance, and if you are ready I will take you directly to my room and introduce you to Miss Stubbs.”
Lily turned to give the girls one look of comical despair as she followed Mrs. Abbott to her own sitting-room, where the only occupant was a girl of fourteen, sitting stiffly upon an ottoman. Her hair, which was certainly thick and long, was all drawn away from her round red face and22 put up in a big braided knot at the back. She had pleasant dark eyes and teeth which showed white as pearls as she parted her lips in a smile as Mrs. Abbott came in. But her hands! they were awful, thought Lily, taking the stranger in with a quick glance—big red, rough things, with neither ruffle nor cuff to soften them as they lay clasped tightly together upon a coarse, stiffly starched white apron which enhanced their redness. Hardly more attractive than the hands were the awkwardly crossed feet, made more clumsy by common, thick, new shoes. Lily had never, except on bargain-counters in the door-way of cheap stores, seen any material like the red, purple, and green plaid of which Miss Stubbs’s dress was made.
“Girls, I shall write to my father to take me out of school!” exclaimed Lily, impetuously, as she rushed back to the room where the girls she had left were still sitting. “I will not stay to be so insulted!”
“Your insult did not last long,” said Katie, who was well accustomed to Lily’s extravagant manner of speech. “It’s only five minutes since you went off. We didn’t expect you back for an hour.”
“I couldn’t stay,” said Lily, gloomily; “but I23 suppose I must go right back. I asked Mrs. Abbott to excuse me while I ran for a handkerchief. I knew I had one in my pocket all the time, but I just had to come out and give vent to my indignation! Girls, Mary Ann Stubbs is just a little servant-girl! I know it by her looks and her words too. Why, what do you think she said when I mumbled out something about hoping she’d be very happy here? I wouldn’t have said one word to her after looking at her hands, but Mrs. Abbott’s eye was on me, and I had to make some kind of conversation.”
“Well, what did the girl say after you had done the polite?”
“‘Thank you, ma’am.’”
“O, how funny to call you ‘ma’am!’ Then what did you say?”
“I said, ‘Have you ever been at boarding-school before?’
“‘Should you like me to tell you some of the rules?’ I said.
“‘If you please, ma’am,’ she said, sticking out her elbows and twisting her fingers together as if she was wringing out a dishcloth. I say Mrs. Abbott has no business to ask us to associate with such a heathenish girl. Ugh! How she24 looks! Her dress is made of the coarsest cloth you ever saw, and it looks like a star-spangled banner mixed up with a rainbow, only there isn’t enough of it to make a banner, for it’s scant and short, short enough to give a plentiful view of her white stockings, and she’s got on clod-hoppers; I think they must be her brother’s shoes. She has no collar or cuffs, and her hair is done up like an old woman’s. Just think of my ‘mothering’ that great, horrid, vulgar girl! I wont, though!” She burst into a flood of angry tears as she made this declaration.
Mingling with the rather hysterical weeping in which Lily’s indignation had culminated there was another sound of sobbing, and, turning suddenly, they beheld, with a poor little cotton handkerchief pressed to her eyes, the forlorn figure which had just been so aptly described that there was no difficulty in recognizing—Mary Ann Stubbs!
The poor girl had followed Lily at a word from Mrs. Abbott, who felt, perhaps, that the ordeal of meeting some more of her fellow-scholars had better be over at once. Unnoticed, and not knowing exactly how she ought to make her presence known, the poor thing had stood motionless in the door-way hearing the cruel words, like a target into which all the arrows of scorn were being fired, till the sound of Lily’s sobs broke down her stony composure.
Katie, who was always good-natured, was really shocked at the cruel wounds the stranger had received, and, going up to her, attempted to apologize and soothe her. But the case seemed too dreadful to admit of palliation, and every thing Katie could think of to say seemed to make the matter worse. There was a sort of pathetic dignity in the way Mary Ann dried her tears after a few moments and said in a tone which showed the difficulty of commanding her voice:
26 “I do not want to trouble Mrs. Abbott, so please, ma’am, will you show me some place I can stay where I’ll be out of people’s way?”
“Come in here,” said Lily, thoroughly ashamed of herself. “I know Mrs. Abbott meant you to come here.”
“If I could be useful to you, ma’am,” the girl said, hesitatingly, yet looking as if she longed to get away.
“I wish you’d come into my room and help me unpack,” said Katie, having tact and good-natured enough to think the proposal would be pleasing.
She led the way through the back hall and up-stairs to the dormitories, which were a row of small rooms on each side of a long hall with a large bath-room at each end. There were a double bed and two small bureaus in each room.
It was a great comfort to the unhappy stranger to find something to do, and lazy Katie found herself well paid for her kindness by the energetic way in which the contents of her trunk were all laid with orderly arrangement in the bureau-drawers while she, not to embarrass her visitor by watching her, sat on the bed looking over her photograph album, occasionally calling27 the attention of Miss Stubbs to a picture with some explanatory remarks.
“This is my married sister, and this gentleman over the leaf is my married brother,” she said, calling attention to two very handsome faces.
“O, aint they splendid, ma’am!” ejaculated Mary Ann, looking enraptured. “And have you really got growed-up brothers and sisters?”
“Yes, plenty of them. I’m the youngest of seven.”
“Dear me, suz! And I’m the oldest of seven!” said Miss Stubbs, in rather a self-congratulatory manner.
“O, how awful!” replied Katie. “Why, I shouldn’t think you’d have any presents and things. Now, all my brothers and sisters, except the two next to me, give me all sorts of treats and make a regular pet of me.”
Mary Ann looked at her with wondering eyes, but made no answer. She was thinking of a poor little home in the mountains, where there was so much hard work, poverty, and sickness that petting and presents were not things to be understood. She felt a sudden desire to say so, but something seemed to tell her that such a home as hers would be despised by her companion.28 She was glad of all she did not say when, a moment after, Katie exclaimed:
“O, see this one! It’s my own room at home. Mamma had it photographed and sent it to me last term, so I might see how the new furniture looked.”
Mary Ann studied the picture long and closely.
“How beautiful! How beautiful!” she said, at last, in breathless admiration. “The best parlor at the Peconough House is jest nothin’ to it! My lands! how rich your folks must be! and aint it awful work to dust all them ornaments?”
“I suppose so,” said Katie, indifferently. “I never dust the room myself, but mamma says the housemaid complains of all our rooms.”
Mary Ann looked at Katie curiously, then attentively at the picture again; then, rather irrelevantly it would seem to any one not following her thoughts, said with a heavy sigh:
“My, aint you got white hands, though!”
They were white, and Katie enjoyed being told of it; in fact, the admiration she and her belongings, as they were taken from the trunk, excited was very refreshing to this young lady, who had her full share of vanity. Her complacency made29 her quite tolerant of her companion’s uncouth ways, and she propped herself comfortably against a pillow and proceeded to astonish her auditor by an extended account of her luxuries and privileges in her beautiful home.
Her descriptions were assisted and confirmed by two photographs that were too large to go in the album. The views showed the house to be very elegant, but the girls were rather tired of Katie’s “bragging,” and it was seldom she could get an opportunity of expending so much eloquence upon her favorite theme.
While Mary Ann listened with entranced interest to the description of home-life which seemed to her like a piece out of a fairy-tale her rough, red hands were not idle. Having emptied the trunk of all excepting its heaviest contents she dragged it into the hall for Duffy to carry into the store-room, and, pulling a spool and tatting-shuttle out of her pocket, made the latter fly as if its motor were steam.
By and by Lily put her head in the half-closed door, flushing at the sight of Miss Stubbs, but otherwise taking no notice of her.
“Please come to Mrs. Abbott’s room, Katie; she wants us for a few minutes,” she said, disappearing as suddenly as she came.
30 Katie smoothed her hair at the glass and turned to obey the request. At the same instant small flying feet were heard and a little voice counting the doors, “One, two, three, four, five, same’s my little finger; this is the one, I know;” and with a little knock that she didn’t wait to hear answered Ethel danced into the room.
“I’ve come back for you,” she exclaimed, running up to Mary Ann, “and Mrs. Abbott says you may come with us to see the peacocks, and we are going to feed them, too. Candace is getting your hat, and she’ll wait on the piazza for us. Come, hurry! hurry! The big one’s got his tail lifted all up like a big, big feather fan.”
Perhaps it was a little bit of diplomacy on Mrs. Abbott’s part that provided an occupation out of the house for Miss Stubbs, while she talked of her very seriously to some of the scholars. Lily, who was as quick to act upon her good impulses as upon any others, had told her teacher frankly what had occurred. Mrs. Abbott received her confession sorrowfully, but made no comment at the time, simply asking the girl to call to her room those who had been present at the conversation.
Delia, Katie, Fannie Holmes, Bell Burgoyne, and Lily Dart, the Friendly Five, as they called themselves, took their seats rather shamefacedly, and waited to hear what Mrs. Abbott had to say.
If it had been any one but Mrs. Abbott the girls would have thought her afraid to begin. She certainly seemed much less composed than usual. She looked out of the window thoughtfully, rose and walked half a dozen times across32 the room, then took her seat again, looked keenly at the girls for a moment, and said:
“I hardly know whether or not to tell you something that will explain the presence in our school of a girl who is very different—I do not pretend to say she is not—from all who have ever been here. I hope I may help her by telling you, but sometimes I am afraid I shall do more harm than good by being frank.”
Here she hesitated, and the girls, who were wildly curious, were afraid she had arrived at the conclusion not to tell them any thing. She noticed their inquiring looks and smiled.
“I have made your lively imaginations expect more of a story than I really have to tell,” she said. “Last July, as you already know, I took Ethel and Candace for a six weeks’ stay in the Catskills. The hotel was on one mountain and faced another. In the deep valley between were several little houses, not clustered together for neighborly companionship, as you might suppose they would be in such a place, but each standing quite alone in what they call a ‘burnt-off’ clearing. The mountain air, while it strengthened me, made me wakeful, and, delightfully still as the place was, I could never sleep after the first ray of daylight broke through the sky. There were33 such glorious cloud effects that I thought I might as well turn my early wakefulness to good account; so the dawn of day always found me in shawls and wrapper sitting at the window of my bedroom.
“The clouds hang very near the earth among those heights; so in watching them I did not have to lift my eyes too high to see what was going on about me, although there was not much to see, except an occasional ox-team or a man on his way somewhere. But I began to notice after a while that one of the earliest living things astir after the birds was a little girl who brought a big pail up the hill, went around to the back door of the hotel, and presently came back with the pail filled with water, carrying it down the precipitous path quickly but with great care not to spill all its contents, as certainly any one not used to perpendicular paths would have done.
“To have made the journey thus loaded would have been a task for most people, but this little water-bearer came again and again. I have known her to carry down her load eleven times before the first bell rang to warn the hotel guests that it was time to leave their beds and prepare for breakfast.
“I am not fond of exercise before breakfast,34 but I grew so interested in the little water-carrier that one morning I dressed myself very early and went out, meeting her, as I expected, swinging her empty pail and repeating something to herself as if she were learning a lesson. She was larger when I stood on her level than when I saw her from the window, and sufficiently strong not to have minded carrying two or three pails of water—but eleven!
“‘It is hard work for you,’ I said, sympathetically, after wishing her good-morning. ‘O, my, no,’ she said, brightly; ‘jest suppose I had the empty pails to carry down and the full ones to fetch up!’
“I admired her happy philosophy and asked which of the houses she carried her pails of water to, and was surprised enough when she told me it was to all of them. I learned later that the well at the hotel was the only one in the vicinity, and, the supply of rain-water being inadequate, the people in the four little homes I could catch glimpses of through the trees were willing to give a cent for each pail of water brought to them!
“At mountain hotels fruit on the breakfast-table is not usual; so the boarders were very glad to engage wild raspberries from the same girl,35 who gathered them, with the help of three little brothers, after she had finished her water-carrying.
“I used to walk on the piazza with Ethel every morning while Candace was eating her breakfast, and sometimes still longer, when the grass seemed too damp for more distant rambling, and as we turned the corner and walked down the end of the dining-room we could see through the windows of the kitchen beyond it great baskets of dirty dishes carried in and emptied upon a table and piled up ready for washing. At a sink close by a fat woman was perpetually washing dishes, which she handed as fast as rinsed to two girls who wiped and piled them upon another table. The dish-washing and wiping always seemed very attractive to Ethel, and she made every excuse to stay longest on that part of the piazza. At last from frequent observation of the process and the workers I began to discover that my little water-carrier was one of the dish-wipers.
“I made arrangements when we first went to the hotel for hiring a strong wagon and a very steady old horse, and Ethel and I went every fair day for a long, lovely drive among the beautiful mountains. One day our trustworthy horse36 was attacked with a kind of rheumatic lameness which his owner admitted he was liable to have occasionally, but which would not last long. We waited patiently through several rainy and cloudy days, but when one came that seemed more perfect than any other day could be I felt as if I could wait no longer, and consulted the landlord about hiring another horse. I think, to exonerate that very cautious and conservative man, I must confess that I was a little self-willed, and engaged a coltish creature that he absolutely condemned. But I have driven nearly every day for so many years that I had perhaps too great an estimate of my own powers.
“We started on our drive, picking out the least precipitous roads, where all nearly approached the perpendicular for at least some portion of their way, and so far from seeming coltish our slow-moving horse might have been a grandfather.”
There was a prevailing opinion at Coventry school that Mrs. Abbott was rather fond of telling a story, and knew how to tell it well. Perhaps it was the strong interest she herself felt in every thing she said to her girls, or perhaps it was the great love they felt for her that made them now listen so intently that if the celebrated37 pin that is always mentioned in connection with attentive audiences had dropped it might have made quite a clatter, and yet certainly there was nothing very exciting about what she had said so far, as Kate Ashley found when she tried to put it into her inevitable diary.
“Elfie was in high spirits,” pursued Mrs. Abbott, “and laughed and sang as we drove along the shady roads, that were almost cold, the shade was so dense.
“We were within a mile or two of home when we came to a little log hut we had often seen before, but could rarely pass without stopping, because we knew it was the place to buy the most delicious maple-sugar that could be found in that region. The lame old woman sitting in the door rose up and came to the carriage, helping out Elfie, who had twelve cents, the price of a pound cake of sugar, clutched in her hand.
“I shall always be devoutly thankful that the child did get out, for before she had even stepped into the house behind the old woman a man whom I had not seen fired his gun at a squirrel close behind us, and in an instant the startled horse dashed away with me, paying no heed to all my efforts to hold him in. The road was up-hill38 for a little way, but I well remembered that there was a long, steep pitch after that, and I drew the reins with all the strength I had and settled myself into the middle of the seat so I should not be quite so easily thrown out. When we reached the top of the hill the downward pace was terrible. He seemed not to run, but to take great plunging leaps. His very first jump pulled the reins out of my hands, and I crouched down on the floor, grasping the seat and expecting every instant to be thrown out. I suppose I did not spend much time in this way, but it seemed like an hour that I clung there with a dreadful death apparently quite certain, for the road was narrow, with a steep, stony descent on one side. At the bottom of the terrible hill there was a short bit of road as nearly level as any road ever is among those mountains, then a fork, one road taking straight up another hill, the other making a sharp, sudden turn toward a plank bridge that had been injured by late storms and was considered impassable.
“If the horse, whose bounds seemed to be getting a little less impetuous, went straight up the other hill, possibly, hope whispered to me, I might be saved; but if he took that awful turn39—I turned sick when I thought of what would come then!
“In those few terrible seconds before we reached the foot of the hill I saw—although I was not conscious till afterward that I saw any thing—the hotel standing boldly out upon its clearing, with people walking and sitting upon its broad piazza, and, just before the bit of level road I was approaching, a little black house, with a group of children playing beneath a tree and a girl hanging a heavy quilt upon a clothes-line. The noise of the wheels made her turn her head. I cannot remember what she did then, but I have been told that she made a dash for the road, and, when my horse came to the spot where to turn was death, she stood at the point of danger, right in the middle of the road, with the dark, wet calico quilt held up in her extended arms. If she had moved it it would have added to the horse’s terror and driven him into a mad bolt at the precipice on the other side of the road, but held as the girl held it it simply made, as she hoped it would, a barrier to keep him from taking the turn.
“My horse’s pace grew less fearful then, even on the level space, and before we reached the top of the steep ascent it had moderated so greatly40 that two men at the top in a loaded wagon sprang from their seat at sight of my danger and stopped him without much difficulty.”
Mrs. Abbott stopped for a moment, overcome by the recollection of her exciting adventure, while the girls, who had almost forgotten to breathe while they listened, crowded about her with caresses and murmurs of thankfulness that she had been saved.
“It is very lovely,” said Mrs. Abbott, as the girls were petting and fondling her, “very lovely in you to care so much for my deliverance from peril. I have not been able to tell you half how dreadful my danger was. I seemed to be looking right at death, and a terrible death, too. My heart is full of thankful love whenever I think of God’s goodness to me then. Perhaps my lips did not utter a word; I know I did not scream, but something within me cried out just as the supreme moment of danger was at hand, ‘Lord, save me, save me, save me!’
“Girls,” continued Mrs. Abbott, solemnly, making an effort to recover herself from the strong excitement with which she had spoken the last words, “God heard me out of the depths of my agony; he sent the angel of his deliverance to my help. Do you wonder that gratitude to the girl who risked her life to save mine makes me wish to make her life happier?”
“It was Mary Ann Stubbs,” exclaimed Lily,42 throwing her arms around Mrs. Abbott’s neck and sobbing, “and I—I—I have been so mean to her when she saved your life!”
“O, Lily, keep still and let Mrs. Abbott tell us the rest,” said Delia. “Did you faint when they took you out? And when did you find out that it was Mary Ann who held the quilt? I don’t see how she came to think of doing it, anyway.”
“Nor I,” said Bell. “I am afraid I should just shut my eyes and shudder if I were to see a lady being run away with in such a fearful way.”
“I suppose almost any girl would feel as you do,” said Mrs. Abbott. “I am sure I should feel helpless myself in the same circumstances, but Mary Ann is really a very uncommon character.
“Naturally enough, I was sick for some days from the nervous shock of my accident, and in that time I learned much about her from the hotel-keeper’s wife, who used to come in and sit with me. It was not till she told me that I knew who kept the horse from taking that dreadful turn.
“I found that the one great desire of Mary Ann’s life was to have an education. The few books she could get hold of she knew almost by heart, and in the little country school she attended43 in winter she studied with a vigor that soon carried her beyond the rather slightly educated teacher. During all the work of her busy days she was always committing something to memory, and the results of her application will surprise you when you see her in class.
“It seemed impossible to take away a girl who was the main-stay of her family, for Mary Ann’s earnings in assisting at the hotel a part of every day through the season and water-carrying and berry-picking, moss-basket-making, and several other small employments, counted largely toward her mother’s support. Her father lost his leg by an accident, so his capacity as a bread-winner is greatly reduced; but by the co-operation of the landlord of the Peconough House it has all been arranged, and now I ask your kindness for poor Mary Ann. She is rough, uncouth, and ignorant of every thing that goes to make polish and elegance, but she has a bright mind and a noble heart.
“I have told you of her origin and her almost menial position in order to account for her peculiarities of manner and speech, and I have told you of the bravery that saved my life to enlist your interest in her; and now I ask you if you44 are willing to overlook the obnoxious points and be friendly to Mary Ann?”
“Indeed we will!” said they all as with one voice; and, loving their teacher as they did, the girls felt a grateful desire to heap benefits on her preserver.
“I can see now,” said Mrs. Abbott, tears starting to her eyes at the evidences of her scholars’ love for her, “that I had better have told you this story before letting you see Mary Ann; but we are all apt to make mistakes. I think I have made another in asking one of you to take her in especial charge, so I withdraw the office from you, Lily.”
“No, no, let me ‘mother’ Mary Ann. Don’t punish me for my contemptible conduct!” cried Lily, red with shame.
“No, dear, it is not for punishment, but because I see ample reason for leaving any one girl free from individual responsibility. I will give her into the care of you all.”
“Make her a kind of child of the regiment,” said Delia.
“Yes, exactly that. You five may consider yourselves in honor bound to look after the interests of poor Mary Ann.”
“I am going to begin by teaching her grammar,”45 said Bell, at which the others quite laughed, for Bell was very weak on that branch of learning. “Well, you needn’t laugh. I don’t say ‘you be’ and ‘I haint,’ and I don’t think there’s any harm in my telling her not to do it.”
“You will be astonished when I tell you,” said Mrs. Abbott, “that Mary Ann is well grounded in grammar and rhetoric, but she has spent her life where no practical use of them is made in conversation; so the poor girl does not know how to talk; but as soon as she catches the idea that her speech is different from others she will bend every nerve to changing it. Her great ambition is to become a teacher and earn enough to educate her brothers and sisters.”
“Six of them!” groaned Katie.
“How is she to get clothes?” asked Bell, thinking of the thick shoes and the vivid plaid. “She wouldn’t be so bad if she dressed like other folks.”
“I should have attended to that before she came,” said Mrs. Abbott, “but when I recovered I felt unwilling to stay among the mountains, and driving was no longer a pleasure to me, so we went to Narragansett for the rest of the vacation, leaving the care of getting Mary Ann down here in time for school opening with Mrs.46 Perkins, the hotel-keeper’s wife. I have already set the girl who has been engaged to make Elfie’s dresses to work upon a navy-blue cashmere for Mary Ann, and shoes of a more girlish appearance she shall have this afternoon.”
“And may I bring you some cuffs and collars for her?” asked Bell. “Mamma always packs up such an insane quantity of them for me. I never use half of them.”
“And I can give her lots of hair-ribbons,” said Katie.
“O, please let us fill her top drawer with our superfluities,” said Lily; “she will never know where they came from, and it will be great fun!”
Mrs. Abbott hesitated.
“I do not like to destroy her independence. Her position as occasional helper in the hotel kitchen did not bring her into contact with the guests, so she was never offered presents or fees.”
“I know,” said Lily; “you want her to feel as good as any one.”
“Yes, I do; and if she is to begin by accepting gifts she may get a feeling of inferiority that I don’t wish her to have.”
“Well, wont you put the things in the47 drawer, and not tell her we gave them? Surely she can take a favor from you,” said Delia.
And so it was arranged. Mary Ann had her raptures over gloves, ribbons, ruffles, and other girlish properties which she had never dreamed of possessing, and the girls who had supplied her out of their profusion were well paid by seeing the improvement in her appearance and hearing her expressions of delight when she told them of the furniture of the top drawer she expected to find empty.
Mrs. Abbott kept her rather out of sight for a day or two, and when school work began in earnest Mary Ann, in her new blue dress, with clean collar and cuffs, nice shoes and dark stockings, was not a conspicuous figure till she opened her mouth to speak.
It always takes nearly a week to get a boarding-school into good working order, so, although Mrs. Abbott appointed Wednesday for arriving, she never really expected much would be done till the next Monday. By that time the rapture of greeting between old friends, the acquaintances to be formed with new-comers, and the natural touch of homesickness were supposed to be over, and the business of life must begin.
One of the five new scholars has been described. The others seemed nice, quiet, lady-like girls, a little inclined to be teary, as was quite natural, for they knew the pleasures of the homes they had left, and they could not yet know how much there was to enjoy at Coventry school.
They all found Elfie a quiet comforter, for the child, now that she had become entirely at home, seemed to take the duties of a hostess upon herself and made very pretty little efforts to please the strangers. Any other child would have been in danger of being spoiled by the petting lavished49 upon her; she was every one’s darling; and to have Elfie for an hour was the greatest treat a girl could have.
Edna Tryon, one of the new girls, was quite as far advanced as any of the old scholars, and was put into the class with them. She had been for years at a fashionable city school, but having, as her mother thought, shown some symptoms of delicate health, she was brought to Mrs. Abbott’s in hopes the pure country air might be of advantage.
There was something very attractive about Edna Tryon’s appearance; teachers and girls were pleased with her from the first, but as time went on she developed some unlovely traits, and brought from the fashionable school she had attended ideas which were quite at variance with Mrs. Abbott’s system. She was rather a shrewd girl, and by appealing to certain weaknesses she was quick to discover in a girl’s character was able to acquire an influence over her. She succeeded in getting very much of an influence over Katie Ashley, and through her became on excellent terms with all the Friendly Five.
After Mrs. Abbott’s conversation with the Friendly Five about Mary Ann they had treated her with kindness, and their example had made50 her much better received by the other scholars than she would have been, for school-girls are very critical, and there was much in Mary Ann’s speech and manner to which to object.
Edna treated her with great haughtiness from the first, and Lily, seeing how often Mary Ann was wounded by her arrogance, asked for liberty to tell her the story of how she came to be there; but Mrs. Abbott, thinking it better no one else should know what a humble position she had held, withheld her permission, at the same time thanking Lily for wishing to befriend Mary Ann.
“It gives me great joy, my dear, to see that you persist in your kindness to poor Mary Ann. She tells me that all of you to whom I told her story are brave champions.”
“I am sorry she needs a champion,” said Lily; “but you know it is a temptation to make fun of her green ways and looks; but she is improving, and I think it’s perfectly grand the way she asks us to tell her of her faults. I should be furious if any one told me of mine. To tell the truth, I don’t like to think people know I have any.”
“We cannot too much admire Mary Ann’s determination to improve herself, and I hope, Lily, you will continue to be her friend.”
51 Lily promised and fully meant to keep her word, but, as Mrs. Abbott had learned by past experience, Lily had two failings which sometimes made her a little trying to those who loved her most: her disposition to seek amusement, even if she had to do it at a friend’s expense, and her easy nature, made her too easily led away from her good intentions. But she had of late struggled with these besetting sins, as she called them herself, and her teacher hoped they would at last disappear.
No one’s general average in the week’s report was ever higher than Mary Ann’s. She was not only a remarkably quick student, but she appreciated, more than any one else in the school, the great blessing of an education. Gratitude to Mrs. Abbott was another spur to industry, and her studiousness and desire to learn made her a favorite with the teachers.
She still had much to bear from the scholars, who were thoughtlessly cruel, and laughed at her many blunders; but their causes of merriment were gradually disappearing, for Mary Ann was so well aware of her defects and so watchful to correct them that Mrs. Abbott told her one day, finding her plunged in despair, that before long, with her great desire for improvement52 and the rough process of polishing she was enduring, she would acquire the agreeable manner of speech and action she admired in the other girls.
“O, you are so kind to me, ma’am,” said grateful Mary Ann, “and I wisht you’d gimme—give me, I mean—something to do for you. You said to my mother there was work I could do here.”
“I have changed my mind about that. If I were to let you do the light service I had expected to I fear the others would be less likely to treat you as an equal, and, dear, I think you have enough to struggle against without that drawback. I have decided to ask of you something much more serious and important than I had intended. To explain myself, I must tell you something in strict confidence; I am quite sure I may trust you.”
Mary Ann began to pledge her solemn word in the strong language in which she had been accustomed to hear such assertions made; but Mrs. Abbott stopped her, saying:
“One look at your face is all I need to show me you can keep a secret.”
The honest eyes she looked into were shining with pleasure, and Mrs. Abbott smiled lovingly53 at the girl as, taking her little hard hand in her own, she told the pitiful story of Ethel’s mother’s short, sad life.
She had become engaged while her father was abroad, having left her in the care of a friend who proved very reckless of the trust, to a man in every way unworthy of her. Mr. Bellamy, on his return, at first refused his consent, but Ethel, always delicate, seemed unable to bear disappointment, and, having no actual proof of Mr. Gray’s unworthiness, his fears for her health made him consent to their marriage. There were two years of sad experience, and then Mr. Bellamy, learning of wrongs which had been carefully concealed from him and which fully justified the severest measures, insisted upon a legal separation, and brought Mrs. Gray and her little daughter back to his own home in San Francisco. Soon the older Ethel died, leaving her baby Elfie to her grandfather’s care.
“To guard against interference he legally adopted Elfie, giving her his own name, and he never means to have her know, if it can be helped, that she has a father living.”
“Within the past year,” continued Mrs. Abbott, “Mr. Bellamy has found the worthless father very troublesome, and has grave fears that54 he will try to get possession of Elfie, probably with the hope of getting hold of the money which she inherits from her mother, independently of her grandfather’s large fortune. He made one attempt in San Francisco, but happily his plot was discovered. Mr. Bellamy believes the man will think he has of course taken Elfie to England with him, and has little fear for her here under my care.
“Candace can be trusted to watch and defend her if necessary, for she would be a tigress if danger threatened her darling; but poor Candace keeps having attacks of rheumatism. Change of climate must have developed it, for she was never afflicted that way before. When her nurse has a sick day some one else must guard Elfie, and you, my dear, will do it more faithfully, I firmly believe, than any one else in the house.”
Mrs. Abbott rose as she finished, and kissed the earnest, honest face of her listener.
Mary Ann’s dark eyes were beaming with joy at being so trusted; but though she longed to say that she would be faithful—yes, faithful unto death, if necessary—there was such a choking in her throat that she could only answer by pressing the dear hand that held hers.
Six of the girls were spending the Saturday mending-hour in Lily’s room. All the girls in the school were required to spend that one hour in sewing, and as rents and holes were subject to fines and bad marks it became an unwritten law that the hour was to be spent in mending. The little girls were expected to do their mending in the smaller recitation-room, with one of the teachers to direct and assist them, but the larger ones were allowed to work in their rooms.
“It is not a hilarious pursuit,” said Lily, looking solemnly at a three-sided tear above the hem of a clean white skirt, “and I am very sorry that there seems to be such a deep-seated prejudice against the Chinese.”
“And what earthly connection is there between mending and Chinese?”
“The connection, my inquisitive Bertha, is not with mending, but abolishing the necessity for the practice, which I regard as a most disagreeable one. I have understood that the gentle56 creatures with the peanut-colored complexions and the blinking, bias eyes are acquainted with a process for making paper undergarments, which are taken off when soiled and used for lighting fires. I suppose if my lovely figure were draped in paper I should make a cheerful rattling as I walked about, and toward the close of a paper garment’s career I might even have to tie it about me with twine, like any other paper-wrapped package. Still, I should prefer it to mending cotton materials, and so I wish they would offer the Chinese inducements to stay here and begin manufacturing.”
The girls were convulsed with laughter, for Lily had an overwhelmingly droll way of making her highly original remarks.
“I have no mending to do,” said Katie; “so if you want me to read aloud I am quite at your service.”
Lily laid down her work and looked reproachfully at the speaker. “Have you stolen a march on me, uncandid Katherine, with a K, and supplied yourself with a full line of paper garments while I am still groveling in cotton cloth?”
“No; I wear as much muslin as you do, and wear and tear it into twice as many holes. I laid a frightful pile of clothes that wanted mending57 on my table yesterday, but when I went to bed I found them all mended.”
“That sounds supernatural,” said Lily, using her chest tones and speaking sepulchrally; “I am afraid it was the work of no mortal fingers. Perhaps you have a ghostly double who sits and sews while you otherwise amuse yourself.”
“O, stop talking that way,” said Katie; “you make me feel creepy; I know well enough who did it. It was Mary Ann.”
“How very nice!” said Edna, airily; “I believe I will hire her services too. I have plenty of pocket-money to spare, for there’s no way of spending it here.”
“But she didn’t do it for pay,” protested Katie; “it’s because she likes me.”
“And because you are always so nice to her,” said Lily, with an approving nod which greatly pleased Katie.
Edna drew up her lip scornfully. “I should not accept unpaid services,” she said, loftily.
“Do excuse my forgetfulness,” exclaimed Lily, hurriedly fumbling in her little purse. “O, can any one change a half-dollar; never mind, here’s some pennies, one, two, three, four, five. Here, Edna, is this about right for gluing my photo-case so nicely the other day?”
58 “Why, Lily Dart! How dare you offer me money!” exclaimed Edna, springing up and scattering the pennies Lily had tossed into her lap in every direction.
The other girls looked shocked too; but Lily serenely said, “I must be stupid, but I thought you said you wouldn’t accept unpaid services, and I felt reproached at once for not having as good a rule of conduct as yours.”
Edna looked violently angry, but before she could express her indignant sentiments there was a little tap on the door, and Mrs. Abbott and Elfie came in.
Perhaps Mrs. Abbott could tell by Edna’s flushed cheeks and the angry tears which filled her eyes that something disagreeable was in progress, but she gave no sign of noticing any thing, and after a few minutes of pleasant chat asked if she might leave Elfie with them till the sewing-hour was up.
Bertha, with a fear that Edna and Lily might recommence the interrupted conversation, invited Elfie to tell them a story while they sewed.
“I can’t tell a book story,” said the child, “but I’ll tell you one that Mammy Candace tells, or I’ll tell you one of Marion’s history stories.”
“Which would you rather tell, Elfie?”
59 “I sink I’d rather tell one of mammy’s stories, ’cause I forget the history names.”
“Very well, do as you like.”
“Well, once dere was a little girl, ’bout so big as me, and her mother telled her to go over the field and take some nice custard in a bowl to a poor sick woman in a little bit o’ cabin. So she put on her little hat an’ comed an’ comed an’ comed till she ’most come to de little cabin. Den she sat down under a bush an’ she look in de bowl, an’ de custard look yellow like gole, an’ smooth like silk, an’ den she took a holly-leaf an’ she ate de nice custard all up. An’ den she lie down an’ go sleep. Pretty soon dere comes big bumble-bee, buzz-buzz-buzz, an’ she wakes up an’ says, ‘Go ’way, bad bee.’ But de bee say, ‘No, no; I goin’ ter sting a bad chile doan’ mine ’er mudder.’”
The girls were noticing with much amusement that Elfie was unconsciously imitating the Southern accent Candace used.
“Den a lil’ chipmunk come an’ say, ‘Cha-cha-cha-cha, I goin’ bite her lil’ toes, ’cause she doan’ mine ’er mudder.’ Den a lil’ owl comes an’ says, ‘Who-a-who-a-who, I goin’ pull ’er har, ’cause she doan’ mine ’er mudder.’ Den dere comes a lil’ chink-bug, tick-a-tick-a-tick-a, an’ says, ‘I goin’60 pinch ’er, ’cause she doan’ mine ’er mudder.’ Den dey all say, ‘Sting ’er, bite ’er, pull ’er, pinch ’er, ’cause she doan’ mine ’er mudder.’ So she cry an’ holler, an’ de poor sick woman crawls outer bed an’ sends ’em all off. Den she says, ‘You got somefin’ nice for me in dat blue bowl?—somefin’ you mudder send me, yellow as gole an’ smooth as silk? Gib it to me, ’cause I got nuffin’ to eat.’
“Dat was the worse of all, an’ de lil’ girl runs out de door an’ runs home an’ says, ‘Mudder, mudder, gib me all de supper I can have;’ an’ de mudder gibs her bread an’ milk an’ jam-tart, an’ she takes ’em an’ runs ’way, ’way off to de cabin, to gib ’em to de sick woman, an’ de bee, an’ de chipmunk, and de lil’ owl, and de chink-bug, dey all comed too, an’ dey didn’t sting ’er, nor bite ’er, nor pull ’er, nor pinch ’er, ’cause she was sorry she was bad an’ didn’t mine ’er mudder.
“I can tell you better stories when I know how to read,” said Elfie, modestly, as she received their thanks for the one she had just told in a highly dramatic manner. “I have a beautiful big book of stories called The Raving Nights, but Auntie Abbott wont let me have the stories read to me, because I heard her tell Miss Blake I was too—too magical now.”
61 “Imaginative, wasn’t it?”
“O, yes; dat was it.”
“Well,” said Lily, who had seen the big storybook, “‘magical’ isn’t a bad word for the Arabian Nights.”
“And ‘Raving’ is as forcible as the real title,” added Edna, who seemed to have recovered her temper.
After a week of such glorious weather that it was a pleasure merely to be alive there came a day when the rain fell in hopeless torrents.
“I wouldn’t quarrel with the weather,” said Lily, gloomily, “if it had the propriety to do the right thing Saturday; but when our only holiday is spoiled it seems a little exasperating. I’ve flattened my classic features against the window-pane as long as I can stand it, but I can’t find a symptom of clearing up.”
“Let’s do something amusing,” said Louie Field. “There is no fun in just wishing it would stop raining, and that’s what we’ve been doing, with intervals for yawning, for the last hour.”
“Amusing! Well, I like that! What’s going to amuse us?” asked Bell Burgoyne, scornfully.
“Capping verses is pretty good fun,” said Mary Ann, modestly. It was seldom she made a suggestion; but Edna, who generally snapped her up with a sarcasm, or silenced her proposals with blighting sneers, was out of the way now.
63 “That’s so,” said Katie, looking up from a struggle with the accounts that her father required her to keep of her very liberal supply of pocket-money. “It is fun, but I don’t remember exactly how it’s played. You write a line of poetry and then fold the paper over it and pass it along for your next neighbor to write a line that rhymes with it, don’t you?”
“Yes; that’s one way, but we used to play it another way for a change. Let’s try your way first, and then I’ll show you how we used to play it at Chemunk.”
There was much stirring about for a few minutes to find pencils and paper, and then a half sheet of foolscap was handed to Lily, who wrote a heading and then a first line.
“Arrayed,” she said, passing the paper on to Katie, after carefully turning down her line so that no one could read it.
“No one can make a rhyme to that,” said Katie, who was not blessed with a powerful rhyming talent; “that’s one of the words there’s no rhyme to, like silver and twelfth.”
“Maid, shade, glade, played,” suggested Mary Ann.
“O, yes,” said Katie; “but I don’t know a line of poetry that ends in any of those words.”
64 “Give Mary Ann your turn, then,” said Lily, “and may be you’ll get an easier word.”
So Mary Ann wrote a line rapidly and then passed the paper to Lottie Bush, who wrote another rhyme to it, for the versification was to be in triplets. Then Katie, thinking it would be easier to inaugurate a rhyme than to find one, began a new verse and gave “tale” as the final word of her line.
Some of the party were very quick, but others had to expend much thought on their lines; so quite a little while passed before the poem was finished and handed to Lily to read.
“Ahem!” she began, clearing her throat. “This remarkable poem is the joint production of a number of first-class poets. It was original sometime, and it is called—
“MANY LINES FROM MANY PENS, BY LOTS OF FOLKS.
“That wasn’t bad fun,” said Louie. “Now suppose we try the other way. Tell us how you do it, Mary Ann.”
“You compose four lines of poetry, or stuff—of course you can’t really call it poetry—and leave off the rhymes, and pass it to the next one to guess out the rhymes and put them in.”
“But, my goodness, child, we can’t all compose poetry! What do you take us for?” asked Louie. “Wont it do to quote four lines from a book?”
“Not quite so well, for it might be familiar, and then there’d be no skill in getting the rhymes.”
“O, let’s try it,” said Lily. “It needn’t be real poetry, as Mary Ann says, and we’ll get some fun out of it, I guess.”
Some narrow strips of paper were supplied to each of the party, who, with the exception of two or three who declared it was impossible for them to think of any thing to write, were soon66 busy trying to wrench poetical ideas from their puzzled brains.
Parodies were the easiest to write, Mary Ann had said; so most of the verses when done bore strong suggestions of very familiar songs or poems, and after they were written it was not hard for most of the girls to supply the rhymes.
Edna, who came in too late to join in composing, was chosen to read the verses to them after they were done. There were no names signed and it was some sport to guess the authors. The first one selected from the pile had an easy jingle about it that made the girls certain it was from Lily’s ready pen. It was headed:
“ODE TO MY FRIEND.
“Now, guess the rhyme,” said the reader, who knew what they were because, according to rule, they were written on the back. “It’s an every-other-line rhyme, and the second one is ‘gladly.’ It isn’t quite fair to tell you that, but you’ll never guess it if I don’t give you some clew.”
There was much puzzling about fitting the67 rhymes, but Mary Ann and Bell succeeded in finding them and comfortably fitted “once,” “dunce,” “gladly,” “badly,” into their places at the end of the lines.
The next verse was easier, and even Katie found no great difficulty in supplying the missing words:
“The ‘fun,’ ‘done,’ ‘better,’ ‘letter,’ that belong to that verse are what I call self-evident rhymes,” said Lily, “and it’s no fun to guess them, for they say themselves, almost. Now, wait till I write you something grand, gloomy, and obscure, with rhymes that don’t shout themselves out at you.”
“After Browning, I suppose.”
“O, miles after. Now, hush, or I can’t hear the whispering of my muse.” And Lily rolled up her eyes, and with her hand bending her ear forward put on a rapt appearance of listening. Then with a bow to the corner of the ceiling and a grateful, “Thanks, thanks, madam, for your timely assistance,” supposed to be addressed to the obliging but invisible muse, she68 began to scribble rapidly, in a few moments handing this effusion to Edna to read:
That was considered funny, because two of the girls had actually jumped out of bed at daylight to suppress some unmelodious cats whose wails had kept them awake; but their united efforts could not produce all the needful rhymes; so Edna read them off from the back of the paper: “dawn, howling, lawn, yowling, groans, moans.”
It was a noticeable fact that when Edna joined a circle which included Mary Ann the latter soon made an excuse for leaving; so after the last poetry had been read and laughed at she quietly slipped out of the room, leaving the others to continue the sport without her.
Edna commented on her departure with a sarcastic supposition that she had probably gone to seek more congenial society in the servants’ quarters, and, although there was not a girl present who believed what she said, still there were69 none who openly contradicted her, for Edna had acquired a sort of influence over the girls that required some moral courage to combat.
Study-hour came soon after for some of them, but the half-dozen older ones who were left kept on making the verses, which, unfortunately, assumed a personal character that made them seem very pointed and witty to the thoughtless girls, but which led to unhappy results a week later.
Generally keeping a diary is very much a matter of sentiment, but with Katie Ashley it was done only in fulfillment of a promise, and not at all from any desire to record either feelings or events. Mrs. Ashley had several daughters, all well educated, but all singularly averse to writing letters. They were dutiful enough in other ways, but it was very uncomfortable for their mother when she was separated from them to have no communication except through an occasional telegraphic dispatch. It was too late to make a reform with grown-up children, but Mrs. Ashley determined that Katie, her youngest child, should become so familiar with her pen that she would be free from the family failing; so she exacted the promise when she sent her to boarding-school that made daily entries in her elegantly bound diary the condition of receiving a larger allowance of pocket-money than had ever been given to her sisters.
The record was to be kept entirely private—sacred,71 Katie called it—and no one at home was ever to ask to see it or even to allude to it. But in the vacations, when Katie used to go off on little trips with her mother, she used to get very confidential at bed-time, and her talks about school usually ended in her getting the book out of her trunk, and the tiny silver key off her watch-chain, and unlocking the miniature padlock which secured the covers, and reading page after page aloud to her very appreciative hearer. Sometimes the details were very scant, sometimes they were quite full and interesting. It all depended on the writer’s mood at the time of writing. A few specimens will show the curious variations in this respect:
“Arrived here at school.
“Five new girls. One is a beauty, prettier than Lily; her name is Edna Tryon. Seems to feel pretty aristocratic—turns her nose up at almost every thing.
“I forgot to put down that one of the new girls looks like a chambermaid, and a very poor class of one, too. She don’t compare to our72 maids. Mrs. Abbott wants us to be good to her. There’s a long story about it, very interesting. Mem.—Tell mamma about it when I get home.
“The girls are horrid to Mary Ann Stubbs.
“Little Elfie is an angel. We all love her to death. I took a walk with her and her black mammy to-day.
“There’s a funny thing I never thought to put down before. When we got back to school we found the high iron front gate taken down and heavy wooden doors with a big bolt put in its place. Mrs. Abbott hasn’t told us why it was done, and Miss Blake only said that Mr. Bellamy had it done. It’s horrid; we are entirely shut in. The board fence has spikes on it, so we couldn’t climb up and look over if we wanted to. We used to be very fond of looking out of the iron gate. Edna says she thinks there is some mystery somewhere. She wont tell what she means, but she says an old man where they used to live put a high board wall around his place and then got married and made counterfeit money.73 That’s silly, for Mrs. Abbott hasn’t got any tools and machinery; besides, she would never do any thing wrong.
“Knew all my lessons. Lily missed in political economy.
“I missed in algebra—generally do.
“New French teacher came. Made us all laugh at prayers. When it was her turn to read a verse she read, ‘And He healed de six,’ instead of the sick.
“Mrs. Abbott went to New York to-day. She wont be back till to-morrow night.
“To-day Edna said to Lily and me, ‘Let’s slip out the back gate and go to the village. Miss Blake’s so near-sighted she wont see us.’ Lily was angry, and told Edna she insulted her by asking her to do such a thing when she knew Mrs. Abbott objected. After she had gone down-stairs Edna said, ‘Lily’s a born coward. She’d just love to go out that gate, but she’s so afraid she daresn’t. Now you’ve got more pluck,74 and I do like to see a girl who isn’t a ’fraid cat.’ After that I was afraid to refuse, so I guess I was a coward myself. We went up to the store, and Edna bought raisins and nuts, and I bought a pine-apple and some packages of lozenges. They don’t keep much of any thing nice at the store.
“Last evening Edna and I gave a party in her room after we went up to bed. We had nuts and raisins, and the pine-apple was cut into slices; but it was sour. Edna ran into the dining-room pantry and grabbed a cupful of salt. She thought it was sugar. Luckily she found it out before she had sprinkled much on the pine-apple. Edna said the party was great fun, but I didn’t have a very nice time. I kept thinking what if Miss Blake should come in and ask where we got the things.
“Some of us were in the front yard at recess and the gate-bell rang. Bertha said, ‘Come in the house, quick, before Johnny comes to answer the bell.’
“I started to go with the others, but Edna held on to me till Johnny came up and opened the gate. We heard him say:
75 “‘Mrs. Abbott is away, and I don’t think there’s any ribbons or things wanted to-day.’
“‘Good, it’s a peddler,’ said Edna. ‘Let him come in. I want some thread and some shoe-buttons.’
“We could see a man with a covered basket, and he seemed anxious to get in, for he pushed the gate open. I knew Mrs. Abbott wouldn’t like it, as she never would have peddlers about, but you can’t reason with Edna; she just made Johnny let him in. Edward never would have done it, but he has gone home because his mother’s sick, and this boy has taken his place a while.
“I am almost afraid the peddler was a burglar, for he looked around so searchingly and up to every window, and made an excuse to go a little farther in, so he could look into the arbor. I took a good look at him, because I thought if he was a burglar I might have to identify him before a lawyer or something; you never can tell what’s going to happen. He had light, curly hair and a dark, yellow skin, and a queer, hooked nose. He unpacked some ribbons and laces, looking around all the time as if he was hunting for something. I made up my mind that he was somebody that knew the kitchen girls and was trying76 to get a glimpse of one of them. After a while he held up a pale lavender sash-ribbon with a black edge, and said, ‘This would be beautiful for a young lady in mourning.’
“We were both in blue dresses, as he could see, and I laughed and said, ‘I guess we wont go into mourning for the sake of wearing that.’
“Then he asked in the most anxious way if there wasn’t any one in mourning in the school.
“‘Not one,’ said Edna, ‘except little Elfie, and she’s got more sashes than she can wear.’
“The man looked at her very sharply—I never saw a common person show so much curiosity—and said, ‘Perhaps if you could persuade the young lady in mourning to come and look at my things she would find something she liked. I have beautiful black and silver bracelets.’
“There was something horrid about the man, he seemed so familiar and so eager. I feel sure he is a burglar or something improper, and I think Edna thinks so too, though she wont own it. I was wishing with all my might that we could get rid of him, and then to my delight the dinner-bell rang and Johnny came running back, and sent him out and locked the gate.
“I kept expecting burglars all last night, but they didn’t come.
“I want to tell Mrs. Abbott about the peddler, he acted so queer; but Edna says I’m a fool to bring down a scolding and perhaps a punishment on myself and her too.
“I don’t believe I will keep intimate with Edna, she seems to do so many wrong kind of things. I am going to ask Miss Blake to let me sit on the other side of the study-table, so I won’t be next to her any more.
“Maybe I judged Edna too harshly. She came into my room to-day, and after she’d looked around a minute she exclaimed, in the most earnest way, ‘O, you dear, lovely Katie, if you could only know how I love you and how I admire you!’ Then she told me that from the very first she had thought I was the very nicest, smartest, and prettiest girl in the whole school. It seems silly to write down praises of myself, but it is perfectly sweet to have a girl think so78 much of you. I have made up my mind it would be unkind to change my seat and leave Edna; so I sha’n’t speak to Miss Blake about it.
“Knew my history, but missed in classic literature. I never do remember whether Juno was a man or a woman.”
Friday was composition day—that is, the compositions written during the week were then, after being corrected by Miss Blake, read aloud in the school.
The names of the writers were not given, so there was no embarrassment of that kind. Mrs. Abbott would simply take one from the pile and hand it to one of the girls to read aloud.
On the next Friday after that rainy Saturday four had been read, and Mrs. Abbott handed the fifth to Ellen Leigh, one of the younger girls, who was rather celebrated for her excellent reading. She opened the paper, which looked exactly like the others, and read:
“EUPHROSYNE, ONE OF THE GRACES.
80 There were evidently more verses, but Mrs. Abbott interrupted the reader, reaching out her hand for the paper, and, turning with surprise to Miss Blake, said:
“Why did you allow a composition of this character to be presented for reading?”
Miss Blake, looking greatly puzzled, declared she had never seen it before. She then took the pile in her hand and counted. There were twenty-one, and twenty was the number she had corrected.
Some of the girls had laughed and shown much amusement as the verses were read, but seeing Mrs. Abbott was really angry they all looked preternaturally sober as she turned from Miss Blake and slowly scanned each face before her. There was a painful silence which Elfie broke by saying in a sorrowful voice:
“Who’s made poor Mary Ann cry?”
“Yes, who?” asked Mrs. Abbott, emphatically.
“It was that naughty song Ellen read,” said Elfie. “But Mary Ann isn’t going to say ‘tickled to kill’ any more, she isn’t.”
Elfie was generally as particular as if she had been a scholar never to speak in school or move about, but she seemed to feel that this was a case81 that demanded her . She crossed over silently to where Mary Ann sat with her face in her hands, bravely trying to keep back bitter tears, and, throwing her arms around her, whispered comfort into her ears.
Mrs. Abbott, looking very stern, laid the paper between the leaves of her blank-book and, taking up another composition, asked Lily to read it. The girls all noticed that Lily’s cheeks were painfully flushed, and her voice was so low that she had to be asked twice to repeat a sentence.
Mary Ann, who had succeeded in controlling her feelings, carefully avoided looking at Lily, for she, as well as all of the school, suspected that she was the author of the cruel verses. It was a very hard knowledge to have, for Lily had seemed to be her friend, and there had been times when Mary Ann had gone to her as a refuge and comforter when others had derided her. It is a bitter blow when you learn that you have been deceived in a friend. If Edna Tryon, for instance, who made no pretense of being friendly, had written the lines, she might have borne it; but Lily! The thought overcame her, and in spite of every effort she dropped her face upon the desk to conceal the tears that would not be kept back. Miss Blake went to her instantly,82 and, obeying a look from Mrs. Abbott, led her from the room.
“Have you never heard,” asked Mrs. Abbott, in the pause which followed, “of a rough diamond, and do you not know that one in the rough is as pure a gem as the one that glistens on a king’s crown?”
Edna, sitting by Lily, who had resumed her seat, passed her a bit of paper on which she had scribbled, “Rough diamonds need cutting. I think we had better cut this one. I am ready to say I’ll never speak to her again.”
But Lily crumpled the paper up after reading it, and took no notice of the smile and shrug with which Edna emphasized her wit; but she suddenly raised her hand.
“What is it, Miss Dart?” asked Mrs. Abbott, coldly; probably she too felt a certainty that Lily was the author, although the verses were not in her hand-writing.
“I want to tell you,” said Lily, struggling with a great lump in her throat, “that I wrote that stuff, but I only did it to make two or three of the girls laugh. I wrote it when we were playing a game last Saturday, and I never meant any one to see it except two or three girls who were in the room with me. I thought I tore it83 up when I threw it in the waste-basket. Perhaps some one picked out the pieces and copied the horrid stuff. I am awfully sorry. I like Mary Ann; I really do, and I wouldn’t have had this happen for the world. She is a rough diamond; she is, truly, and I knew it all the time while I was so—so—so—horrid—” Here Lily broke down entirely and dropped into her seat.
“I hope this will teach you to hold in check the sin that doth so easily beset you,” said Mrs. Abbott, gravely. “It is a sin to trifle with other people’s feelings for the sake of having a little amusement. I think we must all admire your ready candor in trying to atone in a small degree for your fault by acknowledging it. And I hope your example will be followed at once by the person who copied your lines and placed them with the compositions.”
A solemn silence pervaded the room, and the girls looked round at each other; but the culprit did not avail herself of the opportunity of confession.
“I am still waiting,” said Mrs. Abbott, but no one spoke. “Perhaps, then, we can find out in some other way. If any one present knows or suspects who copied these verses I wish her to raise her hand.”
84 No one lifted her hand.
“Some one knows,” said Mrs. Abbott, sternly, “and I think the one who committed the offense would feel better to confess it; but if she is not courageous enough to face us all let her come to me alone this evening.”
But the offender preferred keeping her secret, and no advantage was taken of Mrs. Abbott’s invitation, and she passed the twilight hour alone, pondering sadly on the troublesome elements that were disturbing her school.
Further reference was made to the subject a few days later, when Mrs. Abbott announced that although she did not know herself who the offender was she had learned that Mary Ann saw one of the scholars put a paper the size and shape of the compositions into the pile before school began on Friday morning.
“But no persuasions,” she continued, “will make Mary Ann tell me who the girl was.”
“Confessing my part of that mean transaction,” said Lily, as soon as the girls were alone together, “was no fun, and ‘the party or parties unknown,’ as the papers I copy for papa say, who brought me to open disgrace have my sincere contempt. I never felt so small in all my life as I did when I saw poor Mary Ann all85 broken up by my wicked poetry. I should like to have hired a mouse-hole and gone to housekeeping in it with the front door shut and never been heard of again. I think we have all of us been too dreadful for any thing. Now, why have we treated her so? She is one of the smartest, brightest girls in school; she’s as good as gold, as true as steel, and as bright as silver—in short, she’s a rough diamond.”
“According to you she belongs to the mineral kingdom,” sneered Edna; “but she’s as common as copper, if you’ll allow there is any base metal about her.”
“Copper isn’t bad if you have plenty of it in the shape of pennies,” said Katie, sagely.
“I don’t allow that there’s any base metal about her,” said Lily; “and I don’t see why we are all so mean to her. Every one of us has had proofs enough of her good-nature.”
“That’s so,” assented a number of voices in accord.
“And, as far as I can see, there’s nothing against her except her back-country bringing up and her funny way of talking. Why, dear me, dialect is all the fashion in stories; what makes us despise it so in real life?”
“Mary Ann is getting over her dialect very86 fast,” said Addie Mason. “I don’t think she talks very differently from the rest of us now.”
“No, she does not,” said Lily; “and that makes it all the worse for me to have written that stuff; and she doesn’t eat with her knife any more, either.”
“I think the one who put that poetry on Mrs. Abbott’s desk was fifty times worse than you,” said Bell Burgoyne.
“So do I,” said several who were brave enough to condemn the action, although it was generally supposed to be Edna who did it.
Her face grew very dark now.
“It’s a great row about nothing,” she said, “and I don’t think girls who are born ladies ought to be expected to associate with such vulgar folks.”
“I say again that Mary Ann is not vulgar; and look here, girls, let’s rechristen her. Half the trouble is in that absurd name, Mary Ann Stubbs; but we can change her first name to Marion!”
The girls, who were honestly ashamed of the passive or active parts they had taken on many occasions in persecuting poor Mary Ann, received the proposal with applause, and by general consent the old name was dropped, and soon both87 teachers and scholars said “Marion”—all but Edna; she could not be persuaded to say any thing but Mary Ann, and, as a general thing, she took the trouble to use the last name too, pronouncing Stubbs with a scornful emphasis that was very bitter in its wearer’s ears.
The average school-girl loves mystery, and when Edna Tryon, who had become so intimate with the Friendly Five as almost to be their sixth, proposed to teach them a cipher by means of which they might communicate with no possibility of any other persons reading their letters they were ecstatic, and applied themselves with such zeal to practicing the new accomplishment that soon notes of the most enigmatical appearance were constantly exchanged between the initiated.
It was quite generally known that this secret correspondence existed, and much envy was excited by the obtrusive manner in which the experts triumphed in their accomplishment.
Often in the few moments after a class had come and the girls had taken their places a most innocent-looking note, not even folded, would pass through several hands and its contents glanced at by eyes whose greatest acuteness could see nothing but a confusion of letters; but89 after reaching one of the initiated she would express so much surprise or disdain or pleasure or other emotion after reading it by the light of her occult understanding of its secret that the other girls would pine to know its hidden and interesting meaning too.
Some of the girls tried to work out the cipher, but no one came so near it as Mary Ann, who was confessedly the most successful puzzle-solver in the school. She would undoubtedly in time have found it out alone, but she had some assistance from Katie, who, proud of her accomplishment, once read her a sentence of the secret message in a note she had received from Lily, and then had thrown it down upon her table according to the ostentatious habit of the league.
It may be stated here that the Friendly Five, in grateful acknowledgment of their debt to Edna Tryon, had admitted her to full companionship, and as the numerical name conflicted with the fact of a sixth member they had changed it to Secret Cipherers, using only the initials S. C.’s, which mysterious title caused much guessing among the outsiders, who rather ill-naturedly affected to believe the letters stood for “silly creatures,” and called the club by that uncomplimentary title.
90 Mary Ann took the note to her room, and by the aid of the complete sentence she had heard soon worked out the cipher to her own satisfaction, as she had an early opportunity of proving; for the next note that was handed around and then thrown conspicuously down upon the floor contained, according to her key, a hidden appointment for a candy-pull in the wash-house, by gracious permission of the laundress.
A little quiet observation proved the correctness of her reading, and Mary Ann was so triumphant in her discovery that she felt like announcing it. But then, she reflected, it would spoil their sport; for they would fear her telling it to other girls. That, of course, she wouldn’t have done, but just for a moment she did have a desire to have Edna Tryon know that she had become possessed of her cherished secret. Then she recollected that others besides Edna would be discomposed, and remembering how kind they were to her generally—she had long ago forgiven Lily’s verses—she generously resolved to keep her own counsel, but was not above enjoying the idea that the boasted secret was no secret to her.
Whether or not it was right for her thus to read what was not intended for her eyes began91 to trouble her after a little; so one day when a note was thrown to her to pass to Edna, in one of the three-minute spells which they had in school at the end of every hour, when they were allowed to talk softly, but not to leave their seats, she whispered, after the latter had thrown it on the floor, “May I read it, cipher and all?”
“Make all you can out of it and welcome,” said Edna, loftily; and after that permission Mary Ann’s conscience was quieted.
All this time Mary Ann’s uncouth ways were fast disappearing, and her quick wit and good nature were fast winning friends for her, and her life at school was growing pleasanter. She never forgot her promise to watch over Elfie during Candace’s sick days, but she kept the secret so well that no one observed that she was especially watchful or suspected the need there was for such precautions.
As time wore on the Bellamy prize was often remembered. The conditions and circumstances attending it were fully understood by the new scholars, who felt that their chances were as good as any for obtaining it.
“There ought to be no doubt about one of us S. C.’s getting it,” said Edna Tryon, one day, in Lily’s room, “if it is managed fairly.”
92 “It will be managed fairly if I know Mrs. Abbott as well as I think I do,” said Lily; “but why should it fall to the blissful lot of one of our select circle? See there, that’s a new interpretation of the mystic letters S. C.”
“O, that’s been thought of! Lottie Bush and Ellen Leigh asked me a month ago if that was what S. C. stood for.”
“It’s funny, isn’t it,” said Katie, “the different names the other girls have fitted to our letters? Something Curious, Sewing Circle, Screaming Crowd, Sorosis Children, Six Crows, Surly Crew, Sweet Creatures, etc., and not one has got it right yet.”
“Somebody’s sure to hit it right some day, and then we’ll have to change it,” said Lily.
“I wish they wouldn’t find it out,” said Bell. “It’s awful fun having letters instead of using the name outright as we did in Friendly Five.”
Edna took this as a personal compliment, as she was the suggester of the new name, and looked very proud and self-conscious.
“I’m glad you like it, girls,” she said. “There’s a good deal in a name, and I’m never at a loss to think of one. But to come back to the starting-point. The reason one of us ought to get the Bellamy prize is because there’s no93 one else in the school who is likely to excel us in any thing.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” said Lily. “We don’t know what the prize is for. May be it’s for patience; if that’s the case some of the smaller girls are just as patient as we are—more so, even. The same with amiability, or good nature, or any of the virtues.”
“Pshaw! That old gentleman wasn’t goody-goody enough to set up a prize for any such stuff,” said Edna. “He knows this isn’t a Sunday-school. No, it’s for superiority in something, I feel sure. May be it’s music, may be it’s languages, or some English studies. I wish I had been here then and heard him myself.”
“If it’s English studies Mary Ann Stubbs has the best chance,” said Lily. “She’s beyond the whole of us.”
“I don’t see,” said Edna, discontentedly, “why it is that common, second-class folks are ’most always so smart at books. May be it’s a sort of compensation for being low-born.”
“What is low-born?” asked Lily in an argumentative sort of way.
“Why, don’t you know? It’s common people.”
“Well, no, I don’t seem to know, in spite of your highly grammatical explanation.”
94 “O, bother, how fussy you are! What difference does grammar make when one is just talking?” said Edna, irritably.
“My, what a superior person you are, to be able to soar above grammar that way, when I was so stupid as to suppose we couldn’t talk without it! But, to return to our mutton pies, as we say when mademoiselle calls us to the French class, what is low-born?”
“I don’t believe you are one half so stupid as you pretend; you know what it is as well as I do.”
“I ought to,” said Lily, thoughtfully; “but I had an idea you were referring to Marion, and she is distinctly high-born, as the peak which has the honor of being her birthplace is, to speak strictly within bounds, at least one trillion and fifteen feet above the level of the very tallest high-water mark.”
“I was referring to Mary Ann,” said Edna, angrily, “and she is a low, common thing, and you know it in spite of all the absurd nonsense you are saying about it. Can’t you see for yourself that she is just the opposite of all the rest of us?”
“Then you mean we are high, uncommon things? I am sure I’m greatly obliged to you,95 but somehow I don’t feel charmed at being described that way.”
The girls were all laughing, for Lily had a ridiculous, world-weary manner of uttering her tantalizing remarks that was extremely amusing, and Edna was losing her temper so fast that there might soon have been a disagreeable scene had not a pleasant interruption come in the form of a basket of the reddest and shiniest baldwins, with “Mammy Candace’s best compliments, and would the young ladies please accept the apples with her ’bligingest duty?”
It was beginning to be noticed all through the school that any special kindness or favor shown to Elfie was always recognized by the faithful black nurse, who invariably attempted to return it in some quaint, humble way, and the S. C.’s were quite accustomed to these touching thank-offerings.
Even if girls are as tall as their mothers they have a deep, if unconfessed, interest in dolls; so Mrs. Abbott’s girls responded very willingly to an appeal from a mission school in New York for fifty dolls’ costumes. A toy merchant of benevolent disposition had presented the mission with two hundred unclad dolls, and the dressing of all but fifty were provided for. Mrs. Abbott advised taking only twenty-five, but her scholars insisted on the whole number. A very large box of silks, satins, cashmeres, and other gatherings from kindly disposed milliners and dress-makers accompanied the dolls, and the spare room was turned into a workshop and the spare bed into a depository for dolls in every stage of dressing. As fast as each one was fully dressed it was laid tenderly away in a bureau drawer.
Miss Blake and Mrs. Abbott helped the younger girls, who sewed the garments after they were cut out. But all who had skill enough to do it97 dressed the dolls without assistance, and costumed them very much as they pleased; so there was a great variety. There were German peasants, Roman and Breton peasants, sailor girls and boys, infants and fine ladies, grandmothers and French nurses, Scotch lassies and coal-black Dinahs. But each doll, whether she resembled a princess or peasant, had clothes that would come off and go on, and the sewing was carefully done and the button-holes were highly commendable.
The dolls were to be given at Christmas to poor children who might learn some lessons of neatness and propriety from the well-made, well-adjusted clothes, and, as Mrs. Abbott said, “What is worth doing at all is worth doing well;” so there was no slighting, or what Marion expressively called “cobbling.”
The day scholars came afternoons to help, and really the task of dressing the fifty dolls was lighter than it sounds, and Mrs. Abbott admitted that the girls knew better than she did when they carried the point of speaking for fifty instead of twenty-five.
There was a strange lack of ribbons among the scraps and gleanings that came in the box of materials, and as it is a well-known fact that98 some costumes are barren and incomplete without sashes, shoulder-knots, and such adornments, it seemed to the busy girls that even the plainest of the dolls needed some finishing touches that only ribbons could give.
Delia Howland proposed taking up a penny collection, as they sometimes did to buy popping corn; but some mental calculation showed that even if the appeal met a favorable response in every case thirty cents would be the sum total of the collection, and that would go only a lamentably small way in ribbons.
After some discussion an improvement was made on the plan, and scholars and teachers were visited by a committee of two, who presented a neatly written sheet stating the case thus:
“Know all ladies and girls by these presents, that in this comfortable and well-arranged house fifty small but beauteous creatures are suffering for the want of ribbon. Many of the sufferers have not been seen to smile since their destitution became apparent. Others are cold and rigid in their stony despair.
“Sisters, shall such things be?
“Give, sisters, give of your abundance.
“Donations of money in sums not less than99 five and not more than twenty-five cents are respectfully solicited by the committee, who pledge themselves to see that the offerings are not squandered for any purpose but the one mentioned.
“N. B.—A small tin bank will be placed upon the hall table, and people who wish to give more than the largest sum mentioned above are at liberty to drop coin in.
“N. B.—Buttons or broken sleeve-links dropped in the bank will be traced to their source by experienced experts, and humiliation will follow.”
This high-sounding document proved very efficacious, and Bell Burgoyne and Fannie Holmes, the anonymous committee, found themselves in possession of five dollars from the collection and two dollars which were revealed by the opening of the little tin bank.
That was an unnecessarily large sum to spend for ribbon, Miss Blake said, and proposed that the boxing and expressing back of the dressed dolls should be paid out of it, and if any were still left after the purchases were judiciously made it should be deposited in the tin bank as a nest-egg, not for a rainy day, but for a day when Mrs. Abbott’s brother should come, as he had promised to make her a visit, and tell them100 stories that would, as Lily had said once, wring their hearts, and their purses, too, and make them long to give even a trifle of help to the unhappy creatures he told them of, whose only crime was their being girls.
For Mr. Eaton was a returned missionary, laid aside from his work, long before years or failing health had enfeebled him, by an accident which had nearly destroyed his sight. He was intending to spend the Christmas holidays with his sister, and the girls, who remembered his visit of last year with pleasure, were glad to know that they should find him at school when they returned from their two-weeks’ vacation.
Edna shrugged her shoulders when she heard the others rejoicing at the prospect of having this minister in the house.
“You’re a queer lot, here,” she said. “Now, at Madame de Lanay’s all the girls thought ministers were horrid, stiff, solemn things, looking shocked if any one laughed and all the time poking texts at people. Goodness! It makes me low-spirited just to think of being in the house with one of the walking funerals.”
“Walking funerals!” and Delia Howland burst into shrieks of laughter. “Why, Edna,101 my father’s a minister, and he is the liveliest, jolliest man I ever saw.”
“Well, I’m sure I beg your pardon, Del, for not remembering there was a minister’s daughter present, and I’m sure it’s very nice in you to think so much of your father.”
“Yes, very obliging of her,” said Lily, dryly; “but Delia’s father, nice as he is, is not the only cheerful minister. You will have to change your mind, if you think they are all a mournful lot, when you see Mr. Eaton. He has had sorrow upon sorrow, Mrs. Abbott says, and yet he is so cheerful that he brightens up the whole house.”
Miss Blake and the committee went up to the village milliner’s the next afternoon to select the ribbons which were to give the last touch of elegance to the dolls’ toilets.
It was a grave responsibility, for some of the dolls’ dress-makers had very positive ideas about the shade, quality, and width needed for certain costumes, and as Miss Smith’s stock was exceedingly limited the purchasers would in most instances have to use their own judgment about choosing the next best things.
Miss Blake was very patient and good-natured and gave all the advice she could, but the girls deliberated so long over some of the least satisfactory things that after a while she excused herself, as she had a sick friend to visit, and promised to call for them in half an hour.
The important decisions were made before it was time to expect her, and Delia proposed going over to Mr. Williams’s store, a place where103 every thing under the sun to eat, drink, or wear, or to work with might be asked for with a reasonable hope of finding it. It was the only place in the village, except the station restaurant, where candy could be bought, and it was very disappointing to the girls to-day to be told, when they applied to the man who waited on that department, that there had been some delay in receiving their usual weekly supply and there was nothing in stock except some deplorable specimens which would not tempt any one.
It was very provoking, for a number of the girls had commissioned them to buy candy and would be very much disturbed at not receiving it. The same thought was in the mind of each, but neither liked to express it, but the thought moved their footsteps in the same direction; and, leaving Mr. Williams’s, they slowly sauntered toward the station and presently found themselves at the door of the little waiting-room, one end of which was crossed by a counter where hurried travelers could regale themselves with coffee and sandwiches at one end, or fill their pockets with cakes and candy at the other.
The girls looked at each other as they stopped at the open door. Mrs. Abbott had never actually said no one should go into the station unless104 accompanied by a teacher, because she never supposed any one would want to go there, but she was very particular, and they knew well she would disapprove of their going in.
“Well?” said Bell, wrinkling her brows and looking steadily at her companion.
“There isn’t a soul in there now except the girls behind the counter,” said Fannie.
“I don’t suppose we really ought to go in,” said Bell, putting her foot on the first of the four steps.
“No,” said Fannie, stepping up to her side; “but after all what harm can there be?”
“And the girls will be so awfully put out about not getting the candy,” said Bell, going one step higher.
“Come along in,” said Fannie, with sudden decision, grasping Bell’s hand and drawing her in the door. “It’s all right. Nobody need ever know we came here if we don’t choose to tell.”
Their easily quieted scruples were all forgotten when they saw the enticing supply of confectionery seductively displayed under glass covers. There was no such trouble in selecting here as there had been in buying ribbons, for there were chocolate creams, maple caramels, and candied cherries among the extensive variety, and those105 were the things that all the girls longed for more than any other sweets.
It was delightful to feel that they were preparing a pleasant surprise for their friends, who never dreamed of having any thing more luscious than the lemon sticks, peppermint balls, and “sat-upon” cocoanut cakes of a pallid white or dangerous red which Mr. Williams, true to the traditions of his far-away childhood, considered the proper stock of confectionery.
The saleswoman was a little indifferent and slow, and so engrossed with a conversation of deep interest she was maintaining with the other clerk that it was hard to get her attention; and then she lingered so over tying up the packages that the girls grew very impatient, for a sharp whistle told them that a train was coming. The young woman tried to hurry then, but she had tied up the creams in too thin paper, and they burst their bonds and flew over the counter and floor. She seemed ashamed of her awkwardness then, and weighed out another half-pound and put them into a paper bag of firmer constitution, delivering them over to the girls just as the train stopped and quite a little crowd of passengers rushed up to the lunch-counter. In the hurry of serving coffee and glasses of milk which were106 wanted instantly, the woman could not stop to make change for the girls. Bell had handed her a two-dollar bill, from which she was to deduct eighty-five cents for the candy. Clearly it would not do to give up one dollar and fifteen cents, particularly as the money was not their own, so there was nothing else to do but to keep their places and wait till the greedy travelers could spare the clerk long enough to get their change. They deplored their folly then in having given Miss Smith all their silver and small change and left themselves with only the bill; but it was too late to mourn for that now, and they stood impatiently at the end of the counter, wondering how even the fear of being left behind by the train could give men the courage to pour boiling hot coffee down their throats.
At last a lull came, the clamorous travelers were supplied, and the girls’ change was handed them and they hurried off toward the milliner’s, greatly fearing that Miss Blake would have come back and would demand an explanation. They passed a showily dressed young man with a traveling-bag, who did not look quite like a gentleman, but were so occupied with their own uneasiness that they did not notice that he quickened his tardy steps soon after they passed107 him, till, with a very low bow, he stopped them, just before the road turned to go up the hill, and asked if they would kindly direct him to the village.
“Why, you can’t miss it,” said Fanny, rather startled at being addressed by a stranger; “there’s just this one road and no other.”
“If the ladies are going to the town and do not object I will walk with them so I can be sure of going right,” said the man.
The girls were uncomfortable, but did not know what they ought to do; so they walked on without speaking.
“Very pretty little town, Coventry,” said the man, with a smile and bow that he evidently meant to be very engaging. “Is there a nice hotel here?”
“There isn’t any at all now; if any one spends a night they have to stop at the big tavern by the station,” said Fannie, with a wild hope that he would retrace his steps and seek the big tavern’s shelter.
But he still accommodated his steps to theirs, and presently asked if they were residents of Coventry.
“Our parents don’t live here, but we are boarding scholars at Mrs. Abbott’s school,” said Bell,108 haughtily, thinking that the mention of Mrs. Abbott’s name might prove discouraging.
“You walk very fast, young ladies,” said their companion affably. “Mrs. Abbott is a very particular friend of mine, and I am going over to see her about taking my sister into the school.”
“There is no room for another scholar,” said Fannie; “the school is as full as can be.”
“O, Mrs. Abbott will do any thing to oblige me,” said he, confidently. “I can talk her over. How young does she take pupils? My little sister would not be happy unless there were some other very small girls there besides herself.”
“There are none very small,” said Fannie.
“Except Elfie,” corrected Bell.
“Why, Bell, you can hardly call Elfie a scholar, and you know she was only taken out of regard for Mr. Bellamy. No one else so young would be admitted.”
“It would be very sad for me if my poor little orphaned sister were refused,” said the man, who had been listening eagerly; “but please, young ladies, say nothing about it to Mrs. Abbott; I prefer to open the matter myself when I call on her this evening.”
He touched his hat very politely then and109 turned back, murmuring something about securing a room at the tavern.
“Wasn’t he horrid!” exclaimed Fannie, almost before he was beyond hearing her words.
“Horrid!” agreed Bell, giving a great sigh of relief as she looked into the milliner’s window and saw that the shop was empty. But they had hardly seated themselves on two tall stools in front of the counter before Miss Blake came in full of apologies for staying twice as long as she intended.
The ribbons were criticised, approved, or condemned, according to the various tastes of the girls. Those who were familiar with the difficulties attending country shopping were disposed to be satisfied, and thought the committee had done as well as they could have done themselves, which is as high praise as can be expected from any body.
But the candy purchases gave unmixed delight to those who had sent for it, and ecstatic little screams of glee hailed the opening of the packages. The second class—that is, the little girls—had gone up to Miss Blake’s room for the regular twilight twenty minutes of poetry that they had three times a week, and the first-room girls all adjourned to the spare room to embellish the dolls with the newly acquired ribbons. It was then that the candy was produced and generously distributed by its owners.
“Now tell us all about the excursion,” said Katie, with her mouth full of caramels and her111 hands busy with a blue ribbon. “Of course Miss Smith was perishing to know what you wanted of so many shades of ribbon, wasn’t she?”
“Yes,” said Bell; “but she’s a dear old soul, and when we told her about the dolls she offered to make a dozen straw hats for them, and she’s going to send them up to-morrow.”
“Hurrah for Miss Smith!” exclaimed Lily, “and what a splendid idea! We never thought of head-covering. Let’s go to work and make little cloth tennis caps and Greek caps for a lot of the bare-headed young persons. They’re easy to make, and I know how to cut them out.”
That suggestion was well received, and the work was immediately begun; but Lily was not too much absorbed in cutting out the caps to ask for more particulars from Bell and Fannie.
“Yes; whom did you see?” said Katie, remembering her own disappointment at not being elected one of the shoppers.
“We saw Miss Smith,” said Fannie, teasingly.
“Well, I should say you did, by the pile of ribbons you bought. It was real good in her to give so much for the money; but who else did you see?”
112 “A young and blooming stranger,” said Fannie.
“Gracious! Was she a friend of Miss Smith?”
“Not she, but he.”
“For pity’s sake, a man, a young man? Why, what do you expect Mrs. Abbott to say to you hapless girls if you have been meeting a young man?”
“We couldn’t help meeting him,” said Fannie.
“But we didn’t meet him at all, Fannie,” said Bell; “he overtook us and spoke before he got up to us; that was after we passed him, you know.”
“You seem slightly incoherent,” said Edna. “He passed you and you passed him. And where was Miss Blake all this time? She is not much of a ‘dragon’ if she lets strange young men speak to the girls in the street. My, wouldn’t madame have made short work of that kind of a teacher.”
“Miss Blake is all right,” said Bell, stolidly, unwilling to explain the situation.
Lily laid down her scissors and looked the committee over sharply. “Girls,” she said, “you are keeping back something interesting. Now, make a clean breast of it and tell us the whole113 story right away. Confess now, unless you want to be handed over for torture.”
Then Fannie, acting as spokesman, told their adventure fully. Their hearers were much amazed that the two steadiest girls in the school should have been so daring as to go deliberately to the station at the risk of seriously displeasing Mrs. Abbott.
“It reminds me,” said Lily, pensively, “of a solemn old horse my grandfather had who was steady as a turtle all through his colthood and slow middle age, but when he was at the over-ripe age of twenty-two he ran away for the first time and spilt my grandmother out of the buggy in her best bonnet. Four steady, obedient years you two studious scholars have led sober lives beneath this scholastic roof, and now you disgrace yourselves and break your record. Ah, it is a weepful fact that you can’t ’most always tell what serious nags and solemn girls can do in the way of giddiness!”
“Tell us something about the fellow,” said Edna; “what did he look like? Dark, melting eyes, rich voice, smooth olive skin, etc., eh?”
“Olive skin, to be sure, and eyes that looked as if they had been boiled till they were half melted,” answered Fannie. “He was horrid.”
114 “I didn’t think he was so bad-looking,” said Bell; “his features were not out of the way; the worst thing about him was his looking so vulgar and flashy. It seems queer that such a person should be a particular friend of Mrs. Abbott’s.”
“O, people have queer friends, sometimes,” said Edna, “but I don’t believe she’ll take his sister.”
“I hope we shall know when he comes to see Mrs. Abbott, so we can try to get a look at him,” said Katie. “Should you know him again, girls?”
“I should say so; we are not likely to forget that big plaid suit or that high hooked nose.”
“O, he had a high hooked nose, had he?” said Edna. “Perhaps your friend is some relation to that inquisitive peddler who wanted to find out if any one in the school wore mourning. He had that kind of a nose.”
Marion had not joined in the conversation, but while she looped some white baby-ribbon into a small rosette she listened attentively to the girls’ account of their adventure. Now she asked timidly if it would not be better to tell Mrs. Abbott about the man.
“And why should we walk ourselves right straight into hot water?” said Fannie, petulantly.115 “I know we did wrong in going to the station, but it was no crime. We never have been forbidden.”
“I am the most worried for fear the young man will mention seeing us there when he comes to see her,” said Bell.
“Don’t you worry,” said Lily; “that dark-eyed youth will never come. He’s a gay deceiver. Imagine a fellow like that being a friend of Mrs. Abbott’s.”
“Why in the world should he say so, then?”
“Perhaps he saw from your lamb-like countenance that you were innocent enough to answer his questions. He may have some reason for finding out something about this establishment. As Edna said about her peddler, perhaps he’s an enterprising burglar on the lookout for points.”
“Well, anyway, we didn’t tell him any thing.”
“But you said you told him Elfie was here,” said Marion, looking troubled, “and I do really think it would be best to tell Mrs. Abbott.”
“Ridiculous!” sneered Edna; “I think so.”
“It wasn’t good taste at all in the girls to mention any name to a strange creature like that,” said Lily; “but I don’t suppose he will116 ever think of it again. What I think was the worst thing was going off to the station, and if it were I, I should tell Mrs. Abbott what I did; I always feel better after I have ‘confessed,’ though I own it’s pretty hard work.”
But Bell and Fannie either lacked moral courage or were not in the mood to take her very excellent advice.
One of the old-fashioned snow-storms came two weeks before the Christmas holidays scattered the girls far and wide to spend the happy fortnight at home. It was not a quiet, decorous downfall of snow that covered the earth smoothly with a glaze of white, but a , turbulent storm that piled drifts to marvelous heights in sheltered corners and reared miniature Alpine ranges against the almost submerged fences. The road was quite impassable early in the day, and not one of the day-scholars could get to school. This had happened once during the previous winter, and on that occasion the usual lessons were given up and the time filled with some unusual exercises. This time Mrs. Abbott put it to vote after opening school, and every hand was raised in favor of having a literary morning in place of the ordinary recitations. The teachers were pleased to have it so; for it was hard on the absent scholars to miss all the studies of a day.
118 Miss Blake, whose talent as an elocutionist was extraordinary, recited a stirring historical poem, which was rapturously received. Then Mrs. Abbott asked each girl to write the name of her favorite heroine of history on a slip of paper, to drop into a box that was carried around by one of the girls.
An examination of the slips showed that although a number of names had been put down two names were repeated on several papers. These were Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette. Then the girls were asked to vote again on both those names. The result was that the unfortunate queen was selected, and Miss Blake, who always heard the history classes, read them a short, pathetic sketch of her life, with its early frivolity and pitiful, brave ending. Then she asked the girls to each write a short statement of the account she had read. Not less than three lines, not more than fifteen, was the limit, and pencils were very busy for a short time. Then the papers, which were not signed, were gathered up and read aloud.
The girls enjoyed the reading of the papers very much; for not even the teachers knew who wrote them; so there was no shame felt if comment or criticism were made, and a girl had only119 to control her face and look unconscious and no one would suspect her. Of course, some papers were very meager, but others were quite interesting outline sketches. It almost seemed like a game, but it fixed the facts very firmly in every girl’s mind, and Mrs. Abbott half made up her mind to introduce the plan as a regular weekly exercise.
The sun was shining brilliantly on the glistening snow, and when they had finished dinner Mrs. Abbott told them to prepare for a snow frolic in the inclosure, saying she had ordered their snow-shovels and rubber boots brought to the back piazza in readiness for them.
Edward had shoveled paths to the back and front gate, and, seeing the wall of ice and snow through which he had cut, Bell exclaimed, “Who’s for building a snow-fort?”
Most of them hailed the idea jubilantly, but Delia and Katie had just been reading Hawthorne’s lovely “Snow Image,” and suggested molding a beautiful white child.
“Perfectly sweet!” said Lily. “How nice in you to think of it! Where shall we build her?”
“I should think she ought to be standing in the grove; she will look shadowy and fairy-like under the trees with evergreens behind her.”
120 “This is nice kind of snow, it packs well,” said Lida Evertson; “but how can we make a girl?”
“Easy enough,” said Katie. “We made General Washington once, and put a paper cocked hat on him. He was fine, only we got his feet longer than his legs.”
“Let’s get the book and see how a snow-girl ought to look,” suggested Lily.
A look at the graceful, humanized snow image showed the manifest impossibility of imitating it successfully.
“But even if we cannot make a willowy fairy like that,” said Lily, “we can make something. If a woman made a charming face in butter—Iolanthe, she called it, didn’t she?—I think we ought to be able to work up something nice in snow.”
“Suppose we drag one of the rustic chairs under a tree and make a sitting-down figure of a girl,” said Marion, who was rosy and happy in the out-door sport which reminded her of home.
“Capital! the chair will help to hold her up. Let’s have her a queen and fix up an ice crown,” said Katie.
Edna, who systematically sneered at whatever121 proposal Marion made, laughed at the idea, but no one seemed to notice her disapproval, and soon she, too, grew interested and helped.
They had to get Edward’s help to dig the chair out of the snow that quite buried it, and set it against a large-trunked maple. Then they worked with a will, till they had made a very fair semblance of a large woman sitting down, with her skirts spread out and her arms resting on the arms of the chair.
“Whoever best understands the mysterious science of noses shall put that important feature on Queen Blanche’s pale face,” said Lily, whose own face, from exertion, was red as a peony.
“I think, as Edna draws best of any of us, and molds such pretty things in clay, she had better give the White Queen a nose,” said Marion, timidly; and for once, so soothing is flattery, Edna was pleased, and smiled quite graciously upon her, and succeeded, after several efforts, in turning out a very good nose. She changed the expression of the whole face, too, by some deft smoothing and judicious molding, and no one present had ever seen a snow-form that was half so pretty as this when it was finished.
122 “Make her majesty a crown of stiff writing-paper and scatter water on it,” said Lily.
“O, yes; and let’s borrow an old sheet if we can, and pin it around her neck like a royal robe, and then make it sopping wet and sprinkle snow on it,” said Marion. “It will freeze stiff in the night and look as if it was made of snow.”
Both suggestions were eagerly carried out, and then Mrs. Abbott was called to the window to see the really majestic statue of snow. She expressed great admiration, and Elfie, who was bundled up to the tip of her little red nose, pranced around in wild delight, believing herself to have been an important assistant in making the image.
The next morning at recess the girls all ran out to visit the White Queen, whose beauty had so much improved by time and frost that she really was marvelous. The sun was shining very clearly, but the weather was bitingly cold, and there was every prospect that the statue would retain its fair form for some time. The robe and crown, now frozen stiff, looked as if they too were made entirely of snow.
“I wish somebody besides us could see it,” said Katie, and hardly was her wish expressed123 before it was gratified. A small sound of admiration startled them, and, quickly turning to look in the direction of the gentle ejaculation, they saw a man’s head above the high board fence. The drifts, now hardened by the frost, had allowed him to walk on them comfortably, and instead of being far below the top of the fence he was now head and shoulders above it. He made no effort to raise himself upon it, as the girls thought for a moment he might do. He had perhaps seen it without its frill of snow, and was aware of its decoration of spikes.
“A most beautiful image, young ladies,” he said, in a very soft voice, with a beaming smile and pushing forward of his head that seemed intended to be very winning.
None of the startled girls replied; so he made another admiring remark.
Bell, who was half behind Lily, was examining the visitor very closely. “O, Lily, that’s the man who spoke to Fannie and me at the station,” she said, excitedly; and Fannie exchanged a corroborative glance with her.
He could not have heard her, but he guessed the meaning of her whisper, for he touched his hat with a flourish, remarking:
“Ah, you remember me, lady? I hope you124 reached home safely? Is this all the scholars Mrs. Abbott keeps?”
His small prominent eyes were roving about looking most particularly at the smallest girls; and Marion, who was near enough to hear Bell’s whisper, grasped Elfie’s hand and drew her toward the house.
“Is that pretty little miss the young scholar you told me about?” he asked, addressing Bell.
“Don’t speak to him, Bell,” said Lily, quickly. “Come, girls, let us go in.”
He called after them as they moved away, but Marion had reached the door, and, seeing Miss Blake, called her out. Her appearance on the piazza seemed discouraging to the visitor, who instantly dropped out of sight.
“You acted just as if you thought that man was going to eat you and Elfie up,” said Edna to Marion; “but I suppose a person brought up in the woods is easily scared.”
“But he was such a common-looking wretch; he was enough to frighten any one,” said Katie.
“I should have supposed Mary Ann Stubbs would be the last one in the world to mind common folks. I didn’t know there was any other kind where she lived.”
“May be my neighbors were common, but they125 were not that kind of common,” said Marion, with some spirit; “that man looks as if he would steal.”
“I dare say he would, and do you know he looks enough like the peddler to be his brother, only, of course, he’s better dressed,” said Edna as they went into the school-room.
Marion went directly to Mrs. Abbott’s room when school was over and told her of the man’s appearance. She longed to tell her, too, that the same man had seen and talked with two of the girls, but, according to the school-girls’ code of honor, it would not do to speak of their adventure without the consent of Bell and Fannie.
Mrs. Abbott was seriously uneasy. “Do you really think the man looked particularly at little Elfie?” she asked, “or did your knowledge that possession of her has been sought before make you fanciful?”
“I am sure of it,” said Marion, positively, “and—”
“And what? Don’t keep any thing from me, child; this is a terribly serious matter. If that man is some one employed by Ethel’s father, then the child is in grave danger, and my responsibility will become immense;” and Mrs. Abbott rose and walked up and down the room127 with an appearance of great perplexity and agitation.
Marion was greatly troubled. “Dear, dear Mrs. Abbott,” she whispered, “if I tell you something will you forgive me if I ask you never to tell the girls? and don’t, O, don’t ask me to mention any names.”
“I do not like to give such a promise,” said Mrs. Abbott, gravely; “if you know any thing I ought to know, then it is your duty to tell me and leave me to decide what course to take.”
Marion left her side and went slowly back to her seat. It seemed to her like a very mean thing to tell of other girls’ transgressions, and yet love for Elfie made her feel it necessary Mrs. Abbott should know all about the strange man, and even about the peddler’s visit; that, too, was undoubtedly an attempt to discover if Elfie was living there. What would Edna say and do if she told any thing about her? At that thought, forgetting she was not alone, she exclaimed aloud, “O, I cannot, cannot tell!”
At her words Mrs. Abbott stopped in her walk, and, seeing the real suffering in her face, said tenderly, “Poor Marion, you do not want to trust me, but I will trust you. Tell me what you think I ought to know, as far as it concerns this matter,128 and I promise you that no one shall ever know how I acquired the information. I would not ask you to do violence to your sense of honor, for I respect your feeling; but for Elfie’s sake I must hear.”
“And for Elfie’s sake I will tell you,” said Marion; “but don’t blame me if I do not give any girl’s name. This man, or one very much like him, got in the front gate with a peddler’s pack one day and asked some of the girls questions.”
“What kind of questions?”
“He asked if there was any little girl in mourning in the house?”
“That might not have meant any thing,” said Mrs. Abbott, “if it stood alone. What else is there to tell?”
“The same man that looked over the back fence to-day met some of the girls not long ago and talked with them.”
“O, please don’t ask me where, but he had a satchel and seemed to have come from the cars. He said he was a friend of yours and was coming to ask you to take his little sister. I don’t suppose he did call?”
129 “This is the part that troubles me, and it did even before he looked over the fence at us to-day. He managed in some way to find out from the girls that Elfie is here.”
“How unfortunate!” exclaimed Mrs. Abbott. “O, Marion, our dear little girl is in danger. How could those girls tell him?”
“Don’t be so frightened, Mrs. Abbott. I am sure no one can steal Elfie while we are watching her so closely. You, Candace, or I have her in sight every moment. And I think—yes, I am quite certain—that I would risk my life for her any moment.”
“I am sure you would, dear, and I am so thankful that I trusted you with this matter, which ought to be a secret, because Mr. Bellamy is especially anxious that his darling’s life should never, either now or in the future, be darkened by the knowledge of what he fears for her. She is a sensitive, imaginative child, and if she were haunted by a fear of being taken—stolen is not too hard a word to call it—she would become nervously anxious, with the probable result of confirmed ill health.”
“Poor little Elfie!”
“Dear, dear child,” said Mrs. Abbott; “she is well worth watching and caring for, and yet the130 responsibility has become so complicated now by this new aspect of the situation that I bitterly regret having assumed it. I wish I had advised the senator to take Ethel and Candace abroad with him.”
“It cannot be helped now,” said Marion, respectfully, “and our heavenly Father can watch her here as well as there.”
“Thank you for reminding me of that, dear. Perhaps I let my sense of personal responsibility overwhelm me too much and forget whose help I can ask.”
“May be our fears have made us over-suspicious,” suggested Marion, by way of comfort. “Coincidences are very funny sometimes, and this man may really have no interest in Elfie. How could he have even suspected she might be here of all other schools?”
“Mr. Bellamy must have been watched when he traveled and came here,” said Mrs. Abbott. “Yes, indeed, I have no doubt of this man’s mischievous purpose. And, my dear, watch the child closely, as you have watched her before; be even more watchful still. It is such a comfort to know that I can trust you to do it so fully. You pay me over and over again for bringing you here, Marion.”
131 Marion clasped her hands before her face in a perfect ecstasy of pleasure at these lovely words, and as Mrs. Abbott bent and kissed her fondly she threw her arms around her neck, speechless, but radiantly happy.
“To-morrow the machinery stops for two weeks,” said Lily, as she critically examined her Sunday gown before laying it in her trunk.
“Aren’t you glad of it? I am,” said Edna, rather spitefully throwing her Ladies’ Reader into the back of a closet.
“Not so very. ’Cause why? the machinery’s got to begin again in a fortnight, and it’s hard to ‘pick up the shovel and de hoe-o-o’ after you’ve left them lie idle while you’ve ‘scraped de fiddle wid de bow-o-o,’” said and sang Lily, still poring over her crimson serge. “Ah, ha! I have him,” she continued.
“The small but deadly American bison, the reveler in wool, the destroyer of homes, the blighter of clothes—the living, eating, riotous buffalo-bug. Here in the folds of my crimson gown I traced his fell path. Now, Eureka! I have found him, and in the interest of my fellow-mortals I will impale him on a pin and broil him on a burning match.”
133 “Poor little bug!” said Elfie, watching him shrivel.
“He don’t mind it much,” said Lily, “or if he did he doesn’t now. I’m not fond of killing things, pet, but buffalo-bugs must die. Is it not so, fellow-citizens?”
The fellow-citizens to whom she appealed were represented by Edna, Katie, Marion, Fannie, and Bell. They all laughed except Bell. She looked very solemn.
“O, my dear Bell,” said Lily, “was Mr. Buffalo Bug a friend of yours? Your smileless face, your solemn eyes, terrify me. This tragedy has wounded you. O, how little did I think that the pale martyr—no, I beg his pardon, the brown and yellow, fuzzy martyr—at the stake was dear to you. Why was I born to make you suffer thus?”
“Stop,” said Fannie; “you’re too silly for any thing, Lily. What ails Bell is that she don’t like to go home to-morrow without telling Mrs. Abbott that we went to the station alone.”
“And why doesn’t she tell?” asked Lily, growing grave instantly.
“Because I don’t want her to,” said Fannie. “The thing is past and gone, and there’s no use in reviving it.”
134 “That’s where you’re right,” said Edna. “What a fool you’d be to go and tell on yourselves now. Mrs. Abbott never’ll find out if you don’t tell, and what Bell wants to get herself and you into a muss for I, for one, don’t see. There was some danger, I thought myself, that the delightful young man would speak of it to her. But he’s evidently a fraud; no man who wanted to put his sister at school would climb up and grin at the girls over the back fence.”
“Hardly,” said Fannie, “and I’m glad you think as I do. Bell’s too tiresome for any thing.”
“Fannie, you said yourself that you couldn’t bear to keep a thing back just for fear of marks or punishment,” said Bell.
“Well, I didn’t say I’d never smile again, did I? I’m awfully sorry we went to the station. It was taking a mean advantage of Miss Blake when she asked us to wait for her at the milliner’s. It was tricky, and I don’t defend it, but I do say that, as we did let the time for talking go by, there’s no use raking the matter up now.”
“Why don’t you tell, Bell, if Fannie wont?” asked Katie, who was writing some last pages in her diary, and so had not been an attentive listener.
“What a sneaky idea!” said Bell, rousing135 herself from the gloom which had settled upon her. “I can’t tell without involving Fannie, and I won’t be such a sneak as to do that.”
“Now, my little children,” said Lily, “let me give you a leaf out of my experience. The first year I was here I stole a pie! I did; I stole a pie, I did. It doesn’t seem like a crime to me now; it seems rather funny; but I used to lie awake nights thinking of it then. It happened upon this wise, my little dears. One of the girls was going to give a ‘rampage’—that is, a night-gown party after bed-time. Mrs. Abbott has put a stop to that species of entertainment, and I don’t know as I am sorry, for we used to take terrific colds flying about in our fairy-like attire. We always indulged in some form of refreshment, generally crackers and pea-nuts. The latter article of diet, I may remark in passing, was apt to produce pallor the next morning. The night in question—don’t I sound like a magazine article?—we found ourselves minus even the sober cracker and the festive pea-nut, and one of the girls dared me to steal down the back stairs and hook—that is what she called it; I keep nothing back—hook a pie. She didn’t say ‘hook, hook, a pie,’ but I have noticed that authors always express things that way, so I repeated the136 word. Well, to resume; in my callow youth I held that to dare meant to do, so I did. I hied me to the dark and grewsome kitchen, crept stealthily to the pantry, and crawled through a window that communicated with the dining-room pantry. Ah, the recollection paralyzes me! ‘Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,’ as the pie up the dark stairs I carried. Let me hasten to the end before emotion overcomes me. At the top of the stairs were a group of white-clad ghosts, semi-distinct in the faint light that a clouded moon sent through the skylight. Some of the ghosts giggled, some said, ‘Sh, sh,’ and the phantom sounds disturbed Miss Blake, I think, for a door opened far around the corner and a glimmer of light approached. The ghosts vanished and sheltered themselves in various beds, where their slumbers became intense. I could not fly to a bed, because I dared not take another step forward, for the stately form, with a dim night-light, had turned the corner.
“I was near the top of the stairs when the distant ray first appeared. I reached the stolen treasure up to the girls and flew swiftly down-stairs again and through the school-room to the front hall—I knew every body was in bed—and up the front stairs to my room, which was over137 in the new part. As a cruel fate decreed, the girls were in too great a panic to secure the pie I handed up to them, and left it on the floor.
“My beloved hearers, cease these frivolous howls of laughter. The matter is serious. The pie was pumpkin, and Miss Blake stepped in it!”
Lily’s listeners were shrieking with laughter over her droll recital, but she preserved a preternaturally solemn expression, which still more excited their mirth.
“Girls,” said she at last, “I intended this for a preachment, and how am I to give you the moral unless you refrain from this untimely mirth?”
“O, Lily, don’t look so funny!” gasped Katie, throwing herself on the bed and holding her sides.
“Don’t look at me, but listen, then, for I only told the story to get the moral in, so I can’t skip it. I wanted to tell Mrs. Abbott I took the pie, but the girls wouldn’t let me. I was just about as happy in my mind and jovial in my countenance as Bell seems to be.”
“Was there any fuss made?” asked Edna.
“O, plenty; Miss Blake was very angry at the outrage, she called it, and seemed to think the138 pie was planted there for a sort of trap to catch her in. Mrs. Abbott talked about it in school in that solemn-sweet way of hers and said she would like the offender to come to her room. I wasn’t brave enough to accept that invitation in defiance of the girls, and the next morning she made a new rule forbidding any girl to go into another one’s room after bed-time. At last the burden of my secret grew too tormenting, and three weeks after the lark I crawled into her room and confessed.”
“What did she say?” asked Fannie and Bell together.
“O, I wither up small when I think of it. She looked up from her Kensington work and said in the calmest way, ‘I knew it was you, dear, for I saw you fly up the front stairs. I was in the dark closet in the hall groping for an extra blanket, and old Margaret found a narrow Roman ribbon, the next morning, that had been tied around a braid, in the dining-room pantry. I recognized the ribbon as yours.’ And she took it from her desk and handed it to me.”
“You must have felt cheap!”
“O, my! And I felt worse still when she took my hand and said, ‘Lily, I have not cared a straw for your taking the pie, but it has hurt me139 to learn you were not high-principled enough to own what you had done!’ There I had been playing the innocent and unconscious, and she knew what I had done, and she had never told Miss Blake. I tell you, Bell, Mrs. Abbott is an angel, and ever since that time I have preferred telling her any thing to keeping it to myself.”
“Is that the moral?” asked Edna.
“Perhaps you don’t see it. Well, I’ll make it plainer. Don’t conceal your omissions and commissions from Mrs. Abbott; and, Fannie, you’ll be more comfortable if you let Bell go and tell her.”
Fannie hesitated a moment, then half sullenly gave her permission, and Bell flew off on her not too easy errand.
The other girls went off in different directions, all but Marion, who surprised Lily by seizing both her hands and exclaiming:
“O, dear, dear Lily, I thank you so!”
“You are extremely welcome,” Lily said, with a greatly puzzled gaze at her, “although I hardly see why you should be so grateful simply because my eloquence persuaded poor Bell into a penitential P. P. C. on Mrs. Abbott. Perhaps I wakened your conscience.140 Have you stolen a pie or taken a trip to the station?”
Marion laughed, but did not explain, and her heart was very light; for now Mrs. Abbott could ask Bell all the questions she wanted and learn all the particulars of the girls’ encounter with the suspicious young man.
Marion felt a little desolate as the last of the light-hearted homeward-bound crowd left the front door with faces bright with the happy prospects before them. In their own delight the girls were rather thoughtless in farewells to the lonely girl who was left. She could hardly keep back the tears as she turned away from the door and walked slowly to the empty schoolroom.
She sat down by the desk, and with her chin resting in the palm of her left hand picked up a pencil and scribbled idly on an envelope that lay at hand. She did not know what she was writing, and her thoughts were so absorbing that she did not hear the approach of a gentleman with gray hair and a black mustache, who came in through the door behind her and stood a moment watching her with his hat in his hand, till he spoke; then she started so violently that she almost fell off her chair.
“I beg your pardon,” he exclaimed, retreating142 a little way to give her time to recover. “I must seem impertinent, but I am so much at home in my sister’s house that I am apt to prowl around the rooms in this lawless way.”
“Then you are Mr. Eaton?” said Marion, looking up into the kind, trustworthy eyes, which returned her gaze with one as honest and frank as her own.
“Thank you for guessing me out like an easy riddle. Now see if I can make as shrewd a guess. You are Marion!”
“How could you know?” said Marion, wonderingly.
“That is not the only thing I know,” said Mr. Eaton. “I know that when you turned and saw me you thought I had come to kidnap Ethel Bellamy?”
“O,” said Marion, coloring violently, “how could you think that?”
“You don’t deny it, though,” said Mr. Eaton, looking very much as if he wanted to laugh heartily.
“But how did you know?” persisted Marion, pressing the backs of her hands to her red cheeks, which would not grow cool.
“I have a Yankee trick of putting two and two together, and my sister is a graphic letter-writer. I am so sorry I was detained and could not get here before she went away.”
143 “She is coming back the day after to-morrow,” Marion told him, “and I know she expected you, but she was obliged to go to New York on business.”
“Did she take the little one? But never mind telling me if there is a lingering doubt in your mind that I may not after all belong to the vicious lot who are after poor Ethel Gray’s child”—this with a queer twinkle in his eyes which made Marion laugh too.
“You look so exactly like Mrs. Abbott that I am sure of you.”
“Do I?” he said, pulling his heavy mustache thoughtfully.
“O, of course she has no mustache,” laughed Marion, “but the eyes—”
“And the gray hair? Yes, we are a pair of grizzled twins, and people generally think us much alike. But, Miss Marion, do you feel certain enough of me to tell me if the little girl has gone with my sister? I had hoped to find her here.”
“Mrs. Abbott did not like to leave her, but she took Candace to take care of her.”
“Then it seems to me that the burden of entertaining144 me for a day or two is likely to fall to your unhappy lot. What shall you do to amuse me?”
“I will show you which room you are to have and order a big pitcher of hot water sent right up. Mrs. Abbott asked me to if you came.”
“That will be very amusing. Thank you.”
“I like him so much,” Marion said to herself as she came up from the kitchen after giving orders for the hot water and suggesting that dinner should be served on one of the little tables used to stand dishes on instead of the long T-shaped table, which was a pleasant sight to see when teachers and scholars surrounded it, but would be doleful for two lone diners to contemplate.
She and Mr. Eaton did not meet again till the dinner-bell summoned them to the long, lonely dining-room. He was standing behind one of the two chairs Liny had placed at opposite sides of the little square table. He made a slight motion, which she misunderstood, for her to take the chair upon which his hand rested. She rather shyly walked toward the other side, and he quickly stepped around and drew out that chair for her, waiting with grave, old-fashioned courtesy to take his own seat till she was comfortably settled in hers. It was all very embarrassing to Marion.145 She colored distressingly, but Mr. Eaton, whose manners were always charming, talked to her so entertainingly that she was soon smiling and enjoying the cosy dinner with him very much.
“What would you have done if I had not come?” he asked, after Liny had put the dessert on the table and left the room.
“I should have been very lonely, and I don’t believe I could have eaten any dinner.”
“I have enjoyed my dinner far more for having you to eat it with me, but it would be affectation for me to say that I couldn’t eat without company, for I took every meal alone for two months in an African hut and had a very fair appetite on some very peculiar diet.”
“O, what made you stay so long in that kind of a place?” said Marion, adding, as she remembered he had been a missionary, “Did you stay because you thought it was your duty?”
“I felt that it was my duty to get away as soon as I possibly could, for I had strong reasons for supposing that I was only fed, watched, and tended by my black captors to keep me in order for a certain annual ceremonial which was considered a very poor show indeed unless a few captives were sacrificed to lend éclat to the occasion.”
146 “O, O, how dreadful!”
“I don’t think I liked any part of it except the escape. That will always be a gratifying remembrance.”
“Lily said you told lovely stories,” said Marion.
“Lily Dart, if it is she you mean, is a great friend of mine, and a person with an insatiable thirst for stories. But I don’t propose to inflict one on you now.”
“But, O, please tell me how you got away.”
“Some day when we both feel like it I will tell you the beginning and end of this story. As for the middle part I can tell you now that my escape from the hut was not of a hair-breadth character, although the journey I had to take to put a safe space between myself and my enemies was sufficiently exciting.”
“I did not intend to tell any traveler’s stories this vacation,” he added, smiling at the intense interest in Marion’s face, “but you have almost beguiled me into it.”
“O, I should so like to hear how you got out of the hut,” said Marion.
“There is generally a story within a story. Six months before I had administered some generous doses of medicine to a chief who was believed147 to be dying, with the result of effecting a rapid cure. This man, with some attendant warriors, happened to call a halt in the vicinity of my prison. As a matter of etiquette the captives were exhibited to the visitor. I did not then recognize the recovered invalid in his feathers and paint, but during the night he stole into my tent and by signs and the use of the little of his native language which was at my command we had a short but delightful interview which ended in his taking me out of the hut, stepping over a dozen dark sleepers. They usually guarded me vigilantly, but my friend had managed to drug them into stupidity. After passing them safely I was given over to the care of two men who guided me on the way I wished to pursue till daylight, when they left me to my own devices.”
“O, how interesting!” said Marion, drawing a long breath. “I have read about savage countries and people, but I never expected to know any one who had really seen them.”
The next day was one of the happiest Marion had ever spent. Mr. Eaton took her for a long drive to a lovely distant village that looked sleepy enough in the winter, but was a gay scene in summer, he told her, when the two large hotels that were close to the lake were filled with a gay crowd. They were both closed now, but Mr. Eaton drove to a smaller one which was always open, and there, while the fat pony rested and enjoyed his oats, they took dinner. The table was quite long and full, and from where Marion sat she could look through a little hall to the kitchen where some women were washing piles of dishes at a long table. It reminded her vividly of the time when she spent hours every day at the same kind of work.
Was it only last summer? She lifted up her hand and looked at it inside and out. It was not white yet, but the palm was growing pink and soft.
“Two cents for your thoughts,” said Mr.149 Eaton, smiling to see her apparent forgetfulness.
“I wasn’t thinking of any thing particular,” said Marion, starting from her reverie.
“Were you not? There was an intentness about you which gave me the impression that you were thinking out some problem.”
“I don’t know what I said that for. I was thinking of something particular; I was thinking of all the days of my life till Mrs. Abbott brought me to Coventry.”
“I should say that was a pretty long think for such a short time.”
“But, Mr. Eaton, I used to wipe dishes just as you can see those girls in there. I did it for hours every day. I think I was too ashamed for a minute to tell you that when you asked me what I was thinking of.”
Honest Marion colored as she made this confession, which Mr. Eaton took very equably, in some way giving the impression by his manner that he considered washing and wiping dishes a very natural and every-day affair.
But as they were driving home over the snow, which sparkled like diamonds under the morning sun, but took a warm, rosy tint in the sunset light, Mr. Eaton told Marion a little Persian150 story which showed he had been thinking of the matter.
“A king sent one of his ministers one day to carry jewels to a queen he delighted to honor. When the proud trust was accomplished the messenger walked among the courtiers with lifted head and lofty bearing, and every one strove to be noticed by a man so honored and trusted. A few days after the king sent him to clean with his own hands the steps of the market-place, where dogs and beggar-children scrambled and fought for the refuse that was thrown out, and where the long, undisturbed accumulation of dirt had made that entrance hideous. When his work was ended the man came back from the uncongenial task with as proud a step, as lofty a carriage, as serene an eye as when he returned from his errand of trust and honor. Of the sneers and jeers of the courtiers at his abasement, and their laughter at the stains and soil upon his white, gold-wrought robes, he seemed unconscious. At the king’s feet he knelt, as he had knelt the day before, and said, ‘What thou didst give me to do, my king, I did as I could.’
“‘And which service was most pleasing to thee?’ asked the king.
151 “‘All things that are done for thee are alike pleasing to thy servant,’ was the answer.
“And the king, turning to his people, said, ‘He is greater than ye all, for his love and obedience make base services as great as royal embassies.’
“Do you understand that, Marion?” he asked, as they turned the familiar corner which brought the school, with its high fence, in sight.
“I think so,” she said, hesitatingly. “Isn’t it that if the Lord gives us a disagreeable thing to do—a duty that seems disgraceful—we should, if we love him, do it just as if it was something noble?”
“That is it, exactly, and there is no disgrace in washing dishes. It seems to me to become a noble service when the tired little hands are working to bring comfort to helpless dear ones.”
He said that very softly, looking away into the soft cloud-banks that were fast resolving themselves into the long, stratified dark lines that bridge the space from dusk to dark. He seemed almost to be talking to himself, but Marion knew well that his words were spoken to comfort her. She would gladly have said some words of thanks, but none seemed to come, not even when he lifted her out of the sleigh at the152 door, and told her to run in and get warm, could she express the pleasure the day had given her. But, although she did not know it, her delight showed plainly in her bright face, and in the happy sparkle of her big, honest gray eyes.
Mrs. Abbott came home the next morning and engrossed her brother so entirely that Marion would have greatly missed her companion of the last day or two if she had not had full consolation in Elfie’s society. The child’s love for her grew stronger every day, and Candace was almost jealous when her little missy refused to say her prayers with her little bowed head resting upon any one’s lap but Marion’s.
The mail-bag came in as usual just after breakfast the next morning, but the number of letters was greatly reduced, of course, and there was no animated, chattering crowd standing about eagerly watching while Mrs. Abbott unlocked the padlock and distributed the letters.
Marion had never received a letter in her life, so she and Elfie walked past the hall-table where Mrs. Abbott was opening the bag without so much as a glance at it, but they had not reached the top of the stairs before Mr. Eaton called out:
“Letters for you, Marion.”
“Letters for me? O, no, they can’t be mine, they must be for some of the other girls.”
“But how very, very imbecile their correspondents must be to direct them to Miss Marion Stubbs!”—holding up two square envelopes, one white, the other robin’s-egg blue. “Don’t you think you’ll have to open them so as to see which of the girls they are really meant for?154 or shall I lay them away till vacation is over, and then put them up at auction?”
“He is teasing you, Marion,” said Mrs. Abbott, glancing up from the letter she was reading. “They are really for you.”
Such a pleasure actually to have letters of her own! Marion had often envied the girls when they clutched their letters from home and became absorbed in their contents, smiling, exclaiming, and sometimes almost crying, as their eyes devoured the home news. But poor Mrs. Stubbs, with her broken-down health and her never-ceasing work, had no time to write to her daughter, and even if she had it was so many years since she had written a letter that she would hardly know how to do it. As for her father and the little boys, they would cheerfully have killed a bear or a rattlesnake or even encountered a mad dog and conquered him, for their absent girl’s sake, but such a stupendous, overwhelming task as writing a letter was not even to be considered, and the well-written, dutiful, fortnightly letters which Marion duly sent to the humble mountain home were regarded with awe and wonder, and read again and again by her proud and affectionate family.
But there were actually letters for her to-day,155 and the joy of receiving them was so great that Marion laid them face up on her table and gloated over them, not for some time attempting to make them reveal their contents. When she did break the seal of the blue-tinted envelope she read these astonishing lines:
“My Dear Marion: You are coming to spend a week with me and go back to school with me and Lily—I mean Lily and me—that is, if you want to. Mamma said our house was going to be too empty at Christmas, and I might invite some girls. So I chose you and Lily, and mamma has written to Mrs. Abbott about it, and I do hope she will let you come.
“Ever your affectionate friend,
“Katherine Stowe Ashley.”
That stately signature did not seem like Katie, but Marion knew perfectly well whose hand wrote the invitation which filled her heart with rapture, not for the pleasure of anticipating a visit, for she was not sure she really wanted to go, but it was delicious to feel that she was wanted, and that dear, warm-hearted, loving Katie had chosen her when she might have asked Edna or Bell or any of the girls who were156 used to better ways of living and better society than she had known.
Mrs. Abbott, coming into her room with Elfie, a few moments later, found her plunged in a happy reverie, with the second letter still unopened.
“Listen, dear,” she said, sitting down by her side. “This letter of mine very nearly concerns you:
“New York, Madison Avenue, Dec. 20.
“My Dear Mrs. Abbott: Will you let Katie’s friend, Miss Marion Stubbs, come and spend a portion of the holidays with us?
“If you will let her come Mr. Ashley will meet her at the Grand Central Station on the 24th, if you will let us know the train.
“With kindest regards, yours very sincerely,
“E. T. Ashley.”
“You don’t look surprised!”
“No, I knew Mrs. Ashley had written to you;” and Marion handed Katie’s letter to her.
“Isn’t it good of them?” she asked, watching Mrs. Abbott’s face till she finished reading.
“Yes; I am glad you are to have such a treat, for I feared it would be dull for you here.”
“It could not be dull with you and Elfie and157 Mr. Eaton,” said Marion, “and I don’t know as I really want to go; I am afraid I shouldn’t know just how to act always, and I might make Katie ashamed before her friends.”
“That is doing Katie great injustice.”
“O, I don’t mean it that way,” exclaimed Marion, kissing her letter impulsively.
“I know you don’t; but, my dear child, you haven’t read your other letter!”
That was from Lily, and, as might be expected, was very funny. Smiles and dimples attended Marion’s reading of it, and when she had finished she handed it to Mrs. Abbott, who said:
“Wont you read it to me yourself, so that Elfie can enjoy it too?”
So Marion began:
“‘Dear Left-Behinder: It was brutal in us to go off and leave the dear little mountain maid all to herself, and Katie and I talked ourselves into a fury of sympathy after we got into the cars. The only comfort we had was in hoping Mr. Eaton would get there right away. He’s a dear!
“‘Now, I feel the spirit of poesy jumping onto me; attend, please.158“‘Old Coventry braes are bonny,Where early falls the dew,But that, my dear old Marion,Is not the place for you.“‘So give us your promise true,That ne’er forgot shall be,To do as Katie asks you,And pack your trunk with glee.
“‘I don’t believe I can do the subject justice in poetry, so I’ll go back to prose. Do come, Maid Marion. You must; if you don’t you shall be black-balled next term; that means something awful. I feel in my bones that you will try not to come, but you must.
“‘I want to tell you something. We heard Edna say in the cars that Mrs. Ashley went in the best set in New York, and she’d give any thing if her mother knew her. Now, don’t that make you want to show Edna (spiteful humbug) what you can do. It will be just fun to see her rage about it next term.
“‘If you dare to say no you’ll break my heart. I shall think it’s because I am going to be there. Katie was always nice to you, but I was horrid, just wicked, and even if you did forgive me no one can blame you if you can’t forget. But if you don’t come I shall just be a raving wreck, and159 I wont go to Katie’s if you don’t. So, there now, I have said it.“‘O, what a naughty thing you’d be,To plunge your friends in misery,So come along and Christmas spend,And likewise New Year’s, with your friend.
“‘(Plural understood; couldn’t say spends, so had to take the “s” off the friends. There’s awful limitations to poetry.)
“‘Katie hates writing letters so awfully that I told her if she’d just write the bare invitation I’d do the urging. Now, I’m sure I don’t know what more I can say to make you come; but if you dare to write a stiff little note beginning, “I am so sorry,” I’ll choke you, and I’ll send word to Mrs. Abbott to have you chloroformed and carried onto the cars with your feet tied, so you can’t kick when you come to.
“‘Don’t be afraid to come, for Katie’s mother is almost as sweet as Mrs. Abbott, and Mr. Ashley’s lovely. He almost shakes himself to bits laughing. I believe that’s why he’s so bald, he’s shaken all his hair off.
“‘Now you are coming, aren’t you?“‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, say you are coming, my sweet,To visit our Katie in Madison Street.
160 “‘(It isn’t street, it’s avenue, really, but I took poet’s license.)
“‘Now, farewell. Your loving
“‘P. S.—O, do come.
“‘Particular P. S.—Come now, don’t say no.’”
Mrs. Abbott laughed heartily when the letter was read.
“I really think Lily is the most sprightly girl I ever had in my school.”
“I never saw any one I envied so much,” said Marion.
“You need not, dear. We all have different gifts, but that is not to say that one kind ranks above another. Lily’s vivacity leads her into trouble sometimes, and I have heard her say, when she has been suffering the consequences of her thoughtlessness, that she wished she was more like you in some things. But we will take a more convenient season for discussing gifts and traits. For now we must give our minds to shoes and clothes for this visit.”
“O, do you really think I had better go?”
“I am sure of it, and you and I and Liny must work hard; fortunately she can work nicely on the machine, and she has little else to do in vacation. When I was in New York I bought for161 your Christmas present a red cashmere dress and a brown plush sack that I tried on a girl about your size. I think we can get the woman who made Elfie’s dresses to give us to-morrow and the next day. So we shall turn out a very respectable little red-bird for a city visit.”
“Five o’clock, girls,” said Katie, pressing an electric button that she could reach without leaving her seat. “Jennie will bring in the tea; she knows what that bell means at this hour. And, Lily, do stop asking Marion questions. She’s only been in the house half an hour, and I know she’s all worn out with the trip.”
“Worn out! Why, it was splendid! I was sorry it wasn’t longer.”
The girls were sitting in Katie’s own pretty room, where every thing was primrose and gold, and she and Lily were doing their best to make Marion feel at ease in the rather embarrassing ordeal of making her first visit. Mr. Ashley had met her at the station and was cordiality itself. Mrs. Ashley’s greeting was heartfelt too, and the two girls flung themselves upon her in vociferous welcome.
Perhaps they had both felt a little nervous about her; but there was no need. Her close observation of such a good model as Mrs. Abbott163 and her quick faculty of imitation had so changed her manner and speech that there was really nothing to object to. She had benefited, too, by the cruel ridicule of her thoughtless school-mates, which had been lacerating while it lasted and very hard to bear.
Katie took her up to the pretty room she was to occupy after they had finished their little cups of tea and eaten a thin slice of bread and butter.
“We should have to put you both into the guest-chamber ordinarily,” she said, “but brother Jim and my two unmarried sisters are traveling in Europe with grandfather; so there’s lots of room. See, Lily’s door opens into your room, so you needn’t feel lonesome. I am going to get mamma to send Adèle to dress your hair. She always does mine when I am at home.”
Marion declined the services of the French maid, but Katie laughed and ran down again, and in a few minutes Adèle came in, having been ordered, she said, to help the young lady. Mrs. Abbott had told Marion to do, as far as she could, what her friends expected her to while she was visiting them; so she submitted to having her hair dressed, and received so many compliments from Adèle on its length, quantity, and beautiful curliness that she was quite comforted.164 When she looked in the glass after the hair-dressing was over she hardly knew herself, and Lily, running in just then, fell into raptures.
“Where have you always hidden all that beautiful hair?” she exclaimed. “Why, you are positively lovely with your red cheeks and that fluff on your forehead. I wonder if Adèle could change me into a beauty. But look here, Marion, you want to wear your best dress, the blue one, you know, to-night, because there’s to be a Christmas-tree, and the married son and daughter are coming, and they’re awfully swell.”
“I have a prettier dress than that, a red one;” and Marion exhibited her new dress.
“My, but I’m glad,” said Lily; “for really, do you know, Marion, I was wishing you had something pretty to come out in to-night?”
Truly Marion, with her hair stylishly arranged and delicate white frilling at the neck and sleeves of the bright red dress was a pleasant picture as she took her seat by Lily’s side at the dinner-table.
Katie explained to her mother that as life at Mrs. Abbott’s included a two-o’clock dinner they must be excused if their appetites were feeble at a seven-o’clock dinner. Mr. Ashley affected to consider this a great joke, and went165 into little spasms of mirth every time the plates were changed and the “feeble appetites” did not prevent the girls from tasting every dish that was offered.
They were occupied with their dessert when the married Ashley children came. The son had a pretty little wife, who looked nearly as young as Katie, and a wonderfully smart little black-eyed daughter of three, who asked, the instant she came in, where “Danpa’s Twissmus-twee” was.
Mrs. Clifford Leigh, the oldest Ashley daughter, was a tall, handsome young woman, whose rather haughty bearing frightened Marion into awkwardness at first, but when an exclamation of rapturous admiration escaped her lips at the sight of two lovely children who were brought in by their nurses the young mother’s face softened into a gratified smile which made it charming.
Marion had a feeling that Mrs. Clifford despised her, and Lily, who sometimes had very keen intuitions, suspected her feeling and whispered:
“Say, Marion, don’t you worry. Katie has never said any thing about you to her brothers and sisters. Not that there’s much of any thing to say; but you know what I mean.”
166 For answer Marion squeezed her hand lovingly and immediately felt more indifferent to Mrs. Clifford’s haughty manner, which was, after all, nothing but manner, for she was really as good-natured and friendly as Katie herself.
Mrs. Ashley excused herself and mysteriously retired to the drawing-room, between which and the dining-room the portieres were closely drawn together. Presently they slid swiftly apart and the whole company went toward the other end of the long room, where stood a dazzling Christmas-tree lighted by a host of candles and brilliant with silver and gilt decorations that caught and reflected the light with glittering effect.
The little ones danced about gayly with out-cries of delight, and Marion was dumb with admiration at her first sight of a real Christmas-tree. She had read of them often, but never imagined they could be so beautiful.
Mr. Ashley, with a tiny hand in each of his, began dancing his little granddaughters about to the waltz which was trilled out by an immense music-box, till Mrs. Clifford reminded him that they were all pining for a view of their presents. So he put on an absurdly serious manner and began to gather the fruit that Santa Claus had167 raised in his own private hot-house, as he expressed it.
The first fruit plucked was a beautiful doll, which was handed to little Hilda Ashley, who received it enthusiastically. Its twin was given to her oldest little cousin, and small Master Clifford received a box that stood under the tree, being too heavy to hang upon it. The young gentleman was immediately lost to sight behind the box, but his approval of the contents, as his nurse took them out, was distinctly audible. Horses and their attachments had been his craze all of his short life, and the majestic pair of bays with a big, solid express-wagon that filled the box, were almost large enough for actual service.
There were many other presents for the children, which were taken in charge by their mothers, and then Mr. Ashley said Santa Claus owed them an apology for entirely forgetting to provide any thing for the grown folks. Katie whispered to Marion that he had made that same remark every year since she could remember; but even if it was not strictly original on the present occasion it was thought funny, for while he was sadly shaking his head over the misfortune he was untying the blue ribbon168 which held a morocco box to the tree. This he handed mournfully to young Mrs. Ashley, whose eyes sparkled as she opened it and discovered an opal ring with a brilliant setting of diamonds. She flashed an appreciative look at her husband, who was watching her, and Marion felt sure the ring had been presented by him.
Mrs. Clifford had from her husband a reminder that the day was also the anniversary of their wedding, in the shape of a lovely pin modeled from an antique Swedish wedding-gift.
The young men received a collection of umbrellas, canes, pins, and sleeve-buttons, and then more boxes with gifts from father and mother and friends were taken down and given to their wives. Then Mr. Ashley, in a puzzled way, declared it seemed astonishing that three young and interesting girls should be left out when every one else was remembered. Even Mrs. Ashley, he said, had her pile, and a goodly pile it was. Katie abused him roundly as he slowly inspected parcels and boxes on the tree and on the table behind it, and declared she would jump over the ribbon that was stretched across that end of the room for a dividing-line. At last he slowly took down a square flat box, then169 laid it on the table, remarking in a hopeless way that the writing was upside-down.
“Turn it the other way,” cried Katie, stamping her foot in mock anger.
“What a head you have!” said her father, and he frisked around to the other side of the table as if the little box itself could not be turned. “Why, it’s your own name,” he added, in great surprise.
“So it is, but you didn’t read it all;” and Katie handed the box to Lily, pointing to the inscription, “From Katherine Stowe Ashley to Lily Dart.”
There was a beautiful handkerchief with an embroidered edge in it, and another box, handed then to Marion, held one just like it.
From Mrs. Ashley Lily received a gold bangle, and Marion a simple but extremely pretty gold and garnet breastpin, which quite took her breath away, it seemed so magnificent.
Mr. Ashley kept up the farce of not being able to discover any remembrances for Katie till that young lady became quite impatient. Then he handed her a carefully wrapped-up diary with an elegant exterior and hopelessly blank interior. She received it with a comical little gesture, for it meant that her mother expected her to continue170 the daily record that she had pursued for four years.
There was a gold thimble for Katie from her sister-in-law, a bewitching fan from Mrs. Clifford, and lovely “bits of travel,” as Mr. Ashley called the gifts from the absent sisters and brothers, who sent carvings from Sorrento, silver from Nuremberg, laces from Paris, and specialties from other points to all at home.
Then Mr. Ashley ceremoniously presented his youngest daughter with the prettiest pocket-book his researches among the shops could unearth.
“It would have been a diamond ring, Katie. I mean to say it was a diamond ring,” he said, mournfully, “but your mother made me take it back to Tiffany, because you are too young, she says. So try to get older, my child, and I will reward you with precious stones.”
Katie laughed and admired her father’s gift, remarking with some philosophy that she’d rather have it than a ring, for she could have the comfort of using it, and if she had had the ring mamma would not have let her wear it till she was out of school.
“But you haven’t examined the lining,” Mr. Ashley said, anxiously, after nodding approvingly at her manner of receiving his gift.
171 The “lining” was a check, and Katie, seeing its highly respectable amount, flew at her father in a transport. He retreated before her rush in mock terror, but on being caught returned her hug with interest, begging her in a loud whisper not to reveal the amount of her check to any one.
Katie’s good sense was getting the better of the vanity and bragging that the girls at school used to find objectionable in her, and, true to some new resolutions she had been making, she followed her father’s jocose request and told no one but her mother the amount of her gift.
“I knew I should get some money,” she said that night after the girls had gone up to her room, “so I ran pretty deeply in debt for things for mamma’s tree to-morrow.”
“Another tree!” exclaimed the girls, in chorus.
“Same one dressed over; but wait and see. It’s twice the fun this was.”
The habits of even a short life-time are not easily changed; so before a single servant was astir in that luxurious household Marion had risen and dressed herself. Lily had no early-rising habits to contend with, and so slept peacefully on till Adèle came in to say that Mrs. Ashley wished to know if the young ladies required assistance in dressing and to tell them breakfast would be ready in half an hour.
Lily slipped her feet into a pair of slippers and came into Marion’s room in a half-awake condition.
“Why, you early bird!” she exclaimed, “I do believe you got up to gloat over your new breastpin.”
Marion laughed and blushed, for it was true that she had been contemplating her first piece of jewelry for a long time with great content.
“I envy you,” said Lily, “not the pin, but not having your ‘first times’ till you were old enough to realize them. I thought of it last night, when173 your eyes were shining like diamonds and you looked like a peri who had squeezed into Eden after long shivering at the gate, like the one in Moore’s poems. Now, my dear little rosy-round, daddy isn’t frightfully rich like Mr. Ashley, but then I’ve always had more trinkets and things than I needed, and I don’t begin to have the fun out of them that you have had already over your one poor little breastpin.”
“O, it isn’t poor or little!” exclaimed shocked Marion. “It is as pretty a pin as any of the girls had at school.”
“And you did long for one, didn’t you, poor little kitty mouse?”
“No, I didn’t, because I didn’t see how it was possible I could ever have one. But, Lily, you wont be ready for breakfast.”
That was a very informal meal in the Ashley house, for the family never waited for the mistress, who was apt to breakfast in her own room, and Mr. Ashley was such a restless, active person that he usually dispatched his breakfast before any one else began and trotted off to call on his two sets of grandchildren. This morning the three girls had the table all to themselves, and Marion was lost in wonder at Lily, who did not seem in the least awed by the solemn butler,174 who seemed to her to be the most scornful and disapproving looking gentleman she had ever seen; and when Katie, with the courage of a lion-tamer, calmly sent him down-stairs because they wanted to discuss a private matter she almost looked for an earthquake to happen next.
The private matter was a present Mrs. Ashley wished to make to Mrs. Abbott and was going to leave to the three girls to select and present as an offering from themselves. The discussion seemed interminable, and was still in full tide when Mr. Ashley came in, rubbing his hands and crying “Merry Christmas!” to them.
“Here are sweets to the sweet,” he continued, handing them each a two-pound box of Huyler’s very best, “and here are charms to the charmers and gloves to the gloveless;” and with chuckles of delight he arranged the packages in front of the girls, walking around the table and rubbing his hands gleefully while they unwrapped and explored. Every thing was alike in each instance. Two pairs of gloves apiece—extra length, he explained, solemnly, because the tops could be used to resole the bottoms. The “charms” were lovely silver chatelaines, with smelling-bottle, bon-bon box, and other hanging appurtenances; and the girls uttered their approbation in little screams of175 delight, in the midst of which Mr. Ashley put his hands over his ears and ran out of the room.
“And the best of papa’s Christmas morning gifts is that he don’t mind your giving them away to somebody else if you want. He wouldn’t forgive any one who parted with Christmas-tree things, but these have no sentiment, he says.”
“There’ll be no danger of my parting with these glorious gloves,” said Lily. “I never had any a mile long before. And do see Marion. She’s regarding hers with such reverence that I expect to see her swing incense in front of them in a minute. I believe she likes them better than her lovely chatelaine.”
“O, no, but I can wear the gloves.”
“Well, I suppose papa thought you could; but can’t you wear the chatelaine too?”
“It seems too fine for me, with the kind of clothes I wear.”
“I’ll tell you what,” said Katie, hurriedly, to avoid noticing Marion’s embarrassment, “we’ll go around to the Gorham to-morrow right after breakfast and change off that chatelaine for other things. I know you’re such a silly goose that you’d rather have a half-dozen trinkets to give away than this.”
It was worth something to see the pleasure in176 Marion’s face at this suggestion; but Lily did not give her time to say any thing, for she sprang up and gave Katie a hug and resounding kiss, with an emphatic declaration that she was the dearest girl that ever lived.
“And we’ll give her our votes for the Bellamy prize, wont we, though?” she said to Marion, as she resumed her seat.
Adèle came in then with a request from Mrs. Ashley that they would not fatigue themselves in their morning amusements, as she depended upon them to entertain her guests at her Christmas-tree from four to six in the afternoon.
The drawing-room was mysteriously closed; and when, at the appointed hour, the girls went in with Mrs. Ashley they found it greatly changed from the night before. The tree was equally well filled, but with gifts of a widely different character, and by its side and behind it stood tables strangely loaded. One was covered with stout shoes; another held a pyramid of bundles, each bearing a small placard. The third table, longer and wider than the others, was loaded with hats and caps.
The room was lighted with gas, which seemed to have a bewildering effect upon the twenty guests who now began to arrive. The sudden177 change from daylight, or else the splendor of the brilliant tree, made each girl as she entered rub her eyes and look helplessly about for an instant. They were the members of Mrs. Ashley’s class in the mission school, and every year she entertained them in this way.
Katie and Lily did their best to make the company feel at home; but perhaps there was a tiny bit of condescension in their efforts, for the girls seemed shy and afraid to converse; but with Marion it was different. She knew by her own experience how embarrassing it was to step from the surroundings of poverty into unaccustomed elegance, and the lessons she had learned made her know what to say to these shy, awkward strangers to make them feel comfortable and at home.
The guests were all gathered at last and seated where their eager eyes could feast upon the ever-fertile tree, as Lily called it. Then, from behind the portieres, appeared Santa Claus, smothered in furs. His long white beard indicated great age, but his agile and jerky method of skipping about contradicted the venerable effect. His pockets were puffed out and he carried a loaded pannier on his back.
Taking his station with his back to the mantel,178 Santa Claus waved his sealskin-gloved hands toward the company, saying, “Class, please to rise;” whereupon the guests all stood up, Katie and her friends also rising.
“If any one present,” continued Santa Claus, whisking up to the tree and back again to his place, “wishes a share in these gifts, will she kindly signify it by saying ‘I would?’”
Such an animated chorus of “I woulds” arose then that Santa Claus put his hands over his ears.
“Please don’t all speak at once next time,” he said. “Now, head of the class, tell me which were made first, cats or kittens? What, don’t know? Next, then. You don’t know either? nor you? Why, who does know?”
All the class were giggling and nudging each other in great amusement, and at the last question one girl called out “Cats!” and sank back upon a chair in a paroxysm of half-nervous laughter.
“Wrong,” said Santa Claus, severely. “You know every cat has to be a kitten first. Try again.”
“Kittens!” screamed the whole class in concert.
“O, what an ill-taught class!” said Santa Claus, looking around slyly at Mrs. Ashley. “I should179 think you’d know there couldn’t be kittens without cats for mothers.”
“Which of’em was made first then?” said the boldest member of the class; but the others pounced on her and called out, “For shame, ’Lizy Maria!” so vigorously that she was completely crushed.
“You must ask your teacher,” said Santa Claus, politely, beginning to unload his pockets and hand out blue, scarlet, and brown mittens—a pair for each girl. “And as you have such strange ideas of cats and kittens, here are some articles to refresh your memories about them;” and by some dexterous gymnastics he freed himself from the large sack or pannier that ornamented his back and poured its load of muffs upon the floor. There was one for each girl, and they were quickly picked up and appropriated at the word of command.
Then there was a general distribution of the useful gifts upon the table and of those upon the tree, which were prettier if less useful, being little books, work-baskets, photograph frames, and other trifles, such as girls without pocket-money prize.
There were some merry games then in which Katie and her friends took part, and then the180 twenty happy visitors took their gifts home with beaming faces and grateful hearts.
“It may pall upon your fancy, my Marion,” said Lily that night when they were undressing, “but for the fiftieth time I must repeat my conviction that these Ashleys deserve their wealth.”
“O, they do,” assented Marion, enthusiastically, “and Katie grows nicer every day.”
“Yes, Katie’s getting gooder and gooder all the time, as little Elfie says, bless her heart!”
sang Lily, with mock pathos, as the stage, with its lively load of girls, drove up to the front door, where Mrs. Abbott and Elfie smiled a cordial welcome.
“There’s not a word of truth in that lament, Mrs. Abbott, my dear,” said Lily, as she folded her teacher in a fervent hug, “for I’m awfully, awful glad to get back.”
“So am I,” said Katie.
“And you, dear?” said Mrs. Abbott, smiling at Marion, who could not easily release herself from Elfie’s embrace of joyful welcome.
“It is coming home to me,” answered Marion, with glowing face.
“Have you had a pleasant visit?”
“O, so delightful! May I come to your room to-night and tell you about it?”
“Indeed you may.”
182 “May I hear the history too?” said Mr. Eaton, just appearing from the library.
The girls pounced upon him then, dragging him into the school-room and asking a flood of questions and begging hard for the promise of a story after tea. He gave the promise readily, but it was not fulfilled, for an hour later a telegram summoned him away upon business that could not be delayed.
“I don’t understand why every body has to be in the dumps just because Mr. Eaton had to go away,” said Edna, discontentedly, that evening.
“Because he’s a joy forever,” said Lily, “and with him here the next two or three days of settling down to work would be just fun. Now they’ll be deeply, darkly, beautifully blue; wont they, Kit?”
“Yes; the first days are generally poky,” said Katie, preparing to record her arrival in her new diary.
“We can have fun enough,” said Edna, “if Mrs. Abbott wont be too strait-laced and antiquated to let us.”
“How, for instance?”
“There’s a circus coming. I saw the bills posted up at the station,” replied Edna—“lions and bears, and a four-armed man, and a man with183 no arms at all who takes your picture with his toes, and lots of jolly things.”
“They wont do us any good,” said Bell Burgoyne, “for, you know, Mrs. Abbott disapproves of circuses.”
“Well, they are low,” said Edna, “but I think it would be fun to go to one of the side-shows, as they call them, and have our fortunes told by the Egyptian sphinx.”
“O, I’ve seen a picture of that kind of being. It’s just a young woman with an elaborately frizzed head and a handsome face, and nothing else except a small section of throat,” explained Lily. “She perches lightly on a wash-stand and answers questions, I believe.”
“But how can she talk without any arms and legs?” said Louie Field, skeptically.
“Unless she uses the sign language of the deaf and dumb, I think limbs and members would be less indispensable than lungs,” said Lily. “But I don’t understand, so I can’t explain.”
“It’s some kind of clap-trap,” said Edna. “I’ve read how it’s done. There’s looking-glass fronts and curtains and things, you know.”
“What a beautifully clear explanation!” said Lily.
184 “I’d just love to have my fortune told,” said Katie.
“You couldn’t understand her. Probably she’s a real, genuine, imported sphinx. Speaks no English—nothing but Pyramid,” Lily said, mockingly.
“There’s no such language as Pyramid, is there?” asked Katie, rather doubtfully.
“Well, then, she’d speak the tongue of the Ptolemies, whatever that was, and you couldn’t understand it. But, no matter what she speaks, you are not likely to see her.”
The matter was dropped then, but the next morning when Mrs. Abbott took her seat to open school she found a yard-long pictorial advertisement of the circus laid conspicuously on the desk. On its margin was written, “Please take us,” on reading which she shook her head gravely.
“I have had such requests before,” she said, severely, “and all but the latest comers know how thoroughly I disapprove of circuses and all such exhibitions.”
She looked grave and displeased, and the girls, discussing the matter afterward, were very indignant at Edna, who had put the play-bill on the desk without their knowledge. She defended185 herself rather crossly, and a quarrel seemed inevitable; but Elfie, coming in with a book for Katie, made a diversion.
“Is you most crying ’cause you can’t go to see the efalumps and the big, big bears?” she asked, looking at Edna curiously.
“No, indeed,” replied Edna, loftily; “but I should like to have my fortune told by the sphinx.”
“Auntie Abbott says the spazinx in that picture isn’t a real spazinx,” said Elfie, consolingly.
They all laughed so at her remarkable pronunciation that her small head was tossed up with much dignity, and she said, with some asperity:
“It is not a bit ladified for folks to laugh at other folks’s pronouncements. My Marion never laughs when I says my words wrong.”
Edna repressed the sneering remark she was ready to utter, for no one was allowed to say one word in dispraise of Marion before Elfie, who had been more than ever her champion since the affair of the poem. And Edna, to do her justice, was really very fond of Elfie, and immediately tried to propitiate her by making a boat out of writing-paper, which the happy child carried off to sail in her basin. There she186 left it, with a freight of small paper dolls, when Candace called her to go out for a walk, and Marion, whose early training made tidiness a habit, carefully threw away the water, wiped out the basin, put the paper boat in the window to dry, and, picking up a work-basket, sat down with it in her lap and began to darn a stocking of Elfie’s as a pleasant surprise for Candace.
As she worked, saying over a list of Roman emperors to make sure she had them at her tongue’s end, some of the blurred characters in the little boat caught her attention, and she carefully unfolded it, finding, as she suspected, that it was a note written in cipher. Having had permission to read all she could, she amused herself by deciphering the curious words and writing them down on a bit of paper.
A part of the note was torn, but enough was left to make Marion very uncomfortable. It was written to Edna by Addie Mason, a rather delicate girl who lived in the village, and who came in to school every day for only two or three studies. She had become very popular with the S. C.’s and had been frequently invited to their secret meetings, and the mysterious cipher had been explained to her. She was immensely flattered by all this privilege, although she knew187 her admittance to fellowship was owing to her usefulness in bringing purchases of maple-sugar, candy, crackers, and raisins, and other such commodities as could be purchased at the country store, which the girls were not allowed to visit except by especial permission, and that was rarely accorded.
The cipher letter, after Marion copied it upon a fresh piece of paper, read thus:
“Drdn: mdmbltt syssh wllnt cmt thbck gtnlss ywll brnglf tsh syssh cnfnd smbrd mnyby pttngdvnng rdn blndchlds hndtht swht shs wntdfr. gthr wyfrm mrnnd cndcnd brnghr lngn nwll vrknw.
It was not a difficult cipher to read when you knew how—simply a leaving out of all the vowels and writing every consecutive pair of words together. But, as some of the girls who had tried to read specimens of it said, “it looked too heathenish for United States folks to read.” Abolishing capitals also added to its obscurity.
The translation, after Marion had puzzled it out and written it down in legible English, was:
“Dear Edna: Madame Belotti says she will not come to the back gate unless you will bring188 Elfie too. She says she can find some buried money by putting a divining-rod in a blonde child’s hand. That is what she is wanted for. Get her away from Marion and Candace and bring her along; no one will ever know.
“That’s what you get for meddling, miss,” Marion said to herself, as, having made the copies and torn them up, she refolded the boat and applied herself again to the stockings and the Roman emperors.
“Caligula, Claudius, Nero,” she continued, not conscious she was speaking aloud. do hope she wont do it. Galba, Otho, Vitellius. O, dear, I do hope she wont.”
“Wont what, you funny old thing?” asked Lily, looking in at the door.
For a moment Marion was tempted to tell her about the note she had read and beg her to prevent Edna’s taking Elfie outside of the gate, but she knew her interference might be resented, and Lily was so intolerant of tale-telling that she did not want to seem guilty of it; so she parried the question and begged her to take the list she had copied from her history and see if she could say the Roman emperors correctly.
189 “Perfect,” said Lily, when she had done; “but you always do say every thing perfectly. And now tell me what is bothering you, Molly Ann. You looked when I came in as though you had the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
But no coaxing would persuade the girl to tell, although she longed to talk about her discovery with some one. Of course she could not tell Mrs. Abbott. The school-girls’ code of honor forbade that; but she resolved to watch Elfie closely and prevent her, if possible, from being taken out of the gate, and if she could not do that to follow her herself, no matter how much her doing so might offend the girls.
Late that night Marion, lying awake to worry over the letter she had read, heard the heavy rumble of the circus vans on their way out of town to the distant place where their next public appearance was to be made. All her trouble ended with the welcome sound, for now there would be no meeting with the sphinx, and Elfie would not be tempted to go outside the gates; so the honest eyes closed in sleep that lasted undisturbed till the “wake-up” bell resounded through the halls.
Candace had again succumbed to the rheumatism, so Marion dressed Elfie and took her down to breakfast and kept her by her side till the prayer-bell rang. Then Katie pounced upon her, it being her week, and Marion did not see her again except across the school-room.
At twelve o’clock recess began, at one the girls dined, and at two o’clock school began again, and lasted till half past three. The hour before dinner was devoted, in rainy weather, to191 gymnastics in the large garret fitted up with various mechanical contrivances for physical culture, but in pleasant weather the girls walked, ran, or played either in the grove behind the house, the meadow on the left, or the tennis-court and croquet-ground on the other side. Beyond the fence which defined these ample grounds no one was allowed to go without permission, even though, as sometimes happened, grace-hoop, shuttlecock, or ball perversely flew over the fence.
On this day Mrs. Abbott called Marion to her immediately after the twelve-o’clock bell rang.
“My dear,” she said, “I shall have to ask you to do me a favor. I have here a check for fifty dollars which I need to have cashed immediately. Will you take it for me to the bank at the village and bring me the money? It is a long walk, but I know you don’t mind that. To save time and insure your getting back in time for dinner I would send you in the phaeton, but my pony has lamed himself. But I will have your dinner kept warm for you.”
“O, that is nothing,” said Marion. “I’d as lief go without any dinner, and, if you don’t mind, I’ll go through the back gate, it’s so much shorter.”
192 “Yes, you may do so. The key to the padlock hangs, as usual, behind the hat-rack.”
The carriage road to the village led past the front of the house and twisted and turned several ways, most obligingly winding by various farm-houses, but a shorter cut across the fields could be reached by going through a little gate at the end of the thick grove behind the house. The road thus gained led to the station and then on to the village, but a path across the fields avoided the station and intersected the road again further on.
“I’d be fidgety now if the circus had stayed over to-day, for, with Candace sick, there’d be no one to keep Elfie from going out with the girls to get their fortunes told,” thought Marion.
But the circus had gone and she went on gayly, rather pleased with the errand and thinking nothing of the two-miles’ walk to the village.
Just beyond the path that led off from the road stood a carriage with two showy young women in it talking with a young man who had apparently just met them as Marion came in sight. There was something odd about their appearance, and the girl had curiosity enough to watch them for a moment as she stood sheltered behind a screen of wild grape-vine that almost193 hid the entrance to the path. The party were whispering, so there was nothing for her to hear even had she been nearer; but their presence in that quiet place seemed strange.
In a moment the women jumped out of the carriage and the young man took a seat in it, saying in a raised voice, probably for the driver’s benefit:
“Well, don’t stay long with your old friend, or you’ll miss the 1:15 train, and there’s no other till 6:35. We’ll drive around a while and be waiting for you here. Now, look sharp and keep your wits about you.”
Perhaps they were going to see the servants at Mrs. Abbott’s, Marion thought, as she walked on, feeling troubled she hardly knew why; but if so, why not have driven around to the front gate, from which the kitchen was reached by a side path; but, after all, it was none of her business, she told herself as she trudged along.
There was not much delay at the bank, and Marion, feeling rather important, and somewhat anxious about the safety of the roll of bills, started for home. It would be so terrible to have any thing happen to such a lot of money that she hardly knew what to do with it. Mrs. Abbott had given her an old purse to put it in,194 but she thought as she went along of all the stories she had heard of highway robbery, so she took it out of her purse and tucked it into the bosom of her dress. After a few minutes the dread came that some tramp might demand her money or her life, and then there’d be a scuffle, and in the scuffle her dress might be torn to pieces and the bills fall out; so back into her pocket they went, then into her dress waist again. Then an inspiration seized her and she divided the bundle of bills, of which there were six fives and two tens, and wound them around each ankle under her stockings. There they seemed quite safely concealed even if they detracted from the symmetry of the ankles, and Marion walked comfortably on with the empty purse held conspicuously in her hand, having a little plan in her mind of flinging it far from her in the event of an attack from highway robbers, and, while they were dashing after it, taking to her heels and escaping with her stocking-protected treasure.
There never had been a highway robbery in the neighborhood, but a course of promiscuous reading had given Marion a realization that such things could happen, and she went on with almost an expectation of some adventure.
195 As she neared the point where the path struck into the carriage road she heard a sound of rapid wheels, and, running to the vine-covered tree and peering through the leaves, she saw, as she thought probable, the carriage she had seen as she went upon her errand. The driver was not there, but the young man who promised to wait for the women sat upon the front seat and was urging the horses to their utmost speed. One of the women was by his side; the other sat upon the back seat with a child in her arms.
It was Elfie!
How she could have recognized her in that one quick glance through the leaves Marion could not have told, but she was sure of it. It flashed upon her then that these people must have been employed to steal her, and now they had succeeded!
Where were they going? To the station to catch the 1:15 express. Perhaps she could get there in time to stop them; any body would assist her, for Mrs. Abbott was well known.
Fences and rough places were no obstacles to a sturdy little mountaineer; so, straight as a bird flies, Marion tore across country, leaving bits of her dress upon the strong cat-briers, and not stopping to pick up her hat when it dropped from196 her head as she half jumped, half tumbled over a fence. She forgot her anxiety about the money as she flew along, panting and half crying, but still gasping over and over a fervent prayer:
“O, Lord, help me to save Elfie! Help me, help me!”
The platform and station buildings were on the other side of the track, and as Marion flew along over a hill she caught a glimpse of the carriage whirling across the track and driving behind the building. The sight made her run faster, if that were possible, but the chase seemed hopeless, for even then the whistle sounded and the engine came in sight around the curve, slowing up as it neared its stopping-place.
But even though she thought it too late she ran on, the prayer again bursting in agony from her lips, and love and fear seemed almost to give her wings. Without pausing to listen, she heard all the familiar sounds that attend a train’s arrival and departure. Just after an “all aboard” from the conductor the long train began to push slowly off, gaining speed as it moved till, as she burst from a thicket and plunged through a narrow run of waste water that followed the track for a few rods, the last car was spinning by her.
Without a breath of hesitation she seized the197 iron rod at the end in her strong little grasp and flung herself against the steps, bruising herself sadly, but clinging on.
After a few moments spent in collecting herself and recovering from her efforts the brave girl drew herself up from the car-steps to the platform, and, gazing back at the woods which seemed to close behind them as they sped along, tried to form some plan of action. No one at the station could have seen her spring upon the cars; so there would be no one to tell Mrs. Abbott what had become of her. Then, after all, what certainty had she that Elfie was upon the cars? Perhaps hers had been a wild-goose chase. She was positive that Elfie was in the carriage, but perhaps they had not taken her on the cars. They might have been afraid and left her at the station, or they might be still waiting there for the down-train which went through half an hour later.
Then the horrible thought came that if Elfie was safe, and no one knew what had become of her, wouldn’t Mrs. Abbott think she had run away with the fifty dollars?
The agony of that idea was too dreadful. Poor Marion threw herself down on the platform, and, burying her scratched, flaming face in her hands, sobbed dolefully.
The morning after the circus had left the town, as the older girls were going into one of the smaller recitation-rooms to the English literature class, Edna whispered to Addie in the five minutes that were always allowed on every change of room:
“Hasn’t the circus gone?”
“Yes; went last night.”
“And now we can’t have our fortunes told!”
“Yes, you can, for Madame Belotti hasn’t gone.”
“I thought you’d be glad, and she and her sister have promised to come up to the grove by the back gate at twelve o’clock. Of course she can’t be fixed up as a sphinx, because her rigging had to go off in the vans. She’s great fun any way; for one thing she can give you lucky numbers. But she wants Elfie to come. She says she saw her once when you all walked to the village, and she says there’s something199 uncommon in her eyes that shows she’s got second sight.”
“I don’t know as we can bring Elfie, and I don’t believe she ever saw her, either.”
“Then we’d better stay away ourselves, for Madame Belotti will get out of temper and not tell us any thing.”
“Well, we must manage it somehow, but I do wish I could have seen madame as a sphinx.”
“Yes, that was a real good rig, but she’s a Spanish gypsy, and she can tell fortunes just as well in a basque and skirt.”
“She must have looked awfully funny,” said Edna. “I told the girls I didn’t care about seeing her, but I really did want to fearfully.”
“She was very well made up,” said Addie. “All you saw was just a real head on a table; there were books and bric-a-brac and flowers on the table, and this head right in the middle of them. There were curtains in front, and a man drew these on one side to show us there was no deception, and we seemed to be looking right under the table. Of course we were not allowed to step near.”
“Well, I am determined to have my fortune told, even if I can’t see her as a sphinx,” said Edna.
200 “I don’t believe you will get it told unless you bring Elfie.”
“I don’t see why she makes such a point of having Elfie come. It’s going to be a great bother! What did she say about it, anyway?”
“Well, I guess it is only some superstitious idea of hers about numbers. She told me a lot of stuff about a large sum of money she could get if she had a certain number, and the way to get the lucky number is to get a blonde orphan girl under six years old to be blindfolded and draw it out of a hundred others in a box.”
“O, what stuff!” said Edna. “That’s all bosh.”
“I suppose it is; but she’s awfully stubborn, and says she wont come out at all if she can’t have such a little thing as that done to oblige her.”
“Well, it was kind of nice in them to stay a day after the circus just for us, but I don’t see how it’s to be managed. Candace is sick, that’s one good thing; but that sneaky Mary Ann Stubbs is her guardian fiend and would tell of us quick as a wink if she saw us taking the child out of the yard.”
“I don’t think Marion is given to tale-telling,” said Addie, significantly, and Edna had the201 grace to color with shame at the memory of her own meanness in that matter of the composition when Marion refused to tell of her, for that, she knew, was in Addie’s mind as she spoke.
“Well, anyway, I don’t want the impertinent thing to know any thing about it. If I felt sure of Lily it would be all right. They will always leave Elfie with her any length of time; but Lily is queer sometimes, and I guess I’d better manage it myself.”
“I thought Lily was coming with us.”
“Lily, Katie, Delia, and Bell are all coming, and if Lily sees Elfie there with us she wont say any thing about it afterward, even if she does make a little fuss just at first; but I know she wont take her herself.”
“Well, manage it your own way. Instead of going home I’ll just walk down through the grove and meet you at the little iron gate. You must go right down as soon as recess begins, so as to have time to get through and back here to your dinner.”
There was no one but Addie at the little gate when the girls ran through the grove, but in a moment two bold-looking young women, very flashily dressed, appeared, walking leisurely toward them on the other side.
202 “There they come,” said Addie. “Have you got the key to the padlock, Edna?”
“I haven’t got the key that belongs to it, of course, but I have brought one that fits it perfectly well.”
“O, dear, suppose it shouldn’t?”
“Never fear, I’ve tried it before,” said Edna, nodding her head wisely and fitting the key into the lock, which it turned easily.
“These ladies are Madame Belotti and her sister,” said Addie, as a sort of introduction.
“But where is the spazinx?” asked Elfie, looking greatly disappointed.
“I am de sphinx, young lady,” said one of the women.
“But you’ve got legs and arms. Spazinxes don’t have any thing but heads an’ a big lace collar. I did see one in a picture.”
“I don’t have any ding but a head ven I is professional,” said the woman, affably, but glancing around hurriedly as if she feared a possible interruption, “but of course I can’t walk widout my legs.”
“But I don’t see how you pull them off and put them on again,” said Elfie, sidling away with some timidity from a creature whose anatomy was so foreign to the established usages of humanity,203 “and I don’t want my fortune told. I’d rather go back.”
“O, don’t be afraid,” said Madame Belotti, sweetly. “I have nice little girls of my own at home, and here’s my sister; she has lots of pretty dings in her bag. She’ll show dem to you while dese young ladies let me read deir palms.”
Elfie felt less dread of a person who made no pretension to being a sphinx, and was soon examining with great interest a box of trinkets which the woman told her were genuine gypsy-queen adornments, worn at gypsy courts on great occasions.
Meantime Madame Belotti was gazing with mysterious scrutiny upon the lines of Katie’s pretty pink palm and predicting a mosaic of ill and good fortune so nicely blended that Katie felt that her future life, as thus set before her, had little to embitter it.
“Now try mine,” said Lily, “and be sure you put in a trip to Europe, with a winter in Rome and another in Paris.”
“Dere is much pleasure for you, my pretty young lady,” said the prophetess, “and some pain to endure before the pleasure comes, but dere’s money and fame for you finally, and great prosperity and a long life wid somebody.”
204 “Why, there’s a mysterious somebody in every one’s hand, is there?” asked Lily. “I wonder who my somebody is.”
“A tall, fair man, wid a long mustache,” said the fortune teller, oracularly.
“Well,” said Lily, “you may keep that young man yourself, for of all things I hate tall, fair men. My papa is little and broad, and he’s my type of every thing good; and I wouldn’t marry a man who wasn’t just like him for the whole world.”
“O, Lily, do shut up!” whispered Edna. “You’ll make her angry, and then she wont finish.”
But madame seemed in no way disconcerted or offended by Lily’s trifling, and continued to promise her quite an extensive variety of experiences. Then Edna offered her hand with its too ample embellishment of rings, and madame gave them quite a little turn by the excitement she manifested on studying its interesting lines.
“A most wonderful hand, lady. I have never seen but one like it. It holds a destiny dat frightens me. Do I dare to tell you? Let me dink a moment.”
Here she grew so awful and mysterious in her manner, while she turned the hand one way and the other as if to get new light upon the doom205 there depicted, and the girls grew deeply absorbed in their attention, clustering close around her in forgetfulness of every thing else.
The air was heavy with the August noonday heat. Above in the grove the meeting branches hardly stirred. Even the birds and the insect world were still, and the only sound that broke upon the oppressive silence was the distant rush of water that fell over the little dam, half a mile away from them.
“I tinks I cannot tell you it all,” said the fortune-teller, raising her head and looking about her hurriedly. “Some young ladies when dey hears what is not good dey faints and goes on very bad, and deir friends makes a fuss and scolds de poor gypsy, who only tells what she reads; an’ it is not her fault if it is not good.”
“But I will not faint or make a fuss,” said Edna, looking pale and frightened. “I am not afraid.”
“No, you needn’t be,” said Lily, making an effort to throw off an uncomfortable feeling that the woman’s intense manner had given them all. “I don’t believe in fortune-telling any way.”
“But it is true. I have de power to see de future, to see de past too,” said the woman. “Shall I tell you all about your past life?”—this to Edna, who murmured an assent.
206 “Well, den, you haf live in fine house and had much fine dresses and jewels, and you haf lost a friend, and you haf lately had a letter.”
These shrewd guesses, based on the sight of Edna’s showy rings and very light mourning, seemed like very conclusive evidence that her father’s wealth and her grandmother’s death last year were entries in the book of fate that was open to the bold black eyes, and Edna became almost afraid to hear the dark prophecy that she was threatened with.
“’Tis a strange fate, very strange,” said the woman, again musing over the hand she held, but stealing an anxious glance at a little nickel watch that hung by her side.
“I will hear it,” said Edna, tragically, nerving herself for the worst.
“Nonsense,” said Lily, catching a glimpse of her ghastly, agitated face. “You are taking all this stuff in dead earnest, Edna, and it will make you sick. O, dear, I wish we hadn’t come! Mrs. Abbott will be so displeased! Come, girls, let’s go right home;” and she pulled out her pocket-book. “You shall have money for each of us, Madame Belotti, but I think we don’t want to hear any more solemn truths to-day.”
Edna, who was rather a nervous girl, was beginning207 to cry, and the others, frightened lest she should treat them to a fit of hysterics such as she had once in a thunder-storm, and make it difficult to get her home quietly, began to soothe her and try to coax her back to the gate. Madame seemed a little indifferent about the money Lily and Katie fumbled in their purses to collect. Suddenly Katie exclaimed:
“Elfie! Why, where is the child?”
“Gone back into the grove, probably,” said Addie, quietly, who felt calmer than the others because less responsible.
“She must be with Madame Belotti’s sister,” said Lily, not yet feeling very much worried. “Where is she, madame?”
The sphinx was thrusting the money into her pocket-book and bowing as if to say farewell. Her face wore an anxious look, but she replied very civilly, pointing in the opposite direction from the road that led to the station:
“De little one is all safe. My sister gets her to draw for us some lucky numbers out of a bag, so we may get a great fortune from dem. De drawing must be made unter a red oak-tree and in de sound of running water. Dat is very important. And hark! I hears running water off dere, and as we walks up I say to my sister,208 ‘Some water-fall is down dat way, and you must take de little girl dere to draw de numbers from de bag.’ Shall I go look for her, young ladies, or vill you go yourselves and find her unter some big red oak-tree near de falling water?”
The girls were running down the hill toward the little mill before madame quite finished speaking, but that oracular person did not seem disturbed at being left. She gave one glance at Edna, who, after a moment of hesitation, rather sulkily followed the others, and fleetly disappeared in the other direction.
“How does it happen,” said Mrs. Abbott, as she carved the roast beef at dinner, “that there are so many vacant places at the table?”
“I don’t understand it at all,” said Miss Blake. “No one has asked to be excused, and irregularity at meals has never been a fault of any of our household.”
“Elfie is missing too,” said Mrs. Abbott, “but she is undoubtedly up-stairs in the room with Candace.”
“She is in Katie Ashley’s charge for school hours this week,” said Miss Blake.
“True, but where is Katie? Does any one at the table know where Katie and the other absent ones are?”
But no one knew, and Mrs. Abbott, with some displeasure expressed on her face, sent one of the maids up-stairs to search for the absentees, while the dinner proceeded in uncomfortable silence till interrupted just as the plates of the first course were being removed by the entrance210 of Lily, who ran into the room with a white face, glanced at Elfie’s vacant place, and cried out apprehensively:
“O, I did hope she might have come back alone! We cannot find her anywhere!”
“Who are you talking about?” asked Mrs. Abbott, turning very pale and speaking sternly. “Is it Elfie you cannot find?”
Then Lily, before them all, gave a rapid history of the deliberate disobedience, their interview with the fortune-teller, and Elfie’s disappearance.
Mrs. Abbott heard it to the end in silence, but her face looked haggard and worried as she herself led the way to a thorough search in every direction. The other S. C. girls had nothing to add to Lily’s story, but huddled together regretting bitterly, now that it was too late, their disobedience, which had caused all this trouble.
Inquiries at the station showed that the fortune teller and her sister, with a man in attendance, took the train at 1:15, but as they did not get their tickets it could not be learned at what place they would leave the cars. They reached the station only just in time for the train, which they boarded instantly. They were loaded down with shawls and packages, but no one saw a child in their company.
211 The proprietor of the livery-stable said two ladies who had stopped a day behind the circus hired a carriage of him, but on meeting a gentleman friend dismissed him with orders to meet them and take charge of his carriage at the arrival of the 1:15 train. He was a moment late, but found his horses and the empty carriage standing back of the station and the young man just following the ladies into the cars. They had paid him more than he asked when dismissing him.
It was some hours before another train left, and Mrs. Abbott, in sad perplexity, went to her old friend Mr. Mason, the bank president, who was also Addie’s father, who advised telegraphing to Troy to have the in-coming train searched for the party, which they described as nearly as possible.
It was not till Mr. Mason spoke incidentally of the girl who brought the check in the morning that Mrs. Abbott remembered she had not seen Marion since sending her to him.
Going home again she sought her at once in Candace’s room. The poor woman had but just learned of Elfie’s disappearance, and her anguish was pitiful to see. She rose from her bed at once, conquering the pain that had kept her a212 prisoner there, and declaring she would go in search of her child.
“O, where, where was Miss Marion,” she asked, “not to be looking after my pet?”
It had become certain by that time that Marion had also disappeared, and, though there was no ground for hoping it, Candace instantly declared that Marion had gone after her darling.
Mr. Mason and Mrs. Abbott were at the station waiting for the cars when a telegram was brought to her from the office within the building.
The brakeman on the express-train stood at the door of the last car looking through the glass at the scenery which constant travel had made so familiar to him that he was hardly conscious of its wonderful beauty, but a downward glance showed him something much less common, and his face became expressive of great alertness as, uttering one or two words of greater strength and force than his ordinary language conveyed, he opened the door and let himself out upon the platform.
“Well,” he said, looking at Marion critically, “for an outside passenger may be you’ve got the right kind of a look, but it strikes me if you’d remembered to put on your bunnit and brushed yourself up a little you’d have seemed more respectable. Where are you going, my pretty maid, and where did you come from?”
“I got on at the last station,” said Marion, seeing only kindness on his face in spite of his gruff tones. “I was too late, and I had to jump214 on after you started, and I lost my hat getting over a fence trying to catch the train.”
“Well,” said the brakeman, slowly, “stealing rides aint a healthy way of traveling, and the company’s disposed to fight men and boys who try it; but I don’t think they ever thought about a girl gettin’ on a-flyin’ and ridin’ for nothin’. I suppose you’ll have to be put off like the rest of them. Likely the rule works same way for hers as hims, and the directions says, ‘Put him off immejiate.’”
“Please don’t put me off—please, please don’t,” said Marion. “I didn’t want to steal a ride, but I had a reason for wanting to get on this train, and so, though I was too late, I jumped on it after it left the depot.”
“A very dangerous thing to do,” said the brakeman, soberly, “and it’s more than a wonder you war’n’t killed.”
“You were not going so awfully fast,” said Marion, “but I’m sorry I’ve broken any rules or done any thing you don’t like. I have no ticket, but can’t I pay my way without one?”
“You can pay the conductor, but I think the first thing to be done is to get you inside. It wouldn’t take much to blow you off this platform.”
215 He opened the door and gave the girl a seat. The car was not crowded, and, being seated so far back, only two or three passengers seemed to notice her entrance. Among these was a tall, angular woman, who put on an appearance of great astonishment at seeing a bare-headed passenger brought in from nowhere. She gazed steadily at Marion for a while, and seemed about to question her, but contented herself by shaking her head at the ceiling and ejaculating, “Well, I never did!”
Presently, the man having gone, Marion bent over and executed some mysterious movements which culminated in her bringing to light a crisp new bill.
This time the lady said, “Did I ever?” addressing her exclamation, as before, to the car-roof.
“It cannot be wrong to use it,” Marion was saying to herself. “I shall be put off the train if I do not pay my way, and then perhaps no one can ever find Elfie.”
Presently the conductor came through the car, looking keenly to right and left for any new face. His eye fell upon Marion, and, looking rather curiously at her disarranged dress, he demanded her ticket.
216 “I have no ticket,” said the girl, “but I have money to pay my fare, if you will tell me how much it is.”
“Where are you going to?”
That very natural and proper question was appalling to Marion. She hesitated a moment, thinking very fast how she should surmount the difficulty which had unexpectedly arisen, then answered his question, Yankee fashion, with another:
“What does it cost to go to the end of the line?”
“Three dollars to go to Troy.”
“Then please sell me a ticket for Troy,” said Marion, handing him a five-dollar bill, and watching him anxiously while he looked at it scrutinizingly before handing her two dollars and a little certificate upon which he informed her she could reclaim five cents if she offered it at a station; Marion cared very little for that just then, but she did care for the check he gave her, with the names of all the stopping-places printed on the back.
The car was full of people with their backs toward the door Marion had entered, and no one had noticed her except those in the farthest back seats. Her appearance excited some remark217 for a few moments, but no one showed any special curiosity about her except the thin lady in the seat opposite hers. She indeed watched her so closely that she could hardly give any attention to the red wool crochet-work that occupied her fingers. There was something that Marion at first thought rather forbidding about her sharp black eyes, but around her mouth was a pleasant, comfortable expression that made it seem quite natural that she should after a while lean over toward Marion, and stretch out her hand with a big red apple in it.
Marion took it with rather a greedy feeling, for she had missed her dinner and was beginning to feel quite hungry.
“Mebbe you’d better set over here by me,” said the donor, pleased to see her apple so well appreciated; “you’re a-settin’ right inter the sun.”
“How beautifully you crochet!” said Marion, gratefully taking the cooler seat.
“Well, I’ve done enough to do it middlin’ well.”
“What is it to be?” asked Marion, not caring much, but feeling that her companion wanted to talk.
“It’s a Tam o’ Shanter; this is the fifteenth one I’ve made for the new church organ.”
218 “What does the church organ want of them?” asked Marion, so busy thinking she hardly knew what she said.
“You seem to be awful dumb, for your size,” said the crocheter. “The ladies of the church have undertaken to buy an organ, an’ we’re takin’ every way to do it; we’ve had strawberry festivals an’ clam suppers, an’ a passel-bag, an’ a guess-cake, an’ even the children had a parlor fair and raised twenty-five dollars. I get a dollar an’ fifteen cents for these, an’ takin’ out for the yarn I buy at wholesale they give a profit of one dollar each for the organ.”
As she talked she was opening a traveling-bag from which she took a finished cap, a dark blue one, and held it out for Marion’s admiration.
“This,” she continued, “is one Cousin Sarah Bly, in Albany, ordered for one of her girls, and I’m going there on a visit.”
A sudden thought struck Marion.
“O, wouldn’t you sell that one to me? Perhaps your cousin would wait till you could make another, and I do need something to cover my head.”
The woman looked at her thoughtfully.
“I made sure when I set eyes on you that219 you’d run away,” she said, “for no young girl’s mother’d let her go travelin’ without a hat or bunnit. But you don’t seem a wild sort, an’ mebbe you had a good reason for makin’ off; you may hev been a bound girl for all I know. However, I don’t know’s I’ve any objection to lettin’ you have the Tam. It’ll be that much extra for the organ.”
So the purchase was made, and Marion looked much less conspicuous with her head covered.
“I lost my hat as I ran,” explained Marion, “and the bushes caught my dress and tore all these places.”
“I’ve got a ‘huzif’ with needles and thread,” said the woman, “and you might sew up the worst of the tears. There’s pieces gone out of some of ’em, but you can cobble them up into some kind of shape an’ help yourself to look more like decent traveling folks. I don’t hold to finery on the road, but I hate rags either abroad or to home.”
Marion thanked her joyfully, but while she busied herself with the rents she pondered on the strangeness of hearing from some one else the infelicities of speech that she was beginning to be quite emancipated from herself; for no one meeting her now would believe that she had only220 lately expressed herself in a more uncouth dialect than her fellow-passenger used. Then, as the train slowed up at a station, she became wildly anxious for fear the party she was pursuing might leave the cars unnoticed by her.
She felt that it would be very imprudent for her to let herself be seen by Elfie, so she went to the steps at the back of the car and eagerly scanned the people who were getting off. Then, as she came back to her seat, it again occurred to her that she could not even be certain that Elfie was on the train, and this journey of hers might be a foolish exploit which she could hardly explain satisfactorily to Mrs. Abbott.
“You’ve got somethin’ on your mind,” said the thin, crocheting lady, as Marion resumed her seat, “an’ ef I was you, ef it was any wrong-doin’, I’d think twice fore I kept on with it.”
There was something honest and persuasive in her tones, and Marion felt that she was a friend; so, obeying a sudden impulse, she exclaimed, after a searching look into the bright eyes that were looking rather deploringly at her,
“O, I do wish you would help me!”
“Well, my name is Hannah Amandy Manning, and I’m first cousin to Minister Jones’s wife, an’ I teach a class in Sunday-school, an’ I’ve had the deestrict school for three summers. I aint a married woman with children of my own, but I’ve got a general interest in all young folks, an’ I believe I’m kinder motherly, if I be an old maid. I’ve told you now who I am. If you like to make a clean breast of it—for I know you’ve got somethin’ out o’ the common to tell—I’ll give you advice accordin’ to my judgment, or I’ll help you out o’ your scrape, whatever it is, providin’ you’ve got the right kind o’ principles about you. I aint goin’ in for any schemes for leavin’ a country home to seek your fortin’ in a big city, that’s come out o’ readin’ improper literatoor.”
It was not like Marion to confide in a stranger, but she felt the need of help, and her instincts had guided her correctly in asking it of Miss Manning. The keen bright eyes were the windows222 of a faithful heart which warmed generously to the brave girl as she heard all of the story Marion thought it best to tell her.
“Well, I never!” “Sho!” and “I never did!” at intervals, were her comments as the story proceeded. When it was done she grasped her long chin in her right hand, and only saying, “Lemme think a minute,” gazed for some time at the flying landscape.
Marion, too, was thinking, wondering what they were doing at school, what they would think, and wondering if Mrs. Abbott would blame her for making use of the money intrusted to her. Her reverie ended in such a long sigh that Miss Manning turned around with a jerk.
“What now?” she demanded.
“Nothing, only I’m so troubled about spending Mrs. Abbott’s money.”
“Well, you needn’t be, if your Mrs. Abbott is the woman you make out she is. She would not spare money in such a cause. You aint told me how much you’ve got, and I’m glad of it; it shows you’ve got some worldly wisdom, and, whatever happens, don’t you tell any body else you’ve got a cent. This world’s full of villains, and there aint one in a thousand that’s to be trusted, and them that looks like saints is more’n223 likely to be wuss sinners than them that seems to be ragamuffins.”
“I trust you,” said Marion.
“Well, you don’t know as you’d oughter. How can you tell this minute but I’m one of the very folks that’s plotting to get hold of that child?”
“I want you to get hold of her, or help me to do it,” said Marion, with a bright smile lighting up her worried face for a moment.
“Good for you!” said Miss Manning, with a smile that was good to see, if less charming than the girl’s.
“Now, I’ve been thinking it over,” she continued, growing very sober, “and this is the way it stands. You don’t even know for certain the child is on the train?”
“No; but I am sure she must be.”
“Well, I guess she is; I feel it in my bones, as it were, that she is, an’ I’m kinder witchy about feeling things, but you can’t go through the cars looking at the folks to find out, for even if them circus fortune-tellers didn’t recognize you the child would likely holler out as soon as she seen you, an’ those folks’d get excited an’ try some other dodge. They might even try to get you arrested for trying to entice a child away from ’em.”
224 “Yes; I should have gone through the cars as soon as I paid my fare if I hadn’t been afraid of that, and that is why I wanted your help. I was going to ask the conductor if he had seen them, but I was afraid he might tell them some one was asking for them. Do you think you could go through and look for them, Miss Manning, if I told you just how they look?”
“Certainly; I was just a-goin’ to propose it. I never have walked through a train while ’twas goin’ jigglety-jiggle, but I guess I can do it. Mebbe it’s against the law to go out of a car while it’s in motion, but if that conductor tries to have me took up it’ll be the worst for him, for I can prove I’m a respectable woman, no matter where I am.”
So showing her utter confidence in Marion by leaving in her charge her traveling-bag and beloved crochet-work, Miss Manning, making wild clutches at the seat-backs as the swaying car threw her from side to side, began her exploring expedition through the train.
It seemed a long time to Marion before she returned, but the moment she re-entered the car her sharp eyes sought the girl’s, and the quick little nod she gave said plainly that she had found the objects of her search.
225 She was a good deal excited by the part she was playing in the adventure, but she would not be hurried, and, anxious as Marion was to hear all she had to tell, she had to wait till Miss Manning had re-tied her “bunnit,” straightened her shawl, and re-adjusted the overskirt that had been pulled awry by contact with various impediments.
“I seen ’em,” she said at last; “two red-cheeked women and a scary young man with cabbage roses on their bunnits; dressed to kill he was, in ready-made clothes lots too big for him. He’s got a nose like a poll-parrot’s beak, and they’ve got a child with ’em. But, land sakes, it aint much more’n a baby. Poor little creetur, it’s asleep on one seat with its head on a woman’s lap. It’s got a lace cap on its head and a white dress with blue sash. It’s as pale as a ghost, an’ there’s great black rings round its eyes. I should really say that they’d been givin’ it something to make it sleep, it was such a heavy sleep, and the child looked so peeked an’ queer.”
“O, dear!” said Marion, struggling with a sob. “I must get her away from them. I am sure it must be Elfie. She’s a tiny thing with a sweet little face and long wavy hair.”
“There wa’n’t much hair showin’, for she had226 her head covered all up with an embroidered cap tied under her chin.”
“Elfie had a hat on, I think,’ said Marion, looking puzzled.
“Well, what of that? You had a hat on too, I s’pose, when you started, but you’ve got on a Tam now.”
“O, yes; they may have put on the cap for a disguise. Well, what next, Miss Manning? Could you find out where they were going?”
“They had one seat turned back so they faced each other,” continued Miss Manning, “and right in front of them was a vacant seat. I slipped into it and gave my whole mind to trying to catch what they said. One of the women had the back of her head close to mine, and as she couldn’t lean forward without disturbing the child I could hear what she said pretty well. It seems they are going to Troy, then to New York, and then, after the hue and cry is over, they are going somewhere else. I picked out that much from their talk. But that isn’t all. After we stopped the last time the man hailed the conductor as he went through and asked for stop-over checks, saying one of the ladies was sick, and he thought they’d have to put up over night at Blockville. After they got the stop-overs227 they seemed to get at odds among themselves about whether to use them or not; one of the women said it would be safer and they could take the owl-train on in the night; the other one said they might meet some one, and she was for going on. The man told her if any one was coming they’d come down on the six-o’clock accommodation this evening and go past them at Blockville, and besides that some one might telegraph to have this train searched at Troy.
“I came away then,” continued Miss Manning, “for they didn’t seem to be coming to any decision, and I thought we’d better be making some counter-plans.”
“Yes,” said Marion, “I ought to get a stop-over check too, for if they get out I must get out too. It wont do to lose sight of them.”
“If you do get off I had better telegraph to Mrs. Abbott for you as soon as I get to Troy,” said Miss Manning, “and tell her you’re on the track.”
“O, how good in you to think of it!” said Marion. “Tell her I’ll telegraph myself when I can get a chance.”
“How shall I word it not to scare ’em to death? I never writ a dispatch in my life.”
“Nor I either,” said Marion, “but I know228 you want to say as few words as possible. If I had a pencil and paper I would try.”
Miss Manning’s traveling-bag supplied both, and their combined genius, inexperienced as they were, produced this rather obscure telegram:
“Marion Stubbs is after them. They’ve got Elfie. Wait till she sends for you.
It did not seem very clear to Marion, but she hardly knew how to change it without offending Miss Manning, who seemed highly pleased with it; so she wrote the address beneath and gave her a half dollar for expenses, neither of them having any idea what a message ought to cost.
The next station was Colby, and, feeling sure that Blockville or Troy would be the destination of the party, Marion did not look out for them, but idly watched the group of passengers who were about to get in. Suddenly there appeared upon the platform, making quick way to the waiting-room, one of the black-eyed women with a child in her arms much wrapped in a long dark cloak, followed closely by Madame Belotti and the man.
“O, look, Miss Manning!” she exclaimed.229 “They are going to stop here and I haven’t my stop-over check!”
“Never mind that, child,” said Miss Manning; “jump out quick. Mebbe your ticket’ll do any way; ask ’em at the office ’fore you get on the train again, and don’t worry if you have to lose it. Mrs. Abbott wont care what you spend in such a case. Good-bye, dear, don’t you lose my direction, and write to me sure as soon as you can.”
Marion sprang off, and, waving a good-bye to the new friend, she really felt wonderfully sorry to leave, mingled with the crowd of idlers on the platform, apparently absorbed like them in watching the outgoing train. She dared not go into the waiting-room, but, walking slowly up and down on the platform, she could see what was going on within.
Elfie was sleeping, and the woman, who had taken a seat, still holding her, had thrown a gray veil over her face. Presently she stood up, and, giving the child to the man to carry, they all came out upon the platform, walked to the end of it, and, stepping into a hack, were driven slowly up the road.
Marion started briskly after them, easily keeping the carriage in sight as it climbed the long hill to the court-house. There it turned and, gradually increasing its speed, soon distanced her. For a moment the girl was nonplused, then a little thought re-assured her. The people231 had probably stopped to elude pursuit; they would waste no time, but most likely go on, as Miss Manning had heard them say they intended, in the owl-train. Probably they knew some one with whom they could stay in Colby, and so had suddenly given up the Blockville plan. She would go back to the station before any other train came and wait for them, and perhaps she could learn where they had gone from the hackman. She was sure she should know him again.
The legend, “Coffee, Ice-cream, and Stewed Oysters” caught her eyes as she passed through the street that Colbyites called the business part of their modest little town, and made her remember that she was very hungry, and, stepping into the little saloon, she ordered oysters, coffee, and bread and butter, which she ate with great relish, wishing that her conscience allowed her to finish her feast with ice-cream, her favorite delicacy. But while she felt sure she was justified in spending all the money she needed to assist in the pursuit of Elfie, her sturdy honesty would not justify her in indulging herself in things that were not necessities, so she finished her frugal meal and walked into the little shop in front to pay her bill. There was a counter there with three divisions respectively devoted to cakes,232 candies, and pies. Among the cakes were some shiny brown rusks, and remembering the long hours that she must spend waiting for the owl-train at the railway station Marion ordered half a dozen of them put in paper for her.
A man lounged in as she stood there, and laying down a dime helped himself to a quarter of a pie, making some jovial remark as he did so to the young girl in charge.
“Where you been?” asked the girl, who seemed very willing to chat with him. “I saw you taking a load of folks up from the train, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” replied the man, with his mouth full of pie; “some folks went up to old Warner’s.”
“Well, I declare! Why, Warner aint had no company before since his son went off!”
“I kinder think this was his son. He had a hooked nose like the old man. I never saw the son, for he went off before I come to Colby, but I’ve heard he had one.”
“Yes, he did; and he wa’n’t good for much either.”
To make an excuse for staying, Marion selected two or three cakes to be added to her rusks, with great deliberation, listening eagerly, for she saw the empty hack at the door and made sure233 this was the man who had taken Elfie and her captors from the station.
“How long is Warner’s company going to stay, do you s’pose?” asked the girl, cutting another pie in obedience to a sign from the man.
“That’s the funniest part,” said the driver. “They told me to come for them at half past one to-night, so they could take the two-o’clock train. I says to the fellow when he give me my fare, says I, ‘You make a short visit to your folks.’ ‘Yes, but the baby seems feverish, and we’ve got to get on to Sing Sing, so we can have our own doctor,’ says he. ‘All right,’ says I, ‘I’ll be back for you in time.’”
Marion needed to hear no more; so she paid her bill and walked out. She amused herself walking about the streets, and went into a dry-goods store and bought herself a small supply of collars and cuffs, a pair of gloves, a crochet needle, and some yarn and a little purse. She was too industrious by nature to feel happy without work, and so restless under the present circumstances that she thought some employment might help to keep her calm.
She went back to the station and occupied herself trying to recall the fan-pattern that Edna and Addie were crocheting for skirts. She succeeded234 very readily, and as the hours passed on she worked quite a long piece of pretty lace, and her interest in making it made the long time of waiting pass very comfortably.
When the late afternoon train passed she ran to the platform and eagerly gazed at the car-windows, thinking there was just a possibility of seeing some one from Coventry school.
But there was no one there, and she opened her parcel and ate her rusks and cake with a glass of water, and, getting a seat near the light, began her crocheting again. At half past nine the up freight came by, followed in half an hour by the passenger train from Troy. The station-master, who had looked curiously at Marion several times, then came and told her he was going to shut up the depot.
“O, dear!” she cried, “I was sure there was a train at two o’clock to-night.”
“So there is, and I come down and open the place ten minutes before it comes. You ought to have taken the eight-o’clock train if you wanted to go to Troy.”
“I don’t know what to do,” said poor Marion. “Couldn’t I stay here?”
“I’d have to lock you in,” said the man, doubtfully. “Aint you got no place to go to?”
235 “No; but I don’t mind staying if you will let me; I can crochet, and that will keep me from getting lonesome.”
“But I’ll have to put out the lights; there’s orders against leaving a light.”
Being shut up alone in the dark was not a pleasant prospect, but Marion was resolved for Elfie’s sake to shrink from nothing. Still, it was a pale little face with trembling lips that the station-master glanced at as with a lantern in his hand he went out of the door.
He was not a sympathetic man, but the sight made him say cheerily:
“Well, sis, I’ll come back a little ahead of time so’s to shorten up the hours for you. If I had a home of my own I’d offer to take you along with me, but I’m one of ten fellows in a mill boarding-house, an’ it aint no place for a girl.”
Marion tried to thank him, but her voice didn’t seem very steady. She was very near to tears, but she wouldn’t let them come.
“Look a-here, Mary Ann,” she said, dropping into the unconventional form of speech which had once made her so laughed at, “you aint such a great account that there’s anyone comin’ here a purpose to bother you, an’ the Lord aint236 goin’ to give up lookin’ after you just ’cause the lights is out.”
Then kneeling down on the hard floor in front of one of the seats Marion prayed long and earnestly for success on her mission, for guidance and care.
“I think I can sleep now,” she said to herself, so soothed and tranquilized as she rose from her knees that it no longer seemed dreadful to be left there alone.
The moon was rising, and there was light enough for her to pick out a corner seat which was more roomy than the others, and, curling her feet under her, she soon forgot her trials in a sweet, healthy sleep which bridged the time so thoroughly that, when the station-master’s key turned in the door, she thought he had come back for some forgotten duty.
“All right, sis?” he asked, rather anxiously, flashing the lantern around the room.
“O, yes, thank you, sir; and I’ve had a nice sleep,” was the answer, as Marion slipped her feet upon the floor hastily and began to walk about.
There was the sound of wheels not long after, and, suspecting what it meant, she slipped out of the waiting-room and, standing in the deep237 shadows of the building, watched the sphinx and her party arrive.
The man sprang out first and said something so softly she could not hear, but she heard Elfie’s voice fretfully objecting to something. The man seemed to be trying to induce her to come to him, and finally reached in and lifted her out gently. Marion almost screamed as the light from a window fell on the little head, from which the beautiful long curls had been closely shorn, and lit up the shivering figure that was now dressed in boy’s clothes.
“Come along with me, Johnny, boy,” said Madame Belotti, jumping hastily from the carriage and lifting the seeming boy in her arms.
“He needs more medicine,” said the man, significantly, “some nice, sweet medicine to make Johnny sleep good.”
Then going into the empty waiting-room he carefully dropped something from a vial upon a lump of sugar, which the woman persuaded Elfie to take.
Marion, watching through the window, felt sure they were drugging the child to make her sleep, and was in agonies of fear lest they should give her a dangerous quantity. The poor child looked sick, too; grief and fear and perhaps the238 frequent administration of the quieting drops had made her pale and dejected. She seemed very docile, and laid her head on the woman’s shoulder as directed and soon fell asleep.
A veil was thrown over her face before they took her into the car and laid her carefully down upon the seat with her head, as before, resting on the lap of one of the women.
Marion dared not risk stopping on that car, but ran quickly through it, after seeing them seated, and took her place in the next.
When morning came, still keeping out of Elfie’s sight, she kept watch of the party, who seemed to have made another change in their plans; for instead of going on to New York they took a hack on reaching Troy and drove to the Secor House. Marion heard the direction given to the driver, who drove so deliberately that even without running all the way she kept them in sight.
There was an unpretending restaurant opposite the Secor House, where, just as Marion reached it, a middle-aged man with a delightfully good-natured look upon his rather plain face was taking down the shutters.
“Is it too early for me to have some breakfast in your saloon?” she asked. “If I just had a glass of milk and some bread it would be enough.”
“We don’t generally serve meals ’fore eight o’clock,” said the man, looking at her keenly but kindly; “but if that’s all you want, and you don’t mind takin’ it settin’ up to the counter, why, come in.”
Marion felt quite sure the party were intending to seclude themselves by day and travel by night, but she knew not how to keep them in sight. While she was thinking about it as she sat by the counter eating and only half listening to the talkative saloon-keeper the sound of a blind thrown back fell on her ear, and, glancing up at240 the shabby hotel opposite, she saw the woman we have known as Madame Belotti turning away from an upper window.
“O, Mr. Jones,” she said, having learned the good-natured restaurant-keeper’s name from the highly embellished business cards which filled a tray on the counter, “could I get a room over there in that hotel, do you think?”
“Of course, if you’ve got the money to pay for it.”
“But I thought may be they wouldn’t take in a very young girl without any older person with her. They might be afraid I wouldn’t pay, you know.”
“Secor House folks aint so dreadful particular as the tony hotels,” said Mr. Jones, “and if you really want to be accommodated over there I’ll step in myself and speak to the clerk. I know him very well.”
“O, thank you, sir; and would you mind asking for a fourth-story room for me, and will you please pay for me till to-morrow morning?” and she handed him her new little purse in which she had put five dollars and some change.
“All right; you’re very sensible; it will be cheaper than the second or third story,” said Mr. Jones, marching off on his errand and leaving241 Mrs. Jones, who had just come in through a back door, in charge.
He soon came back announcing that he had secured a small room on the fourth floor and the young lady might go to it as soon as she liked. He handed her back the purse, remarking that she was too trustful.
“It happens I’m honest,” he said, “but if you go passing it ’round that way you’ll likely get sorry ’fore you’re glad;” which sentence seemed to please himself so much that he repeated it several times at short intervals with many sagacious nods of his gray head, while his wife was making a little conversation with Marion.
It was a back room, as Mr. Jones had said, and, as nearly as Marion could tell when a slatternly servant-maid conducted her to it, nearly opposite the one where the woman had thrown back the blind. There was an open transom over that door, and as soon as Marion found herself alone she turned the key, climbed on a chair, and opened the transom over her own door.
All through the long morning she stood unwearied at her post, balancing herself on the back of the chair to make herself tall enough, hearing the sound of voices in the room opposite, but unable to distinguish any words. Once,242 indeed, she heard Elfie sobbing softly, and the sound wrung her heart. The child seemed hard to soothe, but after a time the sobs gradually ceased, and the listener imagined the little thing had fallen asleep again.
Soon after there was a knock at the door, and Marion sprang softly from her chair, and, opening it, found a hall-boy.
“They sent me up to tell you,” he began, as soon as he saw her, “that the 11:55 train you ordered the carriage for is took off, and you can’t go till 1:40.”
“I think you have come to the wrong room,” said Marion.
“Number 39, fourth story,” said the boy.
“This is Number 38,” said Marion.
“O, then, I’m on the wrong side,” said the boy. “I aint been here but one day, and I got turned round. Number 39 must be across the hall.”
He knocked at the opposite door, and Marion, with her door imperceptibly ajar, saw the hooked-nosed young man, after a moment of conversation, come out and walk rapidly down the hall with the boy. He came back in half an hour, and Marion, from the position she had resumed at the transom, could hear tones of angry disappointment243 from the women, to whom he seemed to be telling something. Once she thought she caught the words:
“It will make us miss the express in New York!”
She felt convinced that they were going on the train the boy spoke of, but she had no way of telling whether it was a day or night train. The noon whistles were blowing then, so she would not have to wait long to find out.
The next two hours were very agitating. One and another of the party opposite kept leaving their rooms, but as they never all left together she thought probably they went down to dine.
A waiter brought up a tray with dinner for the sick boy, Marion heard him say, as he knocked on the door.
At last she heard a distant clock striking three, and knew their 1:40 was a night-train. She ventured then to go over to the restaurant for her own dinner.
She was hungry enough to long to go into the saloon at the back and order a comfortable dinner, but she wanted to keep the hotel door in sight, so she asked good-natured Mrs. Jones, who was now on duty in place of her husband, if she might have bread and milk at the counter again,244 and, receiving permission, took her seat where she could see every one who went in and out of the Secor House.
Mrs. Jones suggested sandwiches and pie as becoming adjuncts to a counter lunch, and Marion gladly partook of them and ordered a package of the former tied up for future needs.
She lingered as long as she could over her lunch, quite enjoying the company of Mrs. Jones, who asked no questions, but comfortably gave quite a biography of herself.
It was not an hour when customers were plenty, so there were few interruptions. Marion felt so desolate and lonely that being with this nice motherly woman was very cheering, and she felt as safe about Elfie there, with the window of her room in sight, as she did when in the hotel; so, seeing Mrs. Jones’s futile efforts to keep the glasses on her broad nose while she took a few stitches in Mr. Jones’s socks, she asked permission to take the work out of her hands, and soon found herself comfortably seated behind the counter on a low chair close by the large window, with a basket of stockings in her lap, cheerfully bridging the appalling chasms in Mr. Jones’s neglected gray socks with blue darning cotton, that being the only color afforded by the basket.
245 She worked till it was too dark to see the opposite house readily, and, taking a paper of candy which Mrs. Jones gratefully insisted on giving her with a kiss, went back to her room on the fourth floor.
Some one had brought in a pitcher of water and had lit her gas, so she sat down and tried to keep herself composed by crocheting on her wool lace.
There was no way of finding out the time, but after some hours the house grew very still and she felt sure it was late. Mrs. Jones had told her they kept the saloon open till twelve, an hour later than they would, she said, if they did not live there in the building.
Crossing the big hall there was a narrow one, with a front window in the end, and two or three times, when Marion grew very lonely, she turned down her light and stole down to this window, taking some comfort in seeing the bright light shining opposite and knowing that friendly people were almost within call.
On her last trip to gather this small comfort she found the saloon dark, and the deep shadow cast by the shed-roof above the door made it seem black as the entrance to a cavern. The247 sight made her feel lonely and forsaken, but the darkness told her twelve o’clock had passed and the time was coming near when she must follow Elfie. She could find the station, she thought, even if the carriage went too fast for her; but it was frightful to think of going through the lonely city streets at that hour of the night.
“I will not think about it,” she said to herself. “God is in the dark as well as in the light. He will take care of me, and for Elfie’s sake I can do any thing.”
There were sounds of movement in the room opposite, and Marion, who had long before turned out her light to avoid observation and taken her position on the chair again, listened patiently at the transom.
After a while she heard the man leave the room softly and go down-stairs, and then an occasional fretful sound from Elfie, as if she was being roused from sleep. The man came back presently, and Marion heard him say as he re-entered the room:
“The carriage has come. It is too soon, but we had better go.”
Marion softly opened her door a half inch then, and through the crack saw one of the women put Elfie carefully into the man’s arms,248 telling him to sit down on the sofa in the hall till she put on her hat; then, with the door open, she turned up the gas—probably they had left the room dark to keep Elfie asleep—and began to arrange her hair hurriedly at the glass.
The other woman was rapidly packing some things into a bag. In the hall close by Marion’s room was an old hair-cloth sofa, and, cautiously opening her door a trifle farther, she saw the man sitting there with Elfie sleeping in his arms. In a moment he seemed suddenly to remember something important, and, carefully laying the child, still asleep, down upon the sofa, he walked quickly back to the room, while the door, which he moved in passing along, closed behind him.
A wild thought leaped into Marion’s mind.
“O, dare I? shall I?” she asked herself. Then, with a silent cry in her heart for help from God, she sprang into the hall, lifted the heavily sleeping child in her arms, and was back in her own room with her in an instant. She laid her gently on the bed and locked the door, with her head swimming and her heart beating so madly it seemed to rise clear up in her throat and nearly strangle her.
“What next? what next?” she kept asking herself as she stood trembling by the door,249 thinking, perhaps, it might be soon broken down and some rapid and terrible vengeance taken upon her.
In a few moments there was a smothered commotion in the hall. They had missed Elfie and were looking wildly about for her. At first they evidently thought she had roused herself and wandered off, and they searched halls and stairs. At last there was a sound of rapid feet on the stairs, and the clerk, in some excitement, followed the man up to Number 39, exclaiming in less guarded tones than the others were using that the thing was impossible; no one could or would have interfered with the child.
Then, in answer to some proposition, Marion heard him say indignantly:
“What! Rout up all our boarders at this hour of the night? No, sir, not for any money would I do it! There’s been too much noise made already.”
But at last he seemed to consent, and himself knocked at every door, apologizing for the disturbance, asking if any one had seen a little boy that a traveler had lost.
The inquiry seemed very startling, and many people left their rooms with cloaks or ulsters thrown about them to gather particulars of the250 strange disappearance. Marion felt sure that Elfie had received, in preparation for a long journey, a large dose of the quieting drops, so with little fear of waking her she lifted her from the bed and laid her, with a pillow under her head, upon the floor close by the wall under the bed, first moving it away, and then, as silently as she could, rolling it back to its place, thus entirely concealing the child, who never stirred through it all.
Then she jumped into bed herself, and, when the expected inquiry came, called out sleepily:
“No; I have seen no little boy.”
Even as she spoke the child under the bed turned uneasily and groaned. A cold perspiration bathed Marion from head to foot. She thought all was lost, but there were people talking excitedly in the hall, and the small sound was drowned by the large.
The landlord, Marion learned by some remarks called out by his appearance, had now joined the party.
“What right has any one to make such a disturbance?” he asked, irritably. “If your son is really missing, madam, then the proper way for us will be to summon a detective. I can get one here in ten minutes by the telephone.”
It is not probable that Madame Belotti wished251 for the services of a detective, even in view of the calamity which had befallen her, for she said hastily:
“I—I—can’t wait. We must go on the next train, because a friend who is dying in New York has telegraphed for us.”
There was a distinct murmur of surprise among the spectators, who must have thought madame quite unmotherly in spite of the great anxiety she had lately shown.
The halls grew very quiet, and Marion drew the bed away from the wall so that the air might reach the little sleeper, and, not daring to lift her to the bed for fear farther search might be made, sat down on the floor by her, happy to hold her little hand in hers, although not yet daring to believe she had really rescued her.
But she was not disturbed again, and when daylight stole in through the closed blinds there was such a profound stillness all over the house that the tired girl’s watchfulness relaxed and she willingly yielded to the sleepiness she had been resolutely fighting off, and, tenderly putting Elfie into the bed, she lay down beside her and slept till the sun was so bright that she was quite sure it must be after ten o’clock.
Late though it was, Elfie was still sleepy and looked in the bright daylight so worn and hollow-eyed that Marion longed to wake her, the sleep seemed so death-like. She was very much puzzled about what to do next. Sending a telegram to Mrs. Abbott was naturally of the first importance, but she would not leave Elfie long enough to do it. True, she might lock her in the room while she ran out to send a dispatch, but in that time the child might wake and cry out and be discovered at once. She thought Madame Belotti’s party had gone, but possibly some order had been left to send her the missing child when found, or one of the women might be waiting in the neighborhood.
A loud knocking at the door startled her out of her perplexed musings.
“Who is it?” she asked, going close to the door, but not unlocking it.
“Is there anny wan at all in the room?” was the answer.
253 “Yes, I am here.”
“Well, it’d take more sinse than there is in mesilf to know who ‘Oi’ is. It is mebby the young leddy the dark tould us took board here from yisterday till the day, and has never come to the dining-room yit for a drink nor a crumb?”
“Yes, that’s me,” said Marion, thinking hard over an idea that had suggested itself to her, and which she decided to follow if the owner of the voice that was answering her looked trustworthy. She opened the door enough then to get a peep at a big, good-natured Irish woman with the fine, fresh coloring and innocent, unsophisticated look that is only worn by the newest importations from the “swatest gim o’ the say.” One look at the pleasant, honest face determined her.
“Will you do me a favor?” she asked very softly, fearing terribly that the sound of her voice might rouse Elfie into a wild outcry.
“That will Oi, indade that will Oi,” was the quick response, made more cheerful, perhaps, by seeing a half-dollar held out in Marion’s fingers. “Is it breakfast ye’ll be wanting brought up till yer room?”
“Yes, I do wish you’d bring me up some breakfast,” said Marion, thinking more of Elfie254 than herself, “and a glass of milk with it, for I don’t want to go to the dining-room. But that was not the favor I meant; I want you to go over to the restaurant across the street for me and tell Mrs. Jones that the little girl who mended stockings for her yesterday afternoon is not well, and if she will come over here for a few minutes; and please bring her right up to this room. After that you may bring me up the breakfast, please.”
“Really, it is true, I am not well,” said Marion to herself, in excuse for the plea upon which she had summoned Mrs. Jones, who, in about five minutes, came lumbering up the stairs, quite out of breath with their steepness.
Her fat, honest face looked full of sympathy as she came in the room, escorted by the maid, who shut the door and left them together.
“I hope you aint sickening down for scarlet fever or dipthery, or any of those dangerous things, an’ you so far off from home,” said she, looking anxiously at Marion’s flushed face and heavy eyes.
“No, no, Mrs. Jones; there is nothing the matter with me but fatigue and worry; but you are lovely to come, and I will never forget your kindness. I am in great trouble and must have help from somebody.”
255 Then good Mrs. Jones, instead of shrinking away with the feeling strangers often have that a young person all alone in a strange place had probably brought her trouble, whatever it was upon herself and therefore deserved it, took her on her lap as she sat in the straight-backed little rocking-chair, and, smoothing back her curly hair, murmured:
“There, there, poor little thing!” as if she had been a tired baby. “Tell me all about it, dearie, and pa and me between us can likely help you out some way.”
Marion could not doubt her, so as rapidly as she could she told her how she had followed Elfie and now had rescued her from the people who had undoubtedly been hired to steal her by those who had an interest in getting possession of her.
“And now,” said Mrs. Jones, who had constantly interrupted the story with exclamations, questions, and conjectures, “you had better bring the little dear right over to my place.”
“No, no, Mrs. Jones; I dare not do that. I cannot let any one see Elfie or know that I have her here till I can get Mrs. Abbott. Madame Belotti or some of those people may be hiding and watching, and if they saw Elfie and claimed256 her how could I prove that I had a right to keep her from them?”
“My gracious! Aint she got a wise old head on her young shoulders?” said Mrs. Jones, shaking her own head at the bowl and pitcher on the washstand as if they were, like herself, lost in admiration of such youthful sagacity.
“What I hope you will do for me, Mrs. Jones, is to go and telegraph to Mrs. Abbott.”
“Of course I will; what shall I say?”
“I’ve pricked the message all down with a pin on the inside of an envelope I had in my pocket; I had no pencil. I will read it to you, but if you forget you can make it out again from this, I know; or if you will lay this on a clean sheet of paper and rub dry bluing on it it will mark down the words plainly. I have often done embroidery patterns that way at school.”
Mrs. Jones gave another admiring shake of her head toward the washbowl and pitcher, and rose to go on her errand, promising to come back directly.
“Coventry School: Elfie is with me. Come at once to the Secor House, Troy, N. Y.
“M. A. Stubbs.”
257 So ran the dispatch which Marion had pricked upon the paper after a fashion she had learned from the girls at school for copying and transferring braiding patterns.
Sally, the good-natured maid, came to the door then with a tray of breakfast which Marion put on the table and partook of very sparingly, reserving the best for Elfie, who still slept on, although it was almost twelve o’clock.
There were three little taps with a finger-nail on the door in about half an hour, and Marion, recognizing the signal agreed upon, let in Mrs. Jones, who had sent off the dispatch, and as the result of talking over the matter with “pa,” to whom some explanation of her visit to the hotel had to be made, had thought of a new cause for anxiety, which was a possibility that Elfie’s long sleep might be the effect of an overdose of the quieting drops.
“And pa,” said Mrs. Jones, “advises waking of her up directly, and, if it can’t be done, getting in a doctor to see her.”
Frightful fears suggested themselves to Marion as Mrs. Jones gave “pa’s” impressive advice, and she turned Elfie’s face toward her and gently tried to awaken her; it was not an easy thing to do, but at last the heavy lids were lifted,258 and, with a little fretful cry Marion had never heard from her till the night before, she had lifted her head up and looked around.
“Marion is with you; look, look, dear, it is your own Marion. Can’t you see me? Don’t you know me?”
The child looked up at her sleepily a moment with neither wonder nor recognition in her eyes, and then laid her head on the pillow and slept again.
“Them tiger-cats has got somethin’ to answer for,” Mrs. Jones said fiercely, “ef they’ve given that poor lamb laudlum enough to hurt her!”
“There must be some antidote for it,” said Marion, whose white lips trembled so with fear that she could hardly speak. “I will have a doctor if you will tell me whom to have. Surely he wouldn’t tell anyone about Elfie if you asked him not to.”
“Doctor Mitchell wouldn’t tell any thing we didn’t want him to,” said Mrs. Jones; “but we’ll try something ourselves first. Strong coffee is a good wake-up, I’ve heard tell; so’s ginger tea and foot-baths.”
But all of the home remedies failed to do much good. Elfie waked frequently as they pursued their kindly efforts, but took very little notice of any thing. Once, indeed, as she sat on Mrs. Jones’s lap with her feet in a basin of hot water, she looked down at the little jersey260 trousers that were part of her disguise; she shuddered and moaned:
“O, take those things off, take them off!”
Then the lethargy overcame her again.
“I am going over home,” said Mrs. Jones, with tears in her eyes, “to bring in a little night-gown from the clothes I put away in a trunk when my little Sarah Jane died ten years ago. It’s homely and old-fashioned, but it’s more decent for a little girl than pants and jacket, and then I guess I better have Dr. Mitchell come in and take a look. He’s safe, safe and sure; you needn’t be feared of him.”
The doctor’s coming to see a sick little girl caused no surprise to clerk and landlord, for they supposed it was Marion herself, who, the chamber-maid had told them, was ill and had sent for Mrs. Jones. Marion liked Dr. Mitchell at once; there was something about the very tones of his voice that gave her confidence, but she watched him anxiously as he carefully examined Elfie and asked a few questions which Marion was not afraid to answer, although to account for the condition in which he found the child she was obliged to tell something of their experience for the last two days.
He was much interested, and promised to find261 out for her what time Mrs. Abbott could arrive, and he said Elfie was suffering from the combined effects of fright and the continuous administration of some anodyne. She was very feverish and must be kept quiet. He ordered some medicine, and promised to come in again in two hours.
She was less feverish when he made his second call, and her sleep seemed more natural. He told Marion it was very important that when she should recognize any one her eyes should only rest upon familiar faces. So Marion never for a moment left her chair by the bed or let go her clasp of the little hand. Good Mrs. Jones came and went, spending all the time she could with them, and bringing over on one of her visits a tempting package of oranges and bananas.
There was a gentle knock at the door at nine o’clock, and Marion, softly rising and unlocking it, was folded in Mrs. Abbott’s arms.
Candace was with her. As she said herself, rheumatism couldn’t keep her back from her darling baby. She went directly to the bedside, and tears poured down her dark face as she looked at the pale little face she loved more than life. She lifted her gently to her shoulders.262 and, sitting in the rocker, began to rock and sing as if Elfie was a baby:
“Ullallah, ullallah, baby dear; ullallah, ullallah, mammy’s near!”
Over and over she sang the simple lullaby which was a song that she had hushed the child to sleep with every night of her babyhood, and at the old, familiar sound, Elfie’s eyelids fluttered, then opened and looked into the honest, loving black face above them, murmuring:
“Mammy, own mammy!”
Then with one or two long shuddering sighs she nestled down upon the cushiony shoulders.
Doctor Mitchell, who was waiting for her down-stairs, followed Mrs. Abbott to the room. He nodded his satisfaction as Elfie recognized her nurse, and, beckoning the others out of the room, advised leaving her with Candace.
“For the present she is safe,” he said, “but it may be long before her nerves recover from the great strain of the last few days.”
The clerk, at a hint from Mrs. Jones, now came up with great politeness and offered Mrs. Abbott the room vacated by Madame Belotti.
“Now, my dear, dear Marion,” she said, as the happy girl followed her into the room, “tell me all about it.”
263 But before Marion told one word of her adventurous journey she put the diminished package of bills in her hand with:
“O, Mrs. Abbott, it did seem so much like stealing to use your money!”
“My darling”—and the tears fell fast from Mrs. Abbott’s eyes—“we owe you every thing. No money can ever pay you for saving our Elfie.”
Then Marion, with her hands tightly clasped in her friend’s, told all the story of her pursuit of the child.
“It is wonderful, wonderful,” said Mrs. Abbott, when she had finished; “you have shown more sense and judgment than most older people possess, and your bravery is beyond praise. O, my dear, how much you have undergone for that darling!”
In the morning Elfie was still better, and Mrs. Abbott went down with Marion to breakfast, the latter being the object of intense interest to every one in the house, for wild reports of the story had gone about, and Marion, without wishing it, found herself famous in a small way.
Sally, the smiling and rosy chamber-maid, laid various traps for enticing Candace down-stairs so she might extract a fuller version of the story from her.
264 “But ef I never has a bit of food again,” said Candace, solemnly, “I’ll not let my lamb out of my sight till we gets home!”
The good news was telegraphed back to Coventry school with a demand for some of Elfie’s clothes. When the bag containing them came Elfie, very white and weak, was propped up in bed with pillows, with her loving eyes fixed on Candace, and listening, as if she were not hearing it for the hundredth time, to her repetition of “Water, water, quench fire; fire, fire, burn stick; stick, stick, beat dog,” etc.
She turned as the little dresses were taken from the bag, exclaiming:
“Elfie’s own girlie dresses! O, mammy, mammy, they dressed Elfie like a boy!”
They did not know till then that she had recovered the recollection of her experience with the Belottis, but after that she talked freely about it, and was told how Marion had been near her all the time, but had not dared to let herself be seen.
“Poor Marion!” she said, throwing her arms lovingly around her neck, seeming to know by instinct how hard it must have been for Marion to refrain from letting her know she was near.
It was several days before Dr. Mitchell felt as265 if it was quite prudent for them to take Elfie home, and when they went Mrs. Jones went too, having been persuaded by Mrs. Abbott to give herself a week’s vacation.
When the train stopped at Coventry only Miss Blake and Robert, the man, were on the platform to meet them, and they were as calm as if Mrs. Abbott was only returning from an ordinary business trip, such as she often took, for in her letters she had begged that there should be nothing done that might cause Elfie any excitement; but on the side piazza of the station, keeping well out of sight, was nearly every girl who attended the school.
Miss Blake, after seeing the others into the carryall, brought Marion around to the expectant crowd, who surrounded her with cries of enthusiastic delight. The story had been very sketchily told in a letter from Mrs. Abbott, and all the way home the girls were clamorous for more particulars, which Marion was very modest about giving. But her reserve did not matter so much for the moment, for the others were beginning to tell her of their own fright and distress about Elfie.
“Tell me,” said Marion, so softly that no one heard her but Lily and Katie, who were walking266 with their arms around her, “did any one think I had run away with Mrs. Abbott’s money?”
“No, indeed!” exclaimed the girls in the same breath, “except Edna.”
“That troubled me terribly,” said Marion. “I was so afraid of being suspected of dishonesty.”
“What nonsense!” said Lily. “Why, Mrs. Abbott told us it was the greatest comfort to know you had the money.”
“But why did Edna think I was so wicked?”
“I suppose because she is so mean herself,” said Lily. “And you see she was so dreadfully blamed by every body for taking Elfie out of the gate that she wanted to make it appear that other girls would do wicked things as well as she could.”
“She wasn’t the only one to blame for going out of the gate,” said Katie, sorrowfully.
“No, indeed, and we all insisted on sharing the blame with her, as we ought to! O, Marion, it was heart-breaking to see Candace’s agony, and Mrs. Abbott kept saying, ‘What shall I say to her grandfather?’ It was an awful house here, I can tell you. I wouldn’t live through the fright and worry again for the world.”
“Mrs. Abbott has decided now not to tell Mr.267 Bellamy any thing about it till he comes home, hasn’t she?” said Marion.
“Yes; she thinks that is best,” said Katie, “because it’s all right now; but, Marion, you should have seen Candace when that queer telegram came from ‘A. Manning!’ Who in the world is it? we thought. May be you were somewhere under an assumed name.”
“I’ll tell you all about it by and by; but what did Candace say?”
“She fell on her knees in the school-room and clasped her arms just as if she were holding Elfie in them. ‘Lord, Lord, let old Candace see her lamby again afore she dies!’ But after that she sat on the bottom step at the front door waiting for another telegram.”
That evening Mrs. Abbott, understanding and fully appreciating Marion’s shrinking from publicity, sent her to sit with Elfie while she gave the whole family a graphic account of the pursuit and rescue, being aided and abetted by Mrs. Jones, who was becoming a great favorite with the girls.
And then there was something for Mrs. Abbott to hear. During her absence Edna had telegraphed to her mother that she was sick and wanted to be sent for. This was not known to268 any one at the time, but her older sister, who came for her the next day, told Miss Blake of it. Certainly Edna was not very well, for fright and the fear of punishment had taken away her appetite and brought on a prostrating headache; so she was permitted to go home with her sister. And hardly had Miss Blake made this explanation to Mrs. Abbott when a letter came from Mrs. Tryon, in which, after stating that Edna appeared to have malaria, for which her family physician prescribed a change of scene, she had decided not to allow her to return to school, at least for the present, but take her with her to Europe, and, if her stay there was prolonged, place her in an English school.
There was a great feeling of relief in Mrs. Abbott’s mind as she read Mrs. Tryon’s letter, for she knew she should have to punish Edna by expulsion or in some very marked way, and she was not sorry to have it taken out of her hands. But the P. S. amused her very much:
“P. S. Hearing that you are far from particular about the social standing of your young ladies, I have less regret in removing my daughter than if you only kept aristocratic scholars, for I am very particular about my children’s associates.”
269 She handed the letter to Miss Blake, who read it with indignation, and then, supposing she was expected to do so, although Mrs. Abbott had not intended it, passed it on to Mrs. Jones.
“I declare!” said that lady, when, after some struggling with her spectacles, she had mastered the contents and read the signature, Mrs. B. J. Tryon, “Belindy Jones Tryon is coming on. I guess she forgets when her mother kept a bake-shop and she had to carry around rolls for customers’ breakfasts, and her brother—that’s my husband—was proud to be earning money getting out of bed at four o’clock to go around selling newspapers. He aint ashamed of his folks’ poverty. His sister is, and she’s ashamed of owning them, too!”
There was an immense sensation then, when some well-directed questions brought out the fact that the lofty-minded mother of their elegant, high-born Edna was really the sister-in-law of plain Mrs. Jones, the restaurant-keeper, and Edna herself was her niece, although it was quite possible that the knowledge had been kept from the young lady, for Mrs. Jones told them that long ago Mrs. Tryon had given up all association with her family when the worthy young carpenter, who had married her for her270 pretty face, by some lucky chance was taken into a building firm and found himself on the way to make his fortune.
The girls had promised themselves much fun in humbling Edna’s pride, and were disappointed on finding that she would not return.
“Not even,” said Mrs. Abbott, “if the English school be abandoned and her mother make an application to re-enter her here. I am sorry that she ever came here. Even if she had not brought upon us the misfortune of losing Elfie, I should deeply regret the influence she has exerted over some of my scholars—some, too, whom I supposed firm enough in their principles not to be betrayed into violating them.”
That was the only reproof Mrs. Abbott ever gave to those whose folly had helped to make much trouble. She had thought over the matter and talked over it with the teachers, and it seemed to her that by their distress at the evil consequences that had followed their wrong-doing they were already sorely punished.
It was many months before Elfie entirely recovered from the nervous shock she had suffered, and came among the girls again. Candace could never be induced to trust her out of her sight except with Marion.
271 “If dat dere rheumatiz goes an’ curls me up like a whip-snake,” she said, “it sha’n’t hinder me crawlin’ ’round after dat lamby!”
It may be said in passing that the blue Tam o’ Shanter became so interesting to the girls, after hearing the share Miss Manning had in helping, that many of the girls wanted them, and when Marion wrote, according to promise, to tell that friendly lady the sequel to her journey, she had the pleasure of encouraging the church-organ scheme by ordering six blue and as many red caps.
A whole year had passed since Mr. Bellamy had made the memorable address to the Coventry school in which he offered a prize of three hundred dollars to the most deserving.
He had come from England, as the whole school knew by his telegram to Mrs. Abbott, but business detained him in New York for a few days, as they also learned from the same source.
Now he had come and for hours had been shut in the parlor with Mrs. Abbott, Elfie, and Candace, hearing, the girls all supposed, the history of that year which had brought danger and such blessed deliverance from it to his grandchild. There was very little to do but to wait, for, foreseeing the occupation of her time to-day, Mrs. Abbott had yesterday read the reports, given the averages, made her “little preach,” and attended to all the few ceremonies of school closing.
“‘They also serve who only stand and wait,’273 I have understood,” said Lily, “but I don’t believe I like to be a server.”
“‘To wait is to conquer,’” quoted Katie from the commonplace book.
“Conquer what, I wonder?” asked Lily. “Not the prize, for all of us are waiting, and there is only one prize.”
“What do you think you conquer by waiting, Marion?” asked Miss Blake of the girl, who had been showing no impatience, but busied herself working on a new strip of her favorite fan-pattern lace.
“I suppose,” said Marion, thoughtfully, “by exercising patience we conquer our own restless spirits.”
“Now, Marion,” said Lily, in a despairing tone, “you’re going to turn goody-goody, I know you are! You’ll live to be a female exhorter or something horrid of that sort if you get off such solemn sentences as that! Extemporate in your callow youth! just think of it! But reflect on what you’re giving up, for, though I love you to distraction now, my affection is not proof against preaching; so don’t, I beseech you, show symptoms of it!”
For answer Marion fired a big air-filled ball of Elfie’s at her as a convincing proof that she was274 not utterly given over to solemnity, and, Lily gayly returning the throw, the two were soon so deeply engaged in a riotous game that Mr. Bellamy stood smiling at them in the door for some minutes before they saw him.
The general confusion which was allowable because school had virtually closed the day before being instantly quieted, Mr. Bellamy took his place on the platform, and, looking kindly down on the bright young faces upturned to him, said:
“You will remember me, I think, and give me credit for keeping my engagement. It is just one year since I spoke to you before and offered a prize in memory of my daughter.”
Here he laid upon the table a long envelope.
“This,” he said, “contains a check for three hundred dollars, with a blank yet to be filled in. What name is to fill the blank is indicated by the words upon the envelope, ‘For the most deserving,’ and who that title describes I am going to leave you to decide. My little Elfie will hand you each a slip of paper upon which I beg you to write the name of the one whom you individually think most worthy of the prize according to your own estimation of the word ‘deserving.’”
Elfie skipped around with the slips of paper,275 and after ten minutes, which were spent by her grandfather and Mrs. Abbott in earnest, low-toned conversation, she re-gathered the paper slips in a little covered basket, each girl folding her paper so that the writing was concealed.
“Now write one for Elfie and one for ,” said the child, “’cause we can’t write and we both want the same girl to get the money.”
It was not easy to make her understand that none but pupils were allowed a vote, and she was so far from being convinced that she slipped two papers in with the others upon which she had scribbled some hieroglyphics which she understood herself if no one else could. There were thirty papers to examine, for the ten day-scholars were also included in the competition. Upon examination twenty-two were found to bear the name of Marion Stubbs!
Her face was scarlet as she went up at a sign from Mrs. Abbott to receive the envelope, Mr. Bellamy having put her name on the check. It was in her mind to tell him that she did not feel deserving of such good fortune; for, aside from the pleasure of being chosen by the majority of her school mates, the money meant more to Marion than it would to any other girl in the school. It meant added comforts for the delicate276 mother and the little brothers and sisters, and some independence of feeling in regard to her own clothes, which through the year had been provided by Mrs. Abbott. She longed to say something of her pleasure and gratitude, but not one word would her trembling lips utter, and Elfie’s “Don’t cry, Marion,” as she threw her arms around her, broke down her composure, and with the child in her arms she ran out of the room, slowly followed by Candace, whose dark face was lit up with profound satisfaction. In fact, Candace’s delight led her into unusual irregularity of conduct, for, turning as she was leaving the room, she said:
“I think dem young ladies is de right sort dis term, an’ ole mammy, she tanks dem from de bottom of her heart.”
Then, with a dignity that would have become the queen whose name she bore, old Candace bowed low and followed her darling.
“And now,” said Mrs. Abbott, “I will read you, with her permission, a letter that Marion received to-day. I hope it will give you as much pleasure as it has given me:
“‘Dear Marion: I think you will be surprised to get a letter from me after the bad277 treatment I gave you, but I have been very sick in Rome, and for a long time the doctors gave my mother no hope that I would live. I have had a long time to think about every thing since I have been slowly getting better, and every thing looks very different to me. One night when I was very sick I thought I saw you crying all alone in your room because I had made fun of you and been so unkind, and I dreamed little Elfie was hanging over a deep pit and I was holding her from falling, but I could not pull her out because I had not asked you to forgive me for my bad treatment. That dream came back to me night after night; it was terrible, for I was always so afraid I should let Elfie drop. The cold perspiration used to break out all over me and I would wake screaming. Then I would wish, O, so hard, that I could ask your forgiveness; and now I am writing this letter a little at a time, for I am very weak, to ask you if you can ever forgive me. I have told my mother all about Elfie, and how it was my fault, and how you saved her; and though she tried not to have me blame myself so much I know she feels very sorry I was so bad, for mamma seems very different since I was so sick—ever so much nicer—and she has written to Tiffany, in New York, to278 have them send you a watch and chain just like mine.
“‘Dear Marion, will you say you forgive me?
“‘Your friend, if you will have her,
Most of the girls were crying when the letter was finished, for there were few who had not helped to make Marion’s life among them very miserable when she was a new scholar, and loving her as they did now it was a very bitter memory.
To a story that is told should there be any thing more added? From a critical point of view after “lastly” there should be no “in conclusion;” but the readers who have been interested in Marion will be glad to hear that Mr. Bellamy, whose gratitude was as unbounded as his means were ample, seeing the love his grandchild bore to her, legally adopted Marion and provided a yearly income for her mother, so that it was no longer necessary for her to look forward to teaching as a means for supporting them.
To be Elfie’s elder sister, her loving guide and steadfast friend, is Marion Bellamy’s pleasure, and the traits which made her lovable are not dimmed by the love and luxury with which she is surrounded.
The cover has been created by the transcriber using elements from the original publication and placed in the public domain.
Spelling and spelling variations have been retained as published in the original publication except as follows: